Monday, July 26, 2010

Amazing and Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery

Amazing Rare Things - David Attenborough Book Cover 

The book Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery (2009) is the guide for an exhibition of the same name that took place at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London March 14 – September 28, 2008. If only I were there! Most of the imagery in the book appears on the related exhibition site

Natural history is the study of plants and animals through observation rather than experimentation. Amazing Rare Things gives you a whistle-stop tour of the development of natural history by focusing on five individuals from the 15th to the 18th century. A short chapter is devoted to each featured individual: Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588 – 1657), Alexander Marshal (c. 1620 – 1682), Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717), and Mark Catesby (1682 – 1749). David Attenborough contributes with an introduction to the book as well as comments on illustrations interspersed throughout the volume where he gives insight into what the illustrator must a have been thinking or observed. 

To be honest, this guide/book is probably not the best source to get a good introduction to natural history, but is really designed for those already familiar with this subject or those really into botanical art. This book is all about beautiful imagery, drawings and watercolors, by Leonardo, Marshal, Sibylla Merian, and Catesby, as well as images from the “paper musuem” of the collector dal Pozzo. 

A reoccurring theme throughout the book is that of the cabinet of curiosities which was a collection of objects whose categories and relationships were not well defined. Do we have curiosity cabinets today? I think so, just in a different way. I like to think of this blog or my copious personal notes (as disorganized and scattered as they are) as a humble form of a digital cabinet of curiosities – applicable to me. Anyway, I digress. Cabinets of curiosities were an important step in the evolution of natural history. As key collections came together, drawing objects in the collection followed, and that was then followed by the search for new curiosities to expand the collection to satisfy the collector’s ego, impress his friends, or maybe just for curiosity’s sake. Curiosity cabinets grew from the introduction of new flora and fauna into Europe from a new age of exploration. The influx was exponential and challenged long held beliefs and classification systems. 

Reading Amazing Rare Things I was introduced for the first time to the incredible story of Maria Sibylla Merian. In 1699, age 52, and divorced she journeyed from the Netherlands to Surinam (South America) to study first hand the country’s flora and fauna, and in particular, butterflies and moths. She remained there for several years there and returned to produce her monumental Metamorphsis insectorum Surinamensium published in 1705. 

The story or life that I most closely identified with is that of Alexander Marshal, an English gentleman who worked for 30 years on a florilegium (flower book) purely for his own pleasure and with no thought to publishing. He seemed to live with various well-connected individuals, drawing their gardens. When he died, his tombstone read ‘PROLEM NON RELIQUIT AT PROBITATE ET INGENIO LONGIOR HUIC FACTA EST DATA VITA FUIT’ – translated as ‘He left no issue, but by reason of his integrity and gifts he will live longer than the life which was vouchsafed for him.’


  1. Ooo! I need to find this one! It was good?

  2. If you like botanical artwork, it's great. Check out the exhibition site mentioned above and see if the images there are interesting enough for you to buy the book.


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