Attenborough: Amazing Rare Things

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David Attenborough, Susan Owens, Martin Clayton, and Rea Alexandratos, Amazing Rare Things : The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery. New Haven [CT, USA] : Yale University Press, 2007. 223 pages; copiously illustrated in color; with "Further Reading" and index.

This is a beautifully printed, coffee-table sized book with gorgeous illustrations, put together as the official catalog to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, in 2008;[1] the botanical illustrations are all in the Royal Library collection at Windsor Castle.[2] The exhibition, curated by Attenborough, by showing us illustrations by these artists from the 15th through the 18th centuries, creates a sense of our cultural progress in understanding and recognizing the variety of the natural world through increasingly scientific eyes during a period, as the book's subtitle says, of exploration, where that exploration is not only literal voyages of discovery but intellectual exploration and adventure as well.

Certainly the illustrations are the main point of this book, but the text is delightfully readable, informative, and interesting. The main collection of articles, one for each artist represented, are written from a scholarly perspective but are directed at a general audience and I found them engaging and suited to their purpose. Attenborough is the obvious headliner here – his name on the book's jacket is at least twice the size of the others – but happily it's not just for show. He has contributed an excellent introduction to the book and the exhibition; he also provides short observations in captions to a number of the illustrations throughout the book, comments that draw our attention to interesting features and enhance our appreciation of what is being illustrated and how it all fits with our limited scientific understanding at the time.

The chapters discuss, in turn, the five artists represented:

  • "Picturing the Natural World" (Attenborough's introduction)
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo
  • Alexander Marshal
  • Maria Sibylla Merian
  • Mark Catesby

From the chapter "Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo", I selected this short excerpt to give an idea of the level of the text and the blend of aesthetics, history, and scienticity that the book exhibited.

Like many Europeans, the Lineans were fascinated by the ever increasing variety of previously unknown species that were daily being reported or imported from the Americas. In 1626 Cassiano had a copy made of an Aztec herbal that had been presented to Cardinal Barberini in Spain, and together with his fellow Lineans Cassiano spent many years editing for publication the monumental work on Mexican flora and fauna by Philip II's physician Francisco Hernandez, the Rerum medicarum novae Hispaniae thesaurus. Expeditions like the one undertaken by Hernandez to the Americas between 1570 and 1577 were gradually undermining the authority of ancient writers on natural history that had been so dominant in Leonardo da Vinci's day; for in describing hundreds of plants and animals for which no match could be found in the work of the ancients, Hernandez and others opened the way to systematic doubt and to the new emphasis on empirical enquiry and sensory verification characteristic of the 'new science'. An important part in this development was played by specialized collections of natural specimens (precursors of natural history museums) and archives of images like those of Cassiano and the Lincei, who attempted to classify the natural world through visual description. [p. 104]

This next excerpt is an example of sthe captions that Attenborough wrote, this one to accompany plate 49. Perhaps it's because I can easily hear Attenborough's voice speaking it, but the blend of science and humor with precise and pithy observation charmed and taught me.

Although Marshal devotes the great majority of his album to flowers, he seems unable to resist, every now and then, drawing animals that particularly delighted him.

He was a dedicated collector of insects. Travellers from all over the world brought back specimens for his collection, some of which were undoubtedly very spectacular. Those he chose to illustrate in his album, however, are all British species and comparatively modest in their appearance. On this page he shows the caterpillar of the swallowtail butterfly feeding on one of its favoured food plants, fennel, and also the rather duller pupa that it becomes before turning into the winged adult. He does not show the much more spectacular adult butterfly. Perhaps he preferred to draw living creatures rather than dead ones.

The blue and yellow macaw must surely have been a pet, as was his greyhound which he drew repeatedly. The dragonfly he portrays could also have been alive: it is the southern hawker, a species still common today in southern England. Like all dragonflies it habitually perches with its gauzy wings outstretched as if inviting portraiture and it regularly returns to the same perch as it flies in circuits catching mosquitoes and other small insects. So it would not have been too difficult for Marshal to have repeatedly observed the living creature in exactly the same position.

The unidentifiable bird, on the other hand, is shown in such a strange posture that it seems more likely to have been a dead stuffed specimen from a collector's cabinet; and the crayfish, from its colour, was surely boiled. [p. 126]

It's difficult to choose just one, so here's another of Attenborough's captions, this to accompany plate 62.

The spectacular insects that dominate this drawing are known as lantern flies because early accounts of them declare that the large proboscis gives off a bright light in the dark. Merian says that it is as bright as a candle and strong enough to read a paper by. She even gives a vivid and seemingly first-hand account of how one night she opened a box in which she had put a large quantity of these flies and a fiery flame emerged. The scientific name of these insects, Fulgora, stems from the same accounts, for it is derived from Latin fulgor, which means "flash of lightning". European scientists who bestowed the names on these insects either were working from dead specimens or must have assumed that, if their specimens were alive, they must be ailing, for none can have produced these spectacular lights. No one since has ever seen a light coming from the insects.

On the other hand, it has to be said that no one has been able to give a convincing explanation of the function of the huge hollow elongations of the fulgorid's head. The fact that in some species the lateral markings look very like the head of a miniature crocodile, complete with a row of teeth, only deepens the mystery. [p. 159]

I was happy to discover that a large-format book with such beautiful illustrations that could tell us a great deal about how our scientific view of the world has developed in the past few hundred years also had text that made an equally valuable contribution.

Here is a short video (2.5 minutes) of Sir David Attenborough discussing the exhibit at its opening in 2008.



  1. ^  There is an online version of the exhibition.
  2. ^  Noting the publisher's information about the book.
  3. Also of interest is this interview of Attenborough by Steve Curwood for NPR's "Living on Earth", about the book.

-- Notes by JNS

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