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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.6 Adolf von Hildebrand bust

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In 1873, the German biologist Anton Dohrn commissioned a plaster bust of Darwin for the ‘fresco room’ of his new research centre, the Stazione Zoologica in Naples. It was a fitting memorial of a long association between the two men, prompted by Dohrn’s ‘deep Veneration’, as he put it, for Darwin’s achievements. They exchanged letters on scientific matters over a period of some fifteen years (c.1867–1882), and Dohrn was invited to stay at Down House on more than one occasion. He explained to Darwin his visionary plan: to provide a research centre where visiting scientists from all nations could study marine fauna at first hand, enjoy optimal conditions for research, and, just as importantly, exchange ideas and data, assisting cross-fertilisation between different areas of biology. The live organisms to be used for experimental purposes were gathered freshly in the Mediterranean, and housed in tanks constantly replenished with a flow of sea water and injections of air, so as to keep them alive for scrutiny over an extended period.  Dohrn hoped it would be the first of many such cooperative projects, situated in key biodiverse sites across the world.  

Darwin and his circle actively promoted the Stazione, partly through the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and Darwin himself bailed Dohrn out financially on at least two occasions during the construction (1872–1873). Most of the money for the building and operation of the Stazione ultimately came from the German imperial and state governments, and from a system of payment for the reservation of work spaces in the laboratories. However, Dohrn never forgot Darwin’s ‘generous and quick help in a most dangerous moment’ and his ‘great moral assistance to the enterprise’. This was not just a question of money – crucial though that was, given the scale, fine classical architecture, decoration and technical complexity of the building that was taking shape in Naples in the mid-1870s – for Dohrn knew that Darwin’s public support gave his project credibility and status in the eyes of fellow scientists. Furthermore, having been introduced to Darwin’s ideas by Haeckel in Jena, Dohrn intended his Stazione to be a place where those ideas were vindicated and developed. In his many articles and reports on the progress of the project in Nature, and his speech at the official opening of the Stazione in 1875, this aim was explicit. ‘Biology has undergone a complete revolution by Mr. Darwin’s great work’, he wrote in 1872, and its future lay in the study of phenomena that elucidated the processes of evolution. Comparative morphology, physiology and embryology were to be complemented by first-hand observation of living animals’ behavioural traits and interactions – ‘all those conditions which regard the struggle for existence and the action of natural selection’.  

The huge aquarium and laboratory tanks in Naples allowed biologists unique scope to experiment on these lines, but the building was not simply a functional structure. As Dohrn explained to a friend, there were to be two grand saloons, which together suggested a ‘purely ideal’ complementarity of intellectual fields – ‘The one Science to the very last stone, – the other exclusively Art!’; both disciplines equally required ‘constructive imagination’. For guidance in the field of art, he depended on his friends the sculptor and architect Adolf von Hildebrand and the painter Hans von Marées. Together they designed and decorated the ‘fresco’ saloon where Darwin’s bust was to be placed in 1873, together with a bust of Karl Ernst von Baer, the biologist and embryologist; this room was to house the Stazione’s important library, and it also became the music room. Hildebrand sculpted the bust of Darwin on the basis of a photograph which Dohrn had asked Darwin to send. Wrapped in a fur-collared coat or cape, he looks down benignly on readers, from a ledge above the bookcases. Both his bust and that of von Baer are framed by elegant fluted panels in a classical style; the walls between them are frescoed with von Marées’s scenes of Neapolitan life on the Bay, which are made to look as if they pass behind the busts in a continuous panorama of busy boats, flying birds and an extensive open sky, giving the room an airy and exhilarating feel. This was not a merely random choice of decoration; it brought together the likenesses of the two great scientists and the Mediterranean sea-life which, Dohrn believed, provided the best materials for furthering their discoveries.         

  • physical location Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, Naples 

  • accession or collection number unknown 

  • copyright holder Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, Naples 

  • originator of image Adolf von Hildebrand 

  • date of creation 1873 

  • computer-readable date 1873-01-01 to 1873-12-31 

  • medium and material plaster bust 

  • references and bibliography Dohrn’s letter to Darwin, 30 Nov. 1867: DCP-LETT-5701. Dohrn to Darwin, 30 Dec. 1869: DCP-LETT-7038, and Darwin’s reply, 4 Jan. 1870: DCP-LETT-7070. Dohrn to Darwin, 7 Sept. 1871, explaining his need to garner support from other scientists, and soliciting Darwin’s public expression of confidence in the project, which was given: DCP-LETT-7925 and 7926. Dohrn to Darwin, 21 Aug. 1872, writing in his capacity as Secretary of the BAAS’s Committee for the Foundation of Zoological Stations: DCP-LETT-8481, and Darwin’s supportive reply, 24 Aug. [1872]: DCP-LETT-8486. Anton Dohrn, ‘The foundation of zoological stations’, Nature 5 (8 Feb. 1872), pp. 277–280, and ‘The foundation of zoological stations II – The aquarium at Naples’ Nature 5 (4 April 1872), pp. 437–440. Ray Lankester’s description of the Station in report of the BAAS ‘Committee  . . . promoting the Foundation of Zoological Stations’, Nature 6 (29 August 1872), pp. 362–363. Dohrn, ‘The Zoological Station at Naples’, Nature 8 (29 May 1873), p. 81. Thomas Huxley’s letter to Dohrn, 15 Nov. 1873, explaining plans that he and Darwin had made to approach other British scientists for urgently needed financial support for the Stazione: DCP-LETT-9412. Darwin’s follow-up letter to Dohrn, enclosing his personal contribution of £100, with another £20 from his sons, 7 March 1874: DCP-LETT-9338, and Dohrn’s grateful acceptance, 6 April 1874: DCP-LETT-9394. Dohrn’s letters to Darwin, again expressing fervent gratitude for all his past help, 7 Feb. 1875 and 29 July 1875: DCP-LETT-9845 and DCP-LETT-10101. ‘Inauguration of the Zoological Station of Naples’, Nature 12 (6 May 1875), pp. 11–13. Dohrn, ‘The Zoological Station at Naples’, Nature 43 (19 March 1891), pp. 465–466. Charles Lincoln Edwards, ‘The Zoological Station at Naples’, Popular Science Monthly 77 (Sept. 1910), pp. 209–225, mentioning the ‘impressive busts of Darwin and Von Baer’ in the library, of which there is a photograph (pp. 218, 220). Christiane Groeben and Irmgard Müller, The Naples Zoological Station at the Time of Anton Dohrn, exhibition catalogue (Naples, 1975). Christiane Groeben (ed.), Charles Darwin (1809–1882), Anton Dohrn (1840-1909) Correspondence (Naples: Macchiaroli, 1982). Christian Lenz (ed.), Hans von Marées (Munich: Prestel, 1987), pp. 39–64. Theodor Heuss, ed. Christiane Groeben, Anton Dohrn, A Life for Science (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1991) pp. 65, 311–312. Bernardino Fantini, ‘The “Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn” and the history of embryology’, International Journal of Developmental Biology, 44:6 (Feb. 2000), pp. 523–535. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin. The Power of Place (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), pp. 480–481, and ‘An appreciation of Christiane Groeben: the correspondence between Charles Darwin and Anton Dohrn’, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 36:3 (Jan. 2015), pp. 440–443. Frank Fehrenbach, ‘The frescoes in the Stazione Zoologica and classical ekphrasis’, in Lea Ritter-Santini and Christiane Groeben (eds), Art as Autobiography: Hans von Marées (Naples: publications of the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, 2008), pp. 93–104.   




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