studies in the history of science and culture
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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008

Baroque-era printer's ornament

on flying fish

This exhibit is another companion piece to Flecknoe’s Letter XXIII from A Relation of Ten Years Travells in Europe, Asia, Affrique, and America (e-text in the library, LIB. CAT. NO. FLECK1656).

Like many another ocean-going traveller, Flecknoe experienced the drama of “Flying Fishes at Sea” with emotion:

Our ship being all incompast with Dorado’s or shining Fishes (somwhat like Dolphins) hunting the Flying Fishes, which you might see on Top of the water, fluttering to escape, and the Dorado’s bounding to overtake them, till being hard pursued, and so near prest, as they were in danger to be ta’n, the poor flying Fish would get on wing, and flying one danger, incurre another; for a flight of Sea fowl (call’d Booby’s by the English) followed us all the way hovering in the air, in expectance of their prey, seeing the flying fish on wing, would stoop at them, and each one singling out one, flye them to a mark.

The exhibit juxtaposes verbal and visual descriptions of flying fish from multiple sources: philosophical travellers to the East Indies as well as the West Indies; bestiaries; map insets; printer’s marks; and one of the earliest works of ichthyology, Francis Willughby’s De Historia Piscium (1686).

Of note, Kircher’s account in China Monumentis (1667) of a Chinese variety of flying fish, unique to the China Sea, would arouse special interest in the subject within late 17th-century scientific circles. Kircher opens with:

What I am going to say now surpasses all wonder. In Ouantung Province there is an animal which the Chinese call Hoangcio yu, that is the yellow fish of China. It is at one time a fish and then a bird. In the summer it is a bird of a yellow color like the Galgal and flies through the mountains and hunts like a bird. When the autumn is over, it returns to the sea and once again becomes a fish.

Puzzling over possible explanations for “the changed temperament of the fish,” Kircher speculates that

this fish is of the amphibian family and these are the flying fish called marine swallows. Their shape is so similar to a bird’s that one can hardly tell them apart.

A book review of Kircher’s China Monumentis published in a 1667 issue of the Royal Society’s scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions, took special note of Kircher’s extraordinary flying fish:

Here he discourseth ... Of Fishes, in Summer flying out of the Sea, seeking their food, like Birds, and in Autumn returning to the Sea....

It was exactly the sort of odd detail and provocative theorizing to attract further scientific comment and inquiry.

TOPICS:  the influence of the artist’s true-to-life study (“true Designes drawn after the life,” as described by Evelyn) on the development of scientific illustration; the growing interest in nature study, including comparative ethnobotany; collections of “rarities”; popular interest in the exotic travelogue; the role of naturalistic drawings (of American Indians, fish, plants, birds and animals) in easing exploitation of peoples and resources by systematizing the new and unknown; new science syncretism (e.g., explanations of how natural and human diversity arose from a common origin)

Baroque-era printer's ornament

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