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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dinosaurs invade the Visconti Castle

The cover of  'The First Fossil Hunters' by Adrienne Mayor.
"The First Fossil Hunters" (Mayor, 2001) is one of the best books to explore the wonders of ancient palaeontology. The first edition of this rich historical portrayal starts with a gorgeous cover: the Corinthian vase painting commonly known as the “Monster of Troy”. This fine work of art – dating back to the sixth century B.C. – depicts Hesione and Heracles, fighting against the legendary monster that appeared nearby Troy. A question might arise: “What is the link between Heracles and palaeontology?”
Intriguingly, the artist depicted the monster with atypical features: the monster protrudes from a rocky cliff, it has a hollow eye socket with a ring of bony plates, it presents a clear jaw articulation and it is rendered with a pale pigmentation. In other words, the “Monster of Troy” was inspired by a fossil skull protruding from an outcrop, as confirmed by the rich fossil fauna of the Mediterranean coast (Mayor, 2001).
Fossils have fascinated artists not only in classical times. Many Renaissance naturalists depicted fossils and their pioneering work is the base of Earth sciences as conceived today. Despite these notable examples, it was only in the 19th century that the reconstruction of extinct animals entered its modern era. At that time one of the masters of paleontological illustration was Édouard Riou (1833-1900), well-known for his direct collaboration with Jules Verne. Riou, a former pupil of the famous engraver Gustave Doré, illustrated both fictional and scientific works (Rudwick, 1995). His style has been called “realistic Romanticism” (Marcucci, 1956), and we cannot but agree when admiring the illustrations in Flammarion’s Le Monde Avant la Création de l’Homme and Figiuer’s La Terre Avant le Déluge. In that same period other excellent artists were producing palaeontological illustrations, among which James Beard, Mary Mitchell and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.
Iguanodon and many others sculptures by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins are still preserved at Sydenham Hill (South London). Photo by Wikimedia Commons.
Hawkins’s name is intimately linked with the Crystal Palace, the building originally erected in Hyde Park (London) to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. After the Exhibition the building was moved to Sydenham, and it was suggested to decorate the Crystal Palace park with reconstructions of dinosaurs.
This episode marks one of the most successful, ephemeral and famous marriages between geology and art. The well-known palaeontologist Owen was the project’s scientific coordinator; Waterhouse Hawkins was chosen as the sculptor. At the end of 1853, Hawkins, who had already completed several dinosaurs, had a bizarre idea: he organized a gala dinner inside a dinosaur. A sculpted Iguanodon was prepared for the event; the back of the reptile hosted a dining room, with a large table, chairs and chandeliers. The crème of British geology was invited to the dinner, which was a great success. According to contemporary newspapers, in 1854 Crystal Park was visited by Queen Victoria, who greatly appreciated the dinosaurs (for more on the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace see the excellent Ruggieri, 1975).

The famous gala dinner inside a sculpted Iguanodon: paleoart in the 1850s.

Recently, a modern equivalent of the Crystal Palace was hosted by the Visconti Castle (Pavia, Italy), an awe-inspiring fortified structure built by Galeazzo II Visconti in 1360. In fact, the travelling exhibition Dinosauri in Carne ed Ossa ("Dinosaurs in the Flesh") colonized the park and the arcades of the ancient building. The exhibit emerged from the collaboration between palaeontologists (Simone Maganuco, Stefania Nosotti), artists (under the umbrella of GeoModel) and an active palaeontological association (APPI, represented by the palaeontologist Alessandro Carpana).
I must admit that I already visited a previous installation of the show, located at the Urban Center of Piacenza. I was really impressed by the quality of the Piacenza exhibit, therefore I went to Pavia to document this amazing cross-pollination between art and science. Between a photographic report and a personal diary, here are my impressions of the exhibit.

Some of the highlights of 'Dinosauri in Carne ed Ossa'
“Dinosauri in Carne ed Ossa” was centered around several life-size models of prehistoric animals, covering a time span from Palaeozoic to Quaternary. Scientific panels explained the scientific background behind the sculptures, excelling for their aesthetic appearance. Indeed the prehistoric creatures appeared very dynamic and vividly coloured, with very detailed textures.
What would Hawkins say if he had seen this haptic interface?
Alessandro Carpana explained me the innovative techniques used to sculpt the models.
In fact, several reconstitutions were realized with the Clay Tools system. This system includes an haptic device, that is a a true 3D joystick with force feedback. This technology enables artists to use their sense of touch to create virtual clay models. In other words, digital sculpting at its best. In other cases, traditional maquettes (scale models) were digitalized by 3D laser scanner.
Both techniques resulted in a digital 3D model, succesively sculpted at 1:1 scale by rapid prototypying equipment. Then, artists applied labor limae: textures, fine details and colors.
Nevertheless, these artistic and technical aspects would be mere appearance without an accurate scientific approach. As concerns this aspect, the models are very accurate. It is not a case that Jack Horner – one of the leading vertebrate palaeontologists of our times – officially supported the exhibit and presented several events linked to it.
It is worth to note that the exhibit gave a great allocation of space to paleoart. Infact “Dinosauri in Carne ed Ossa” presented several panels with the work of leading Italian paleoartists, from Davide Belladonna to Fabio Pastori, from Troco to Prehistoric Minds, a team devoted to palaeontological illustration.


Paleoart played a significant role in the exhibit: from techniques to materials, from themes to artists.

Many events accompanied 'Dinosauri in Carne ed Ossa'. Among others, palaeoartists Troco and Lukas Panzarin discussed about palaeontological illustration, and the palaeontologists Andrea Cau and Alessandro Carpana dealt with the cultural heritage of Jurassic Park,

Paleoartists Troco and Lukas Panzarin held an interesting conference about palaeontological illustration.
This exhibit is surely a must-see for the art and palaeontology enthusiasts. However, after Piacenza, Cormayeur and Pavia, where will be the next installation? I will conclude this issue with a scoop: rumours say that “Dinosauri in Carne ed Ossa” will be held very soon in Florence, the city which saw the activity of Leonardo da Vinci - artist, naturalist and pioneer of palaeontology!

When dinosaurs ruled the Visconti Castle of Pavia... See you soon in Florence!

...well, not only dinosaurs!



Marcucci, E.,1956. Les Illustrations des Voyages Extraordinaires de Jules Verne. Bordeaux: Ed. Société Jules Verne, pp. 18–19.

Mayor, A. 2001. The first fossil hunters - paleontology in Greek and Roman times. Princeton Press, 361 pp.

Rudwick, M.J.S. 1995. Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World. University Of Chicago Press, 294 pp.

Ruggieri, G. 1975. La scoperta dei fossili – il romanzo della paleontologia. Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 122 pp.