Projecting Nature: Agostino Scilla’s Seventeenth-Century Fossil Drawings

In 1670 the Sicilian painter Agostino Scilla (1629–1700) devised an entirely new way of depicting fossils when he wrote and illustrated his Vain Speculation Undeceived by Sense (1670–1671), which argued that fossils were the remains of once living creatures and not mimetic stones. This essay explores the nature of Scilla’s graphic innovations, comparing his fossils drawings and Pietro Santi Bartoli’s engravings of them to earlier and contemporary images of fossils. Scilla captured the effect of time on nature by infusing his style of drawing with his philosophical understanding of what it means to see and to know. He made his drawing less rich in detail to focus on those which served his purpose. In particular, he made the first use of dotted lines in paleontological illustration to render his images dynamic theoretical interpretations rather than static depictions.