Field of Science

A History of the Use of Illustrations in the Geosciences: I. Seeing is Believing...

The progress made in understanding realistic landscape-views and the rediscovery of ancient encyclopedias (like the works by Pliny the Elder) inspired Renaissance naturalists to adopt an exact and systematic approach to describe the curiosities found in the natural world. As most information as possible should be associated to every studied object – compiled from the works of ancient authors, own observations, may also supposed medical and magical properties, a good description should also include a detailed figure showing the described specimen (at the time a very expensive approach, as artists and engravers had to be hired).
One of the most extraordinary examples of this new approach to nature is the work by Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) – his motto was to understand plants and animals there is no better way than to depict them from life“. The commissioned figures for his encyclopedia on animals and freaks of nature are indeed of exquisite quality, even more if compared to the at the time still very popular bestiaries with their fanciful illustrations of mythical monsters. 
Aldrovandi included also some drawings of fossils in his work, not of such high quality as the depicted animals, however good enough to still identify the real fossil models.

The first book to depict in a systematic order fossils was published in 1565 by naturalist Conrad Gesner (1516- 1565). In "De Rerum fossilium, Lapidum et Gemmarum maxime, figuris et similitudinis Liber” (On Fossil Objects), Gesner compares fossil sea urchins with living specimens, arguing that some fossils are lithified organisms. However Gesner observed and shows also differences between living organisms and fossils, arguing that those differences are evidence that other fossils are of inorganic origin. The figures play an important role to support his observations, theories and make them accessible also to other scholars. Also Danish anatomist and naturalist Niels Stensen uses in 1667 a similar approach when showing the organic nature of fossil shark teeth.
Fig.1. Shark teeth depicted in C. Gesner´s "De Rerum fossilium...[]”. Such figures made it possible for other naturalists to compare their fossils with specimens of other collectors or hosted in private, non easily accessible, collections. However the quality of the used wood cuts was still poor and were soon replaced by copper engravings, with a higher reproduction quality.
Naturalist Federico Angelo Cesi (1585–1630) founded in 1603 the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of Lynx, as a tribute to the sharpness of vision of this animal). This Italian association of scholars was devoted to study and classify all of nature, one member, Fabio Collona, predated even Steno in the interpretation of fossil shark teeth. The Accademia supported the use of drawings in the member´s publications and in the end it possessed more than 7.000 drawings and paintings in its collection. Cesi was interested in the classification and origin of what appeared to be fossil wood, emerging from Pliocene sediments of Umbria. In his posthumously (1637) published work, according to the principles of the association, he not only features drawings of the collected and studied specimens, but also – for the very first time – drawings from the field. In Cesi´s field drawings he documents the landscape of the fossil sites, the horizon of the wood samples, also the work done, like the excavation of large logs. Some drawings are accompanied by descriptions of the samples, with measurements and notes on color, shape and weight of specimens. Only 200 years later geological works will equal Cesi´s notes.
Fig.2. Drawing of field site showing a gully with accumulation of fossil wood.
Fig.3. Published plate (1637) of a fossil log as found and excavated in situ.
Fig.4. Fossil wood shown in a classic manner, as collection of specimens.


MARRA, A,C, (2004): Iconografia dei fossili tra scienza, filosofia e istificazione. PaleoItalia, No.10: 3-8
SCOTT, A.C. (2001): Federico Cesi and his field study on the origin of fossils between 1610 and 1630. Endeavour, Vol.25(3): 93-103

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