February 08, 2006

A Paper Museum, and the Academy of Lynxes

One of peacay’s entries at Bibliodyssey last October, about the Melissographia of Francesco Stelluti, one of the founder-members of the Accademia dei Lincei, (regarded by some as the first true scientific society), reminded me of a book about the Academy’s early years that I’d picked up and turned over a few years before in Hedengrens bokhandel, Stockholm: David Freedberg’s The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History. Newly-interested, I ordered a copy from Amazon, which arrived mid-December, and which I have been reading over the past few weeks. The images below are details of scans of illustrations in this book.

Detail from a watercolour illustration of a European Pelican by Vincenzo Leonardi, ca. 1630s.


Detail of a watercolour illustration of an African civet cat by Vincenzo Leonardi, ca. 1630s.

The story behind the book’s inception is a fascinating one. Freedburg had been researching the background to a book about citrus fruit: the Hesperides of Giovanni Battista Ferrari, which had been published in Rome, in 1646. In his search for the original drawings after which the Hesperides’ engravings had been made, Freedberg recalled a conversation he’d had some years earlier with the erstwhile ‘Surveyor of the Queen᾿s Pictures,’ (Sir) Anthony Blunt, in which the art historian had told him about an extensive, but little-documented collection of natural-historical illustrations in the Royal Collection at Windsor, which included numerous watercolour paintings of said fruits. When Freedberg visited Windsor, he was amazed to find a magnificent trove of exceptionally fine 17th-Century drawings of all manner of flora and fauna…

Detail of a watercolour illustration of an assortment of corals, patterned stones, asbestos, fossils, ivory, ammonite and semiprecious stones, artist unknown, from the collection of Cassiano del Poszzo.


Detail of a watercolour illustration of a 'pregnant' citron lemon by Vincenzo Leonardi, ca. 1630s.

Freedberg discovered that this collection had been put together by a wealthy and well-connected antiquarian named Cassiano del Pozzo as his Museo Cartaceo (‘paper museum’), an accumulation of ‘more than seven thousand watercolours, drawings and prints […] documenting ancient art, archaeology, botany, geology, ornithology and zoology:’ a collection perhaps even surpassing that of Aldrovandi. Many of the finest natural-historical paintings in the museum (including those of the citrus fruit) were the work of an artist named Vincenzo Leonardi (fl.1621-ca.1646), and had been directly commissioned by del Pozzo. Many other illustrations and drawings, however, had been acquired by del Pozzo from his friend Federico Cesi, not long after the latter’s untimely death in 1630.

Detail of a watercolour illustration of an unknown plant, possibly Sechium Edule, from the manuscript 'Erbario Miniato' compiled by Cesi, Heckius and others.


Detail of a watercolour illustration from a copy of an Aztec herbal known as the Codex Badianus, from the collection of Cassiano del Pozzo.

Cesi, while still only 18, had founded the Accadmia dei Lincei (‘The Academy of Lynxes’) together with three of his friends: Stelluti; a volatile Dutch physician named Johannes van Heeck (known also as Johann Eck, Ecchio, Eckius, or Heckius); and Anastasio de Filiis, a kinsman of Cesi’s. The name of their academy was aptly-chosen, as the four sharp-eyed young men threw themselves into the meticulous study of the plant and animal life around them, and of the night skies above them. Cesi’s family, and in particular his father, disapproved of these activities to such an extent that he engineered the group’s dispersal. Nevertheless, they continued to study and observe, and to communicate via letters. Gradually, they won a reputation among progressive thinkers, and attracted new members, notably the Neapolitan scholar Giambattista della Porta, and, most importantly, Galileo Galilei.

Detail of a watercolour illustration by an unknown artist of an anthropomorphic fruit or gourd.


Detail of an illustration of the Lincean emblem.

The Linceans’s observations were not only extended by the telescope, as in Galileo’s famous work, which was ably supported and tirelessly encouraged by his fellow Academicians, but also by the newly-invented compound microscope: Stelluti’s Melissographia is thought to have been the first printed illustration largely drawn from microscopic observation. The church’s hostile reaction to Galileo’s ideas has trained an historical spotlight upon it, which has left the Linceans’ other less revolutionary, but nevertheless important (and often pioneering) work in relative darkness, and Freedberg’s book is a valuable corrective in this regard. Its central theme is the tension, especially evident in Cesi’s research, between the Linceans’ need to record and illustrate every particular detail of the natural phenomena they encountered (thereby furnishing many of the ‘rooms’ in Cassiano’s paper museum), and the quest to classify the same phenomena by deduction & abstraction, by identifying the common structures and underlying processes of nature. While Cesi’s conclusions were often muddled and wrong, he meanwhile made some brave and valuable breaks with Aristotelian tradition in the attempt…

Posted by misteraitch at February 8, 2006 10:55 AM

hooray ! and thanx !

that was well worth waiting for !

Posted by: tristan forward on February 8, 2006 07:31 PM

“The Paper Museum”: wonderful title.
“The Academy of Lynxes”: ditto.

And somehow I am not surprised that you have del Pozzo obtaining drawings from Cesi after his death!

Posted by: marlyat2 on February 8, 2006 11:46 PM

Yes, good name. The Lynx was chosen for its supposedly sharp eye. Those academies often had colourful names. One that comes to mind is the still extant is the Accademia della Crusca (Bran Academy!), the authority on Italian language. The name comes from cruscate, which is Florentine for “frivolous talk” (to distance themselves form academic seriousness), but also alludes to “screening out the chaff”. It gave its members an excuse to have their imprese painted on flour mill’s shovels (hmm… not sure of what they're called in English), which you can see at the Accademia’s site and on an issue of FMR magazine . Wow, I put a lot of links in this one!

Posted by: Michelangelo on February 10, 2006 05:19 PM

My belated thanks for the links, Michelangelo. I’ve no idea if there’s a specific word in English for a miller’s shovel. On a related note, here is Isaac D’Israeli’s disparaging account of ‘the Ridiculous Titles Assumed by the Italian Academies.’

Posted by: misteraitch on February 23, 2006 02:34 PM
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