Fascinating and Fantastical Natural History Illustrations of Sharks

Discovery Channel’s Shark Week started as a way to raise awareness about the shark population and educate viewers about the most feared species of the deep sea.

The programming has taken a few turns into absurd Grand Guignol docufiction territory, but this isn’t the first time that sharks have been portrayed through a documentary and fictional lens. We’ve teamed up with curator Anne Garner from the Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the New York Academy of Medicine Library for a look back at the natural histories of sharks and the fascinating illustrations that resulted from those studies.

Has there ever been an animal at once more vilified and beloved than the shark?  Today, sharks are both reviled as predators and admired for their fierce beauty. But what was their reputation among the early moderns? Richly illustrated natural histories by Belon, Rondelet, Gesner, and Aldrovandi, four of the sixteenth-century’s most important naturalists, did much to extend recognition and understanding of these captivating animals across Europe. A century later, the polymath Athanasius Kircher also collected shark specimens, which he displayed in his eclectic Roman museum. Drawn partly from imagination and partly from eye-witness account, these sharks range from recognizable great whites to more fantastic creatures—a composite of shark and monster. Here, we offer a gallery of images from The New York Academy of Medicine Library’s collections of these stunning, graceful, and sometimes terrifying swimmers of the deep. —Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Pierre Belon. De aquatilibus, Libri duo cum eiconibus ad vivam ipsorum effigiem…Paris: C. Stephanum, 1553.

Pierre Belon is credited with writing the first natural history ever devoted to fish. Like the work of his contemporaries, Belon’s book included all kinds of water-dwelling animals in addition to fish—dolphins, hippopotami, and what Belon refers to as the canis carcharias, or the great white shark. Belon’s depiction of the great white is the earliest, narrowly pre-dating those of Rondelet and Gesner.

—Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Pierre Belon. De aquatilibus, Libri duo cum eiconibus ad vivam ipsorum effigiem… Paris: C. Stephanum, 1553.

This grimacing hammerhead shark would surely ace any test for peripheral vision with flying colors—the better to see you with—and eat you with?—m’dear…! The text tells us that the hammerhead was known to Latin readers as a libella, likely derived from the Latin word for a T-shaped carpenter’s level.

—Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Guillaume Rondelet. Libri de piscibus marinis… Leiden: Matthias Bonhomme, 1554.

French naturalist Guillaume Rondelet’s wanderlust led him to the Mediterranean, where he observed and documented hundreds of marine animals, coaxing the local fisherman to bring him specimens for study. Rondelet calls his hammerhead a zygena (from the Greek for yoke) following the tradition of the Renaissance humanist Gaza.

—Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Guillaume Rondelet. Libri de piscibus marinis… Leiden: Matthias Bonhomme, 1554.

Rondelet’s great white shark looks affable enough, but beware: the Frenchman calls his shark a lamia, conjuring one of the most menacing personalities in Greek mythology. Lamia’s own children were taken from her by Hera, who was upset with the beautiful queen for seducing Zeus. Insane with grief, Lamia began to kill other children. Pliny writes that the Greeks called sharks lamiae, suggesting that the association between predatory demon and these swimmers of the deep came very early.

—Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Guillaume Rondelet. Libri de piscibus marinis… Leiden: Matthias Bonhomme, 1554.

This mama and baby pair may charm, but don’t send the Mother’s Day bouquet just yet…many sharks eat their babies, shortly after birth. Rondelet used the word galeo (shark in Greek) to describe this species, which resembles a catshark. We can’t help but wonder if this shark’s name may have its root in the ancient Greek, gale, polecat.

—Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Conrad Gesner. Historiæ animalium liber IIII: qui est de Piscium & aquatilium animantium natura… Zurich: Christoph. Froschouer, 1558.

Gesner’s graceful, back-bending great white shark is called both canis carcharias and lamia. Gesner probably drew his great white using a desiccated specimen as a model; hence it’s slight body.

—Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Conrad Gesner. Historiæ animalium liber IIII : qui est de Piscium & aquatilium animantium natura… Zurich: Christoph. Froschouer, 1558.

Gesner calls this handsome fella a cetus, a term used by the early moderns to denote all kinds of large sea creatures: whales, dolphins, and sharks. Evoking both Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors and Jabba the Hut, this smirking devil has teeth and a tail characteristic of a shark but his webbed feet and claws don’t fit the profile.

—Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Ulysses Aldrovandi. De piscibus libri v et de cetis lib. unus. Bologna: Bellagambam, 1613.

Aldrovandi’s sharks were sometimes grounded in realism, but often featured fantastic flourishes. Cue up the Jaws theme for this shark’s own version of the Mediterranean chainsaw massacre: while his tail, body and head look like something you might encounter in open water today, his tall, saw-like fin, poised to slice, is definitely summer blockbuster material.

—Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Ulysses Aldrovandi. De piscibus libri v et de cetis lib. unus. Bologna: Bellagambam, 1613.

A duet of sharks from Aldrovandi depicts two wide-eyed sharks swimming in opposite directions. Aldrovandi’s accompanying text is emphatic about the animal’s predilection for human flesh, and suggests that it’s because of this shark’s snacking habits that most people don’t eat shark meat themselves.

—Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Buonanni, Filippo. Museaum Kircherianum. Rome: George Plachi, 1709.

The learned eccentric Athanasius Kircher was given free reign by the pope to build a museum in Rome in the late 17th-century at the Collegio Romano. Among the Egyptian mummies and obelisks he displayed there were the cadavers of a number of sea creatures, including these shark specimens and teeth. During the Renaissance, before the subject was clarified by the Danish scientist Nicolas Steno, shark teeth were sometimes confused with dragon’s tongues.

—Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library

Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Buonanni, Filippo. Museaum Kircherianum. Rome: George Plachi, 1709.

This hybrid sea creature, part shark, part whale, part pure fantasy, poses more questions than answers. The accompanying text suggests that the Italians called him a capodoglio, or sperm whale, but his shape, dorsal fin and the absence of a blowhole suggest otherwise. Was he inspired by a shark, or mostly invention on the part of Kircher’s curator, Buannini?

—Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library