Amazing Rare Things

Leonardo da Vinci, that probing polymath, filled sheets with sketches of the uterus of a pregnant cow, a marsh marigold, a rush seed-head, a dissected bear’s foot. The images are so modern, they might be torn from a scientist’s field notebook. But other papers show him speculating whether a dragon has muscles like a cat and whether the giant lizard’s wings hang off forelegs, like a bat’s.

Amazing Rare Things shows artists, naturalists, and collectors recording nature at the brink of the scientific revolution. They are leaving behind a world that believed in dragons, only to be confronted by improbable toucans and three-toed sloths arriving on trade ships from the New World.

The book features Cassiano dal Pozzo, an Italian collector who hired artists to document his museum and menagerie; Alexander Marshal, a painter who created a lush book of English garden flowers; Maria Sibylla Merian, a German naturalist who traveled to South America to paint insects in their natural habitat; and Mark Catesby, whose The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands and other watercolors brought flamingos, American bison, and great hogfish to his English audience. The 160 illustrations, all from the Royal Library in Windsor Castle, revel in the strange shapes of these new creatures, responding to biodiversity with exuberance.

David Attenborough, famous for his nature documentaries, details the lives of the plants and animals captured on the page. The seed of Catesby’s pitch apple sprouts on the branch of a host tree, only to send shoots down that will strangle it. The toucan drawn by Marshal was probably ill, given its unnaturally hunched posture. The Surinam toad painted by Merian carries fertilized eggs on her back, and tadpoles burst through the mother’s skin.

These notes, combined with more traditional discussions of artistic technique, enmesh art with science in a way that harks back to earlier centuries. Many artists saw their watercolors as vital to the new scientific enterprise. Catesby wrote, “The Illuminating [of] Natural History is so particularly Essential to the perfect understanding of it” that he skimped on text in favor of images. The spirit that shines through is less creation than discovery.