2013 already saw a glimpse of this off-topic. Non-neotropical land snails, mainly European, in old books and manuscripts; some recognisable, others not more than a rough sketch. You might say, what’s so funny about them? Yet, it turned out to be an intriguing hunt.
The title for this post, I found in a manuscript dated c. 1428 entitled ‘Livre des merveilles du monde’ or ‘Secrets de l’histoire naturelle’. This manuscript has excerpts from e.g. Plinius, Orosius, and other, with descriptions of myths and telling stories of traders and diplomats about countries from Africa and Asia. It provoked the interest in the exotic fauna of these regions, often perceived as ‘magical and dream-like’ (LeGoff, 1999). One of the stories, about Sri Lanka, is illuminated with a picture of the snails. One is empty and two people are chatting on it. The other is being hunted up-hill by a man blowing the horn and with four dogs. Hunting for a giant snail…
Perhaps first how I ended up here anyway. Working on a manuscript on Cuban Liguus, the question arose if their murky taxonomy perhaps had been influenced by early pictures. This started off an iconographic search for old pictures of these often colour-full tree snails in shell books. Having finished the manuscript together with Luis Álvarez and Adrián González, I suddenly realised that I had seen a similar shell on a painting. Starting searching rather quickly revealed one on this oilpainting of Balthazar van der Ast, A Dutch painter who worked in the early 17th century in Utrecht and Delft, but was trained in Middelburg by his father-in-law Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder.
Questions came up: Was this the only example of a Liguus shell on a painting? If not, which other tropical species have been used? By whom, and when do they start appearing on painting? And where originated these paintings? To dig up answers more art historian expertise and data were needed. Found them in my collaborator Susan de Heer and at the Netherlands Institute of Art History, which has a huge archive of pictures (partly online) and a well-supplied library. Now the hunt was on, both on-line and off-line.
Besides art historical reflections (e.g. the symbolic meaning of a snail), not my expertise at all, I soon wondered about other questions: Have land shells in general been used by artists on paintings? On other works of (visual) arts? When did this start? Did they accurately picture a shell or snail, or were these merely generalised illustrations? If they seemed more accurately figured, what would be the best guess about their identification?
Meanwhile I have found hundreds of (references to) snail illustrations in various sources. Not to distract you from this blog main subject, I have created a new space for discussing these: huntingforsnails.wordpress.com. Have a look there too if you like this art historical stance (otherwise make sure to come back here 🙂
LeGoff, J. (1999). Un autre Moyen Age: 1–1404. Gallimard, Paris.