Adriaen Coenen’s Fish Book (1580)

Selected double-page spreads from Adriaen Coenen's Visboek (Fish Book), an epic 800+ page tome on all things fish and fish-related. Coenen began work on this unique book in 1577, at the age of 63, and in three years gathered an unprecedented amount of information on the sea and its coasts, coastal waters, fishing grounds and marine animals. The information was largely gathered in the course of Coenen's daily work in the Dutch sea-side village of Scheveningen as a fisherman and fish auctioneer and, later on, as wreck master of Holland (allowing him access to every strange creature that washed ashore). Coenen was also a well respected authority in academic circles and used this reputation to receive learned works on the sea from The Hague and Leiden, copied extracts from which find their way into his Fish Book. Indeed, much of the Fish Book borrows and quotes from other texts, including Olaus Magnus' Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Strange anecdotes and legends, often recounted in pamphlets, prove a fertile source too - one of the most notable being the case of the "tunnyfish" (f49v) caught in 1561 in the Mediterranean Sea near Ceuta that had tattoo or drawing-like marks on its skin that looked like images of ships. Large swathes of the book are dedicated to reports of strange mythical sightings of creatures such as the "zeebisschop", a creature described as possessing a hat, a wand, slippers, a chasuble, and gloves; or a 17 foot long sea monster (f52v) which appeared on the Brazilian coast in 1564 standing on its hind flippers. As well as the eclectic and detailed text, Coenen's book is, of course, notable for its exquisite manner of presentation. Every page becomes a work of art in its own right, decorated with painted borders and delightful watercolours. Two years after its completion, Coenen produced another book this time dedicated solely to whales, known as the Whale Book (now housed in Antwerp).

The digital copies of the Visboek presented here have been spliced together to create the double spread and are all sourced from The National Library of the Netherlands which has digitised the whole of the Visboek and includes a wonderful (flash-based) digital presentation with extensive notes and commentary on individual pages, if you are interested to learn more.

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