The first speaker at the recent conference ‘Curiously Drawn: The Origins of Science as a Visual Pursuit’ held at the Royal Society (21-22 June), was Paula Findlen of Stanford University with her fascinating paper on how the drawings of Agostino Scilla (1629-1700) sparked debate on the importance and purpose of scientific imagery.

 

It seems that when published in 1670, Agostino Scilla’s La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso [Vain speculation disillusioned by sense], with its accurate drawings and new scientific explanation as to how fossils are formed, caused a stir amongst natural historians.

Paula talked about how Scilla’s study of fossils played a central role in English controversies on the formation of fossils in what she wonderfully dubbed the ‘Fossil wars of 1695-1697’. Scilla went against the current thinking that fossils were of supernatural origin, concluding that they were once living creatures.

Paula showed us slides of some of the intricate engravings created from Scilla’s drawings by his engraver Pietro Santi Bartoli, who Paula referred to as the most important engraver in Rome in the second half of the 17th century. Scilla’s contemporaries praised his skilled and precise drawings but not so much his writing: there seemed to be strong feeling that as Scilla was a painter by trade, he should not be writing on natural history.

But some natural philosophers, such as John Ray, began to appreciate the merits of finely illustrated accounts in aiding communication and understanding of the subject. Marcello Malpighi, a champion of Scilla’s, encouraged Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke to read Scilla’s paper.

It seems John Woodward (1665-1728) was initially a fierce critic of Scilla’s who didn’t see that illustrations were important in the study and understanding of fossils. In 1717, Woodward acquired Scilla’s specimens and drawings and added them to his already extensive fossil collection. Paula pointed out that although publicly Woodward belittled Scilla, in the privacy of his own cabinet he treated the collection with respect and enjoyed studying the specimens and drawings. Woodward had 9400 fossil specimens in his collections, and Scilla’s were the only specimens that were kept separately which perhaps demonstrates that he held them as a valuable unique collection.

Some of Scilla’s specimens and notes, now housed at the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge, were on display in the conference exhibition for delegates to enjoy during the breaks.

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