Fossil Fascination- Artistic Inspiration in the Renaissance
Fossils and their counterparts were objects of speculation during the time of the Renaissance curiosity cabinets. Today similar objects are on display in museums throughout the world. The amount of knowledge available to describe and understand fossils’ origins and creation is what has changed in that time. This knowledge is in part thanks to some of the greatest Renaissance minds. They studied fossils and tackled the question of their origin, even though this often conflicted with contemporary religious views. One of the first steps in the process of identifying fossils was to study the form. Even today the shapes, colors, and sizes of fossils amaze their audience and it is no wonder that they fascinated the natural historians and artists of the Renaissance. In accordance with the fossils’ marvellousness, they were included in great variety in Wunderkammern, Kunstkammern, and curiosity cabinets. Not surprisingly, fossils make an appearance in almost every visual record of a Renaissance cabinet.
One particularly fascinating type of fossil is that of the extinct ammonite; these fossil shells are relatively easy to find but require special care to display and maintain. It was because of their spiral pattern that prior to Robert Hooke’s (1635-1703, English) work ammonites were “serpent stones” and were in fact cursed snakes. Hooke was one of the first people to acknowledge that these were not snakes, and gave a description of the ammonites that resembles the modern definition of fossils.
In ammonites there are differences in mineralization and opalization (the rainbow sheen) that assure that no two are exactly the same. The shell and its compartments are a mold for the fossilization that occurs inside and when split open, the colors and textures displayed have taken the shape of their compartments in a seemingly artificial manner. The outside of the ammonite, when polished, reveals a beautifully patterned shell, often including an “oak leaf” pattern (see right) and opalization. The overall spiral form, a product of the growth pattern, draws the eye through the surface of the shell. It is because of all of these aesthetic qualities that they were, and still are, used to make jewelry. Many of the fossils are works of art in their own right as a culmination of natural activities and the human act of cutting, polishing, and displaying. This technique is reminiscent of the Renaissance gardens with a “third nature”, described “…as a product of nature as artist, acting on art, as well as of man modifying nature”.