Monday, 15 January 2018

Strange Fish: an opening gambit

I recently spotted this curiosity in the window of a basement apartment in Saskatoon, looking as if it had escaped from a cabinet somewhere. Varieties of the puffer-fish were popular items for collection in the early modern period. Nehemiah Grew, in his catalogue of the Royal Society’s collection Musaeum Regalis (1681), lists a couple of specimens in this vein. One of them is identified as:
The little GLOB-FISH. Orbis minor. So called from his Orbicular figure. Described in most Mus├Žums. Most curiously figur'd in that of Calceolarius. He is armed with long, round, hard, and sharp Spikes or Needles all round about, almost like those of a Hedg-Hog; and is a sort of Porcupine-Fish. 'Tis probable, That the Fish swims with these Needles all closely couched down round about, for that otherwise they would hinder her swimming. But if at any time she is pursu'd, she immediately advances her Pikes, and bids the enemy come at his peril. (sig. [Pv]-P2)
Grew cites Italian collector Francesco Calzolari (1522-1609) (actually, Benedicto Cerutin and Andrea Chiocco, who compiled the catalogue of his collection) for providing a “curious” figure of this fish. Two specimens are also visible hanging from the roof of his “cabinet.”

Images of Calzolari's collection and image of the porcupine fish,
from Benedicto Cerutin and Andrea Chiocco, Musaeum
 Franc. Calceolari Jun.
(1622), fold-out and sig. N2.


Grew also lists separately a “Sea-Porcupine,” citing this time Jan Jonston’s illustration in his Historiae naturalis de piscibus (1650).

Jan Jonston, Historiae naturalis de piscibus (1650), Tab. 45.

It is sometimes difficult to sort out the nomenclature for natural specimens in these collections, owing to naturalists’ and collectors’ habit of naming species by analogy: for example, the “tobaccopipe fish” (with a long, slender body, “from whence its name” says Grew) or the “swallow fish” for a flying fish. The pufferfish, blowfish, globefish, and balloonfish (to name only a few variants) all belong to the “tetraodontidae” family, so named (says Wikipedia) for their four large teeth fused into an upper and lower plate. But in the minds of early modern naturalists and collectors, these fish were associated because they have in common an inflatable body. But while the porcupine fish is closely related and was often, in such collections, conflated with these other expandable, globous fish, it is not actually part of the same family.

Strange fish of all kinds continue to fascinate, in part for all the strange shapes they come in and the comparisons they inspire. They also fascinated then, as now, because they came from a place that is utterly remote to most human experience, a natural black-box yielding a variety of unusual and surprising forms, and then only reluctantly. Watch this space for further explorations of strange fish from the cabinet of curiosities.

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