Jun 28, 2016

Agostino Scilla (1629-1700) Vain Speculation Undeceived by Sense

One of the questions most frequently asked by visitors to the Sedgwick Museum is what exactly are fossils and how do they form? This question also fascinated Agostino Scilla (1629-1700); an artist who lived in the Sicilian town of Messina during the 1600s. Scilla attempted to answer this question in his book La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso (Vain Speculation Undeceived by Sense), published in Naples in 1670.
Category: 2016
Posted by: Sarah

Scilla’s collection of fossils and the drawings he produced from them are held in the Woodwardian Collection of the Sedgwick Museum, University of Cambridge. The Sedgwick Museum has published a free English language eBook of ‘La vana speculazione’ as part of its Arts Council England funded ‘Virtual Scilla Collection’ project.

Habakkuk brings bread to Daniel in the lions' den.
One of Scilla’s frescos in the Sacrament Chapel, Siracusa Cathedral
(Image by Giovanni Dall'Orto)

Artist & naturalist
Agostino Scilla studied to be an artist at Messina in Sicily, under the tutelage of Antonio Barbalunga (1600-1649) during the 1640s. In 1647 whilst still a teenager he travelled to Rome, where he was apprenticed for 5 years to the painter Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661). Scilla returned to Messina in 1651, to take charge of family affairs after the death of his father. Back in Messina, he assisted with the collection of artworks in the palace of Sicilian nobleman Don Antonio Ruffo (1610-1678). During this time, Scilla also undertook many commissions of artwork for Messina’s palaces and churches, including a fresco for the ceiling of the Sacrament Chapel at Siracusa Cathedral. Under the patronage of Ruffo, Scilla became friends with the physician and naturalist Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694), with whom he studied local sea life.

Scilla was a member of the Accademia della Fucina ‘The Academy of the Forge’, founded by Carlo Di Gregorio in 1639. Not only was Scilla an accomplished artist, but he was also an expert on coins and medals and later on fossils.

Jokes of Nature
The seeds of ‘La vana speculazione’ were first sown in the late 1660s when Agostino Scilla took an interest in one of the great debates taxing naturalists at that time: whether fossils were of organic or inorganic origin. Scilla wrote to Paolo Boccone (1633-1704), a Sicilian naturalist visiting Malta, asking him to collect Maltese rocks and fossils to send to him for study. He wanted to see if they provided evidence confirming his belief that fossils had an organic origin and had once been parts of living creatures.

Boccone asked the Maltese physician Giovanni Francesco Buonamico (1639-1680) to reply to Scilla’s enquiry. Buonamico wrote to Scilla hoping to convince him that fossils formed in the ground through a process of spontaneous generation and had never been parts of living things. Scilla disagreed that fossils could be such ‘jokes of Nature’ publishing his reply as ‘La vana speculazione’ in 1670.

Drawing (left) and engraving (right) for plate VII of ‘La vana speculazione’
Showing a crushed fossil sea urchin and demonstrating the ‘handedness’ of shark teeth.

The Art of pure observation
Scilla used his artistic skills to produce illustrations of fossils and parts of living sea creatures for his book. Specimens were carefully selected that would help the reader understand more clearly what he wrote. He illustrated the teeth of sharks and tests (shells) of sea urchins to show the similarity between the parts of living creatures and fossils. He also illustrated crushed, broken and jumbled up fossils, as evidence that fossils did not grow in the ground. Scilla first made drawings of his specimens in pencil; these were then transferred and engraved onto copper printing plates. This process resulted in the illustrations being mirror images of the original objects. As engraver he chose his friend Pietro Santi Bartoli (1635-1700) the foremost illustrator of Roman antiquities of the time. Scilla’s partnership with Bartoli resulted in some of the earliest accurate illustrations of fossils.

Plate XXVI of ‘La vana speculazione’ demonstrating that sea urchin shells from the same stratum are crushed in the same plane regardless of their orientation

Vain Speculation Undeceived by Sense
Scilla had some remarkably modern insights for the time, particularly with regards to what we would now call the sciences of taphonomy and comparative anatomy. Scilla’s observations on the graded bedding of sediments in the mountains around Messina (page 126) and other ‘geopetal indicators’ such as shell infills (page 140) and crushed sea urchins are particularly remarkable for the time, given that the superposition of rock strata had only recently been demonstrated by Nicolaus Steno (1638-1686) in 1669.

Scilla fled Messina in March 1678, after the failure of a French-assisted revolt against the Spanish by the nobility of Messina. He settled in Rome in 1679 where he was elected to the ‘The Academy of St Luca’.
He remained in Rome until his death in 1700 at the age of 70.

Scilla’s book has remained relatively unknown except to those with an interest in the history and philosophy of science. Originally published in Italian at Naples the book was later translated into Latin during the eighteenth century, the only alternative language version until now.
Sedgwick Museum staff worked with translators Rodney Palmer, Rosemary Williams and Ilaria Bernocchi to produce the first complete English translation of ‘La vana speculazione’. This translation has been made with the aim of bringing Scilla’s work to a wider audience. It includes digital versions of the plates from the first edition and Scilla’s original drawings.

Woodwardian Collection drawer E-27 (‘Bones, Teeth &c. of Fishes’)
containing many of Scilla’s specimens
(Image by Eva-Louise Fowler)

The ‘Virtual Scilla Collection’ project
Acquired by Dr John Woodward (1667-1728) in 1717, Scilla’s specimens and drawings found their way to the University of Cambridge after Woodward’s death in 1728. Woodward’s collection forms the nucleus around which the Sedgwick Museum has developed and is almost unique in that it remains preserved intact in its original early eighteenth century secretaire-style collector’s cabinets. In order to preserve this uniqueness but make the collection more accessible the Sedgwick Museum obtained an Arts Council England Designation Development Fund grant to create a prototype digital virtual collection based on the collection of Agostino Scilla (to be the subject of a separate article). Scilla’s book was translated into English to provide content for the virtual collection and also to make the book accessible to a wider audience.
The English language eBook of ‘La vana speculazione’ is available for download in a number of formats from the Sedgwick Museum website:

Findlen, Paula. 2012. Agostino Scilla: A Baroque Painter in Pursuit of Science. In Science in the age of Baroque. International Archives of the History of Ideas 208. Ed. O. Gal and R. Chen-Morris, 119-159. Dordrecht: Springer

Findlen, Paula. 2015. The Specimen and the Image: John Woodward, Agostino Scilla, and the Depiction of Fossils. Huntington Library Quarterly 78, 2: 217-261

Morello, Nicoletta. 1989. Giovanni Francesco Buonamico and the fossils: A flood of problems. In Italian scientists in the low countries in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries. Ed. C.S. Maffioli and L.C. Palm, 131-145. Amsterdam: Rodopi

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