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Vipera Caudisona

Mark Catesby
SAC 1990.1

hand-colored etching

ca. 1743

14  x 20 inches

35.5 x 51 centimeters

Gift of Peggy and Charles Gignilliant, Jr. in memory of Gertrude Bagwell

about the work

SAM is privileged to have a few of Mark Catesby’s orginal works. Pictured  here is Page XLI (41) of Natural History of Carolina, Florida, & the  Bahama Islands, “Vipera Caudisona”. Catesby said of the creature, "Of  these vipers, the Rattle Snake is most formidable, being the largest and  most terrible of all the rest. The largest I ever saw was one about  eight feet in length, weighing between eight and nine pounds." 

Catesby's  Vipera Caudisona is now known as Crotalus horridus, the Timber  Rattlesnake. He was the first naturalist to observe it.

about the artist

In 1722 Englishman Mark Catesby sailed to a sparsely settled,  one-year-old Royal Colony. The colony, which occupied the extreme edge  of western civilization, was still only a year old and mostly a lawless  wilderness populated by venomous plants and animals unknown to science.  The few settlements within its borders were constantly under attack from  Native American raiding parties, Spanish & French militia, and  Pirate fleets. Only four years before, Catesby’s visit the colony’s only  notable port had been blockaded by notorious pirate Edward Teach,  better known as Blackbeard. The city in question was called Charleston,  after King Charles the Second of England and the colony in which it was  situated was called South Carolina, after King Charles the First.  England’s foremost association of scientists, naturalists, and  philosophers, then chaired by the man credited with discovering gravity –  Isaac Newton – financed Catesby’s voyage to this exotic and dangerous  backwater, in order to bring whatever strange and unknown creatures  inhabited it to light.  

For four years, Catesby traveled the length and breadth of South  Carolina as well as portions of Georgia and the Bahamas. He described  mysterious, fabulously strange places and wildlife. Among them, ‘swamps  where coniferous trees lost their needles in winter, dense maritime  forests of oaks that stayed green year-round, endless salt marshes where  grasses drifted in the wind to the horizon…massive buffaloes,  exotically colored frogs, ducks that nested in trees, giant butterflies,  bald-headed eagles, giant-leaved foul-smelling trees.’ All these he  meticulously catalogued and painted by hand, eventually collecting into a  single volume book called Natural History of Carolina, Florida, &  the Bahama Islands. Catesby was the first to observe that birds migrate  in winter, as opposed to sleeping at the bottom of frozen ponds, as was  commonly believed at the time. 160 copies of Catesby’s revelatory  Natural History were produced for its first edition, each of which was  hand-colored by the naturalist himself – of these, only 80 have survived  to the present day.

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