200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 94: “Fantastic Goldfish ”

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natural history illustrations
Title page and illustration from Billardon-Sauvigny’s Histoire Naturelle des Dorades de la Chine.Ewell Sale Stewart Library & Archives.

Fantastic Goldfish

Among the Ewell Sale Stewart Library’s many treasures is the earliest published European work on ornamental goldfish, Billardon-Sauvigny’s Histoire Naturelle des Dorades de la Chine (Natural History of Chinese Goldfish). Originally published in 1780, it is one of just three copies held in U.S. libraries and possibly one of the most complete copies in the world. Dorades is illustrated with 48 hand-colored plates by the celebrated engraver François Nicolas Martinet. His fame was built on his natural history illustrations, particularly in ornithology as a collaborator on George Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle and Martinet’s own Ornithologie.

Martinet’s illustrations were based on a scroll executed in Peking in 1772 by members of the Society of Jesus, who had dominated the transmission of cultural and scientific information from East to West for almost two centuries. Ornamental goldfish, still relatively rare in Europe when Dorades was published, were bred for discerning aesthetes in China perhaps as early as the 10th century. Today more than 100 fancy breeds have evolved through centuries of selective breeding from the unremarkable Prussian carp, Carassius auratus. Seven of the most exotic breeds are illustrated in Dorades, many of which are still well-loved by fish fanciers. Books such as Dorades present minutely detailed representations of various species, which are not only beautiful in their own right, but also provide important data for researchers studying changes in morphology and distribution as well as cultural significance, iconography, and economics.

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