Fish Imagery: Through the Ages

While working on a history project in the archives of the library at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I stumbled across a book that virtually...

While working on a history project in the archives of the library at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I stumbled across a book that virtually shouted, “Pick me up!” Its leather binding was cracked with age, its cover riddled with worm holes and its gilt edges worn with the dust of four centuries. Carefully turning the brittle pages, I marveled at the primitive woodcuts of fishes that were familiar, but somehow very different from those I’d encountered in the oceans of the world. The text was Latin, and although a word here and there looked familiar, it was generally undecipherable.

Deborah Day, the Scripps archive librarian, told me I was holding a piece of history: the first book of fishes. Published in 1554, its title was Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt. That was 98 years after Johann Gutenberg printed the first mass-produced book, the Bible. (He had invented the printing press in 1436, but he kept it secret for years.) The author of the fish book was a French physician, Guillaume Rondelet (Jee OHM Ron de LAY). For over a hundred years it was the standard text in its field, widely copied and plagiarized, which perpetuated its errors as well as its facts.

A rotund little man, Rondelet had family money as well as a thriving medical practice. He hung out with a group of naturalists and botanists from the University of Montpellier, where he lived. The literature doesn’t reveal why or how he became interested in fishes, but he followed his passion with a vengeance. At a suburban villa he had tanks built, where he kept fishes for observation. Water was piped from the Fountain of Albe, an underground spring. There is some evidence that he had salt-water tanks as well.

Rondelet’s observations were sometimes supplemented by folk tales at the expense of accuracy. For example, he describes a “bishop fish, covered with scales, carrying a miter and pontifical ornaments.” It was probably a dried stingray, cut up and mutilated, the likes of which may be found to this day in shell shops alongside bleached corals and desiccated puffer skins. In Rondelet’s time, they were sometimes thought to be aborted mermaid fetuses. The same woodcut and fanciful information was copied by authors of other fish books for many years.

Somewhere Between Fact and Fiction

Linnaeus and the science of taxonomy were nearly 200 years in the future (see sidebar), so the dividing line between fishes and invertebrates was a bit fuzzy. Rondelet describes a sea pen as an insect fish, halfway between plants and animals: “…one called sea panache which resembles the plumes that people wear on their hats…when alive, it swells up and makes itself thicker; being deprived of life, it becomes totally withered and limp.” Its bioluminescence was noted as well: “It shines at night like a star.”

As today, sharks were objects of myth and terror. Describing a large shark, possibly a great white, Rondelet wrote, “…the dogfish is so miraculously large that it can scarcely be dragged on a cart by two horses. It eats other fishes and is very gluttonous; indeed it devours whole men, which has been found out through experience. For at Nice and at Marseilles dogfish have been caught in whose stomach an entire, completely armed man has been found…. I saw a dogfish in Saintonge, which had such a large throat that a big, fat man might easily have entered it: so much that if…one holds the mouth open, dogs enter it without difficulty, in order to eat what they find in the stomach.”

The next classic fish book, Historia Piscium, is credited to England’s Francis Willughby, although by the time it was published in 1686 he had been dead 14 years. (Many contemporary authors, especially in the diving field, are fearful of the same fate.) His widow, Emma, paid for the illustrations, and his editor and collaborator, the botanist John Ray, saw the project to completion. Publication was underwritten by the Royal Society, formed to support research and books. It nearly bankrupted them. The following year, when Isaac Newton asked them to publish his Principia, they had to turn him down because they couldn’t afford it.

Illustrations are the strong suit of Willughby’s book. Although done primarily from dead specimens and descriptions, the woodblock prints display far more fine detail than Rondelet’s. However, there is little suggestion of relationship among species, depth or habits. Deborah Day calls it “pre-Linnaean taxonomy.” Animals had whatever name they were known by at the port where they were landed.

Early Artists’ Renderings

Creating accurate renderings of fishes from dead ones or from preserved specimens was difficult for artists. It’s something like today’s scientists trying to recreate the surface of Jupiter from the images returned by satellites.

Humanity’s earliest efforts at art were depictions of animals. Lifelike images of aurochs, horses and woolly mammoths were depicted on the walls of caves in what is now France and Spain. Paintings and carvings of Nile River fishes and crocodiles were on the walls of Egyptian tombs, but for centuries there were no images of marine animals. The earliest we know of are on the temple wall of the female pharaoh, Hatshepsut. She sent an expedition on the Red Sea to the land of Punt, probably today’s Somalia. Pictorial records of the trip include depictions of salt-water fishes and crustaceans that are easily recognized.

The Greeks and Romans were seafaring people and produced intricate mosaics illustrating marine organisms. In Japan, China and India, animals were regularly depicted in stone and ceramics, but few marine examples have been discovered dating prior to the 15th century A.D.

During the Middle Ages, manuscripts were meticulously copied by hand in monasteries and other centers of learning. Access to their contents was limited to monks and the very rich. Gutenberg’s printing press became the Internet of its day, making knowledge more widely accessible. This created an explosion of interest in science, as artists turned from mythological and biblical subjects to nature itself. Among the first to combine art with science and accurately paint wild animals were Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer. Some artists had a staff to do their prints; some copied the work of others. Ripoffs of Dürer’s 15th-century drawing of a rhinoceros appeared in various versions for over 200 years.

Illustrations of the time were woodcuts or copper engravings. Woodcuts were done on hardwood blocks covered with white paint. The artist would draw a sketch on the paint, then use a sharp gouge to dig out everything that wasn’t part of the design. The raised design was coated with ink, then a sheet of paper was pressed against it with another block. When the paper was peeled off the block, the design was there.

Engravings were done on a plate of polished copper. The design was scratched into the plate with a sharp instrument called a burin. Ink was applied to fill the grooves, then the surface was wiped. A piece of damp paper backed by a felt pad was placed on the plate, then the entire unit was squeezed between a set of rollers. The difference between the two is that the woodcut reproduces the raised design, and the engraving reproduces the grooves. Therefore, engravings can be more delicate and intricate, like the dollar bills in your wallet.

The market for coffee-table books of the time was miniscule, so they were usually published by subscription. A certain John Audubon would announce he was planning a bird book and collect money in advance from prospective buyers. Then he and the publisher would have the cash on hand to go ahead with the project.

Myths and Monsters

By the 18th century, color was added by artists, who hand-painted each woodcut or engraving in each individual book. Most biological publications were about plants and birds. The ocean’s surface was an impenetrable barrier, so the few books on fishes were still filled with inaccuracies, distortions and legends, in both text and illustration.

Johan Jonston’s book, Historiae Naturalis de piscebus, published in Germany in 1767, featured all sorts of sea monsters and anthropomorphic elements among some fairly accurate and artistic renderings. Seals were given dog faces, while strange combinations of humans and fishes demonstrated the author’s difficulties distinguishing between reality and myth.

Sharks are still an object of fear and legend today, so it should come as no surprise that 19th-century books painted some horrifying pictures. Thomas Pennant’s 1812 volume, British Zoology, written in English, contained the following descriptions:

“sharks…have much malignity in them; their eyes…seem fuller of malevolence than fire.

“…in the belly of one [white shark] was found a human corpse entire, which is far from incredible, considering their vast greediness after human flesh.

“They are the dread of the sailors in all hot climates, where they constantly attend the ships in expectation of what may drop overboard; a man that has that misfortune inevitably perishes; they have been seen to dart at him, like gudgeons to a worm.

“…and will even attack the little skin-boats of the Greenlanders, and bite the person whose lower parts are lodged in it, in two.

“Its only enemy is the blunt headed cachalot or spermaceti whale, at sight of which it will even fling itself out of the water on the rocks, and there perish.”

Pennant even dug up a 250-year-old tale, quoting Rondelet on the blue shark: “Rondeletius [remember, he wrote in Latin] says that he was an eyewitness to its fondness for human flesh, and that he saw a boy who was walking in the sea close to the shore, attacked and nearly caught by this ravenous fish.”

Basking sharks were spared the condemnation of the rest of their class. “They…seem to have nothing of the fierce and voracious nature of the shark kin, and are often so tame as to suffer themselves to be stroked.”

Pennant’s imagination wasn’t limited to sharks. “[The flying fish] leads a most miserable life. In its own element it is perpetually harassed by…fishes of prey. It endeavors to avoid them by having recourse to the air [and] either meets its fate from the gulls or the albatross, or is forced down again into the mouth of the inhabitants of water, who below keep pace with its aerial excursion. Nature hath supplied this creature with instruments that frequently bring it into that destruction it strives to avoid, by having recourse to an element unnatural to it.”

More to Learn

We’ve come a long way in our knowledge and understanding of marine animals. As divers, we take for granted the ability to see fishes and invertebrates in their natural environment. If we are careful observers, we can watch behaviors like mating, cleaning and sometimes even predation. Before the advent of scuba, this sort of perception was limited to a few serious scientists in hardhat gear. The earliest diving books by Cousteau and others, wonders of their time some 400 years after Rondelet, were illustrated with fuzzy fish photographs that wouldn’t stand up in the novice category of any local club competition today.

Yet movies and television continue to perpetuate the myths. Documentaries on the nature channels often distort reality. Shark shows generally devote 55 minutes (including commercial breaks) to terrifying footage of feeding sharks before explaining during the last five that far more people die from bee stings than shark attacks, and that people’s appetite for sharks is a greater danger than sharks’ appetite for people. Meanwhile, they’ve frightened thousands more viewers from going near the water.

It’s up to us, divers who see the underwater world firsthand, to dispel the myths and fantasies that our nondiving friends are inundated with. Then, perhaps a scholar looking at our publications some 450 years in the future (on disks, memory sticks, brain implants or whatever form books evolve into) won’t laugh at our 21st-century misconceptions and misunderstandings.

The Father of Modern Taxonomy

Carolus Linnaeus is considered the father of modern taxonomy, the classification method used by all biologists worldwide. Born in Sweden in 1707 as Carl von Linne, he is better known by the Latinized version of his name.

Before Linnaeus, living things were known by different names in different regions. Names were long, unwieldy and often changeable. In 1735, while studying medicine at the University of Leiden, Netherlands, he published the first edition of Systema Naturae, in which he named and classified plants by genus and species. In later editions he broadened the scope to include animals as well, and introduced orders, classes and kingdoms to the system. He named human beings Homo diurnis, or “man of the day.”

Although he experimented with hybridization of plants, Linnaeus was a staunch believer in creation. He thought that any organism not potentially present in the original species of the Garden of Eden couldn’t exist. Although later naturalists, including Charles Darwin, read Linnaeus’s works, he would not have accepted the concept of open-ended evolution.

It’s up to us, divers who see the underwater world firsthand, to dispel the myths and fantasies that our nondiving friends are inundated with.

For more Information

For more information on the history of biological imagery, see the following:

Dance, S. Peter. The Art of Natural History. Woodstock, Overlook Press, 1978.

Kastner, J. The Animal Illustrated 1550-1900. Bergenfield, NJ, H.N. Abrams, 1991.

Pallister, Janis. Ambroise Pare on Monsters and Marvels. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1982.


By Eric Hanauer