Italian painter, paleontologist, and geologist
Agostino Scilla inaugurated the modern scientific study of fossils. Born the son of a minor government official in Messina, Sicily, he studied art in Messina under Antonio Ricci Barbalunga, who arranged for him to study in Rome for five years under Andrea Sacchi (1599661). Upon his return to Messina, Scilla associated with the Accademia della Fucina and established himself throughout eastern Sicily as a painter of religious scenes for church interiors, including some decorations for the cathedral in Syracuse. A gentleman of broad humanistic learning, with particular interest in ancient local culture, he became an expert on the history of Sicilian coins. During the 1650s or 1660s he began to study natural history, especially the fossils he found in the Sicilian hills. His expeditions were sometimes in company with the botanist Paolo Boccone (1633704). Scilla's training as a painter enhanced his skill at observation in general. He was intrigued by how the petrified forms of what looked like marine life could have come to rest at such high elevations so far from the sea.
Scilla's investigations of fossils culminated in the publication of his only scientific work, La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso (Vain Speculation Undeceived by Sense, 1670). In it, he famously opposed Francesco Stelluti (1577646) and Athanasius Kircher (1602680) on the question of why marine fossils are discovered inland. Stelluti, Kircher, and their allies believed that such fossils were "sports of nature," ruses of God to test our faith, or accidents explicable only through astrology, alchemy, or other fantastic means. To Scilla that was all nonsense. He wrote in plain language that he had no idea how the remains of corals, shells, shark teeth, and fish bones ended up in the hills, that he did not know of any method to try to learn how they got there, and that to speculate about their origin would be fanciful, unwarranted, and pointless. Scilla rejected the authority of ancient authors and medieval theologians, relying instead upon naturalistic observation, skeptical empiricism, and common sense. His style and degree of skepticism anticipated that of David Hume (1711776).
Prior to the work of Fabio Colonna (1567640), John Ray (1627705), Robert Hooke (1635703), Nicolaus Steno (1638686), and Scilla, there was no consensus that fossils were the remains of organic life. The glossopetrae ("tongue stones") commonly found throughout Europe were believed to have magical properties and mystic origins, by either the actions of lunar eclipses or the miracles of St. Paul. Unknown to each other, Steno and Scilla each positively identified glossopetrae as shark teeth. Their analysis of glossopetrae effectively undermined most earlier theories and superstitions about fossils.
In 1678, having participated in an unsuccessful Sicilian revolt against Spanish rule, Scilla was exiled. He went first to Turin, then, in 1679, to Rome, where he spent the rest of his life, making a living as a painter and becoming a prominent member of the Accademia di San Luca.
See also Fossil record; Fossils and fossilization; Marine transgression and marine recession; Sedimentary rocks; Sedimentation
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