Jean Baptiste Vérany’s Chromolithographs of Cephalopods (1851)

The subtitle of Jean Baptiste Vérany’s Mollusques méditeranéens: observès, decrits, figurès et chromolithographies d'après le vivant promised something quite extraordinary for 1851: chromolithographs of living sea creatures. Since Aristotle’s pioneering accounts of the octopus, cuttlefish, and paper nautilus, great advances had been made in the knowledge of cephalopod anatomy and taxonomy, without parallel progress in understanding these enchanting animals’ ecology and life history. In this first volume of a projected two-volume work on the mollusk fauna of the Mediterranean, both Vérany’s lyrical descriptions and forty-one color plates attest to the veracity of his “d’après le vivant” claim.

Born in Nice, Vérany (1800–1865) was on a path to take over his father’s pharmacy when, after acting as local guide for University of Torino zoologist Franco Bonelli’s collecting expedition, he abandoned the drug trade in 1822. By 1834, Vérany was specializing in the study of cephalopods; though only five of the 144 plates in a natural history from this time were by Vérany, their fidelity to the living animals foreshadowed his later achievement. All five plates depicted the subtle, shifting shades of the chromatophores in cephalopod skin. One plate shows Eledon moschatus in six different dynamic expressions; another (Loligo vulgaris) includes two juveniles whose colors are much more muted than those of adults. It is no surprise that Vérany would eventually serve as assayer of gold and silver for Nice and Genoa. He had a connoisseur’s eye for color and patina.

In Mollusques méditeranéens, Vérany’s realizes his ambition — to accurately render “the suppleness of the flesh, the grace of the contours, the flexibility of the membranes, the transparency and the coloring”. During a moment of characteristically vivid description, he tells of his first encounter with the bright red umbrella squid, Histioteuthis Bonelliana, on the pebble beach at the mouth of Nice’s River Var. Having come upon a child who held a strange mutilated squid in his hands, he presented the animal to fishermen, promising “a good premium” to anyone who might bring him a similar one in better condition; shortly after, he was shown one hanging in their nets, and plunged it into a tub:

It was at this moment that I enjoyed the astonishing spectacle of the brilliant points whose forms so extraordinarily decorate the skin of this cephalopod; sometimes it was the brightness of the sapphire which dazzled me; sometimes it was the opaline of the topazes which made it more remarkable; other times these two rich colors confused their splendid rays. During the night, the opaline points projected a phosphorescent glare, making this mollusc one of the most brilliant productions of Nature.

After his death in 1865, Vérany was largely forgotten outside of Nice, even though Napoleon III decorated him with the Legion of Honor in 1864, to recognize both his scientific work and his founding of Nice's Muséum d'histoire naturelle. A few of Vérany’s cephalopods achieved great fame anonymously. Victor Hugo’s 1866 novel Les Travailleurs de la mer featured an ink drawing by Hugo that was copied from Vérany’s Octopus macropus. (While Vérany debunked the myths of the octopus’ monstrous nature, calling it “incapable of harm”, Hugo’s ferocious beast fuelled the modern terror of tentacles.) In 1878, the Wards Natural Science Company featured Léopold and Rudolf Blaschka’s glass models of cephalopods; many of their sketches for these sculptures were Vérany knockoffs. When Ernst Haeckel published a classically symmetrical plate of cephalopods in his Kunstformen der Natur (1902), three of the five species were copied without attribution from Vérany’s plates (8, 21, and 38). Indeed, it had been Vérany himself who introduced Haeckel to the cephalopods in 1856, when the German naturalist visited Nice as a young zoology student.