Introduction: Fish & Fiction

Introduction: Fish & Fiction

Fish have always been part and parcel of human civilisation. In a material sense, they have always been omnipresent in the everyday lives of human beings – from fishery to kitchen. At the same time, fish lead a hidden life, underwater, invisible to man.

The exhibition Fish & Fiction is a collaboration between the Leiden University Library and the LUCAS project A New History of Fishes. A long-term approach to fishes in science and culture, 1550-1880. The researchers of this project wrote the exhibition catalogue, from which we will share content in the following week. The catalogue: Fish & Fiction. Aquatic Animals between Science and Imagination (1500–1900) can be purchased at the reception desk of the Leiden University Library.

The combination of the visibility of fish in our lives and their invisibility, when underwater, helps to explain their enduring fascination, which is manifest not only in fish symbolism, both religious and secular, but also in the European imagery of remote worlds from the Nordic seas to the Far East and tropical West, and in the development of science, from early modern natural history to modern marine biology.

Using material from the rich collection of Leiden University Library, this exhibition aims to provide a panorama of the human fascination with the aquatic fauna, from 1500 to 1900. It looks at fish in the early modern sense of the term, as aquatilia: all aquatic animals, including sea mammals and crustaceans. The exhibition opens with their role in the early modern imagination, often characterised as an emblematic worldview. The first chapter addresses fish as a theme in biblical illustrations and emblem books that present nature as a vast fund of symbols to be deciphered and interpreted. The next chapter presents the fluid shifts between early modern imagery and natural science. Fish and other aquatic creatures are important objects of wonder in Renaissance books on monsters, but they are investigated as well in the principal published works of the sixteenth century on life under water. Which strange sea creatures were real and which were figments of the human imagination? As shown in the third chapter, aquatic creatures became highly sought-after collectables, in particular in the so-called collections of curiosities (or Kunst- und Wunderkammern) that emerged and spread in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. During these same centuries, explorations of the world far beyond Europe combined a search for commercial profit with an interest in living nature in exotic countries and seas. Exotic aquatilia entered European collections and began to figure in works on natural history – and in some cases local knowledge travelled with them. Such collections and the influx of new naturalia from far-off parts of the world did more than just inspire amazement and wonder: they stimulated naturalists to envisage order in nature, on land, in the air and under water. The fourth and fifth chapters of the exhibition show how naturalists of the seventeenth and especially eighteenth century (Linnaeus) devised new systems to classify living creatures.

Albert Flamen, Frontispiece of Seconde partie de poissons de mer, Paris, s.n., 1664. [PK-P-114.919]

Notoriously difficult cases were sea mermaids and whales! The final two chapters take the viewer into new directions and the more recent past. One is devoted to the virtually unknown richness of Japanese ichthyological material in the University Library’s collections, and shows some fascinating parallels between Japanese and European practices. While natural history in Japan showed signs of ‘Western’ influence in the course of the nineteenth century, it influenced Dutch views of nature in turn, as can be seen in the works of Siebold. The final chapter is devoted to the exploration of the deep seas, an underwater world that had seemed completely out of human reach in previous centuries. The nineteenth-century imagination of human exploration of life at depth became a reality in the early twentieth century, and its results still continue to defy imagination.

This exhibition is an initiative of Leiden University Libraries in collaboration with the research project A New History of Fishes. A long-term approach to fishes in science and culture, 1550–1880, co-financed by NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research), LUCAS (Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society) and Naturalis Biodiversity Centre. We thank Jef Schaeps for his help in organising the exhibition, and André Bouwman for his advice in matters typographical.


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