How Adventure, Art, and Dragons Led to Empirical Science

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Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery David Attenborough, Susan Owens, Martin Clayton, and Rea Alexandratos Yale University Press, 2007 224 pages. $37.50

In Leonardo da Vinci's day, the way to tell whether a legless dragon was fiercer than a snake was to look for its crown. As renowned naturalist David Attenhorough reveals in the lush new book Aynazhrg Rare Things, early naturalists depicted dragons "wearing small coronets" to indicate their fearsomeness. In the fifteenth century, the existence of dragons Was taken for granted--so the scientific-minded da Vinci drew dragons, basing his drawings on the musculature of cats.

Da Vinci lived at the dawn of the "Age of Discovery," which this book chronicles in 160 illustrations from England's Royal Collection. The book blossoms with color plates of drawings by da Vinci, Cassiano dal Pozzo, Alexander Marshal, Maria Sibylla Merian, and Mark Catesby, spanning the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries.

This era of global exploration marked the advent of a "new spirit of empirical investigation," Attenborough explains. Curiosity naturally fell on unfamiliar plants and animals on far-flung continents. Fictional dragons with crowns are strange, to be sure. But the book reveals that real creatures can be even stranger. Take a frog housing its fertilized eggs inside the overgrown skin of its back or the insect-eating purple pitcher plant or, then again, the deformed "digitated lemon" with finger-like prongs.

These naturalist-artists delighted in depicting nature in all its bizarre and fascinating glory. Giovanni Battista Ferrari--author of Hesperides, a thesis on citrus with illustrations based on Cassiano's "Paper Museum"--aptly noted that, "While we are generally horrified by monstrosities in the case of human beings, we love them in fruit."

Attenborough, who provides the introduction and comments throughout Amazing Rare Things, says that these observers shared in common "the profound joy felt by all who observe the natural world with a sustained and devoted intensity." But I suspect that they were just as strongly motivated to see and describe the world as it actually is--with all its overgrown, digitated oddity--and to puncture so many myths of a perfectly formed world populated by fearsome dragons. …