Monday, 14 October 2013

A Cabinet of Curiosities - Buonanni's "Ricreatione dell'Occhio e della Mente"

One of the earliest work to be dedicated entirely to the study of shells and a book of considerable aesthetic quality was Filippo Buonanni's "Ricreatione dell'Occhio e della Mente nell'Osservazione delle Chiocciole", published in 1681.  
Frontispiece of Buonanni's "Ricreatione"

Buonanni (1638-1725), one of the most learned Jesuits of his time, was a pupil of Athanasius Kircher, and in 1680 succeeded his master as teacher of mathematics at the Collegium Romanum; in 1698, he was appointed curator of the Kircherian Museum, which he described in his Museum Collegii Romani Kircherianum (1709). Erudite in a number of fields, including numismatics and ecclesiastical history (writing on both subjects), Buonanni made extensive studies in the natural sciences; he constructed his own microscope with three lenses (according to Tortona's system), which proved to be an ingenious mechanism for continual observation. 
In his "Ricreatione dell'Occhio e della Mente nell'Osservazione delle Chiocciole" (First edition, 1681), a work valuable for its many illustrations of shells, he explicitly affirmed his belief in the spontaneous generation of mollusks and rekindled the controversy over generation that had flared in 1671 between Kircher and Francesco Redi. Buonanni's position was anachronistic, since the Aristotelian theory of spontaneous generation had been disproved by Redi in his "Esperienze intorno all generazione degli insetti" (1668) and by Marcello Malpighi, who had demonstrated the pathogenesis of oak galls from the development of fertilized insect eggs in his "Anatome plantarum" (1679). He based his belief in the spontaneous generation of mollusks partly on the authority of Aristotle and Kircher and partly on a report by Camillo Picchi of Ancona. He was convinced, as he stated in his "Ricreatione", that the mollusks had no hearts. If this were so, they had no blood; Aristotle had written that no bloodless animal is oviparous, and that all conches are generated spontaneously by the mud-oysters by dirty mud, the others by sandy mud. Convinced that the conches were heartless and bloodless, Buonanni believed that both observation and authority supported the idea of spontaneous generation. His blind determination in the existence of such "freaks" of nature even induced him to give credence to the existence of the legendary Sarmatian Snail, which is reproduced in one of the illustrations included in his work.

Plate from Buonanni's "Ricreatione".

In Buonanni's "Ricreatione" nearly 450 different shells are represented by fine detailed engravings preceded by descriptive text of each specimen. 
The three exceptional frontispieces are the work of the Baroque artist Giovanni Francesco Venturini (1650-1710). The first two different but similar frontispieces depict Poseidon in his conch shell chariot drawn by dolphins and seahorses within borders adorned by mermen and rocky cliffs on which men and women collect shells. The final frontispiece is a creative Arcimboldo-like grotesque made entirely of shells.

Another frontispiece from Buonanni's "Ricreatione".

Dictionary of Scientific Biography p.591. Krivatsy/ NLM 1936. Nissen ZBI 753. Be Backer-S. II:377,2. Wood 272. Eales I:991. Anm-Ebert 2712. Poggendorf I: 341

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