A Collector’s Coral Specimen
While we are exhibiting at TEFAF Maastricht, our New York office has completed some new research on a specimen of Acropora Cytherea, or “Table Coral,” naturally formed as a tazza and enclosed within an original mirrored and ebonized display case.
Experts at the Natural History Museum in London have identified the present coral as Acropora Cytherea, a hard rock-like species that grows in substantial plate-like structures, and which can be found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, from the Red Sea to Hawaii. It is a colonial breed, meaning a piece of this kind was home to thousands of small animals, which although individuals, were joined by tissue and nerves. What we see here is effectively the ‘skeleton’ of the coral; the calcium carbonate casing that would have protected the animals within. Acropora means ‘porous branch or stem’, and refers to the structure of the coral. Each of the visible holes would have allowed for a polyp to extend its tentacles for feeding. In the wild, examples of this coral take on a cream, pale brown or blue color owing to a thin layer of algae that lives on its surface (figure 1). It is a crucially important reef species, providing the substructure for others to grown on. Some examples have been known to extend to over a meter across and the present example is close to this size.
Coral has remained a material that has excited wonder and curiosity throughout human history. Its creation was recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphosis as resulting from Perseus dropping the Gorgon’s head on the sea floor causing the surrounding plants to take on the color of blood and turn to stone. Red coral in particular assumed spiritual and medicinal significance in the medieval and early renaissance periods, its color resembled the blood of Christ, and its perceived protective qualities explain why it was often used for amulets and babies’ rattles, and was included with portraits of children. Coral became a permanent feature of the “Wunderkammern” going back to the sixteenth century, and the Medici family, for example, claimed to have a piece in that never stopped growing,1 A highlight of the famous collection in the Green Vaults of Dresden was the Daphne cup, mounted with three separate branches of coral.2 However, during the course of the eighteenth century the magical significance and value of this rare material gradually changed to a scientific one. The Islamic scholar Al-Biruni had claimed as far back as the eleventh century that corals were animals, based on the fact that they respond to touch,3 however for centuries most assumed that they were some kind of mysterious plant-mineral hybrid. It was William Herschel, a scientist better known for his work in the field of astronomy, who looked at coral under the microscope for the first time and confirmed that is cellular structure was that of an animal, not a plant.
Interestingly, Charles Darwin began his career studying sea life, specifically marine invertebrates including coral. His work in this area resulted in his first major publication, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, which appeared in 1842 and examined the different kinds of coral that form a reef. The species of the present example, Acropora Cytherea, was first classified in 1846, 4 just four years after the publication of this research.
It is clear that 1840s constituted a period of major progress in the field of marine biology, and a rise in interest amongst the public is represented by the opening of the Coral Room in the British Museum in 1847 to much acclaim (figure 2).
The present piece dates from this mid-nineteenth century period of growing interest in the scientific study of natural wonders, and was most likely made for a private collector who commissioned the case specifically for the piece. Apart from providing protection for the precious specimen, the case is fitted with a mirror beneath the coral that enables the viewer to examine it from every angle whilst also acting as a light source from below. The design of the case resembles that of the domestic aquariums that became popular around the same time, like the fountain aquarium designed by Philip Henry Goss, one of the great ‘popularizers’ of natural science (figure 3).