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Da Costa and the Venus dione: The Obscenity of Shell Description

Emanuel Mendes da Costa was born in London in 1717, a Sephardic Jew of Portuguese descent. He was a member of the Royal Society and elected its clerk in 1763, assuming responsibilty for the museum and library, as well as housekeeper of the Society premises at Crane Court. He also collected the twenty-five guinea membership fee of new Fellows, which either was paid in full or, after an initial payment of five guineas, in annual installments of one or two guineas. It was an arrangement that allowed da Costa to accept the entire sum but register the Fellow as a subscribing member, using the remainder of the money as an interest-free loan, from which he would paid the yearly fee himself—or simply pocket the entire amount.

Da Costa managed this fraud for almost five years, until it was discovered in 1767, when a member inquired about not being properly listed. (That year, nearly forty subscriptions, either wholly or in part, were not conveyed to the Society Treasurer.) Two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, da Costa and his wife and child were evicted from their lodgings at Crane Court. Da Costa was convicted of embezzling almost £1500 and, to his incredulity, sentenced to five years in debtors' prison, his second such incarceration. (Benjamin Franklin, himself a member of the Society, wrote to his son that he had attended the inquiry.) Da Costa managed to pay his debts and in 1776, four years after his release, published Elements of Conchology to favorable reviews and, two years later, a book on British conchology (in which he chose not to follow the Linnaean system). It would be his last. Pitying himself as "a poor devil of an author," da Costa complains with unconscious irony that he did not receive payment from subscribers.

In the Preface to Elements of Conchology, da Costa explains that his interest in fossilized specimens had prompted an interest in shells, themselves, and eventually a series of public lectures, which, "not meeting with the desired encouragement," were compiled into a treatise on the subject. But, before enumerating the errata in the book, he felt compelled to express a particular concern.

"One subject, however I shall insist upon; that is, to explode the Linnĉan obscenity in his characters of the Bivalves; not only for their licentiousness, but also that they are in no ways the parts expressed. Science should be chaste and delicate. Ribaldry at times has been passed for wit; but Linnĉus alone passes it for terms of science. His merit in this part of natural history is, in my opinion, much debased thereby; and I can compare these his terms only to Spintriĉ [erotic bronze tokens struck during the reign of Tiberius], in a valuable collection of Roman coins. I therefore with due submission recommend to that otherwise great naturalist, to change them, and expunge this reproachable obscenity from his works."

He provides an instance of such obscenity in a footnote—the description of Venus dione (Elegant Venus), which he deems "fit only for the perusal of a profligate Aretin, or Rochester." (Peter Aretin was the eponymous author of The Genuine and Remarkable Amours of the Celebrated Author, Peter Aretin, published the same year. John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, was the likely author of Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, published in 1684, as well as a number of quite lively poems.)

A hundred pages later, as da Costa prepares to discuss his own arrangement of shells, the taxonomic description of his predecessor still weighs upon him.

"It is necessary to avoid the affected conciseness and quaint terms so much in fashion, and only to use the proper language and established terms. Linnĉus, otherwise the great ornament of natural historians, is very blameable in this respect...I am the more desirous of fixing technical names, as the unjustifiable and very indecent terms used by Linnaeus in his Bivalves may meet their deserved fate, by being exploded with indignation; for [in the words of the fourth Earl of Roscommon]

Immodest words admit of no defence,
And want of decency is want of sense.

These my terms being adopted, will render descriptions proper, intelligible, and decent; by which the science may become useful, easy, and adapted to all capacities, and to both sexes."

Another forty pages and da Costa still feels obliged "to settle the technical terms or names for the parts of Bivalves, useful for making their descriptions intelligible and easy, as also decent; for I hold in great detestation the obscene terms made use of by the Linnean School." Here, he refers to Systema Naturae (12th ed., 1767, pp.1069-1070), where the offensive words again occur.

To be sure, in perusing the nomenclature of Venus dione in Linnaeus' Systema Naturae (10th ed., 1758, no. 274, p. 684-685; also 12th ed., 1767, no.112, pp.1128-1129), one is startled by its description. What is disquieting is that words usually associated with the anatomy of the human female, such as vulva, anus, nates, pubes, montis veneris, labia, hymene, strike a discordant note in the description of a clam. On the other hand, a word such as fornicata, seemingly so salacious, simply means "vaulted."

    Linnaeus' description of Venus dione is even more vivid in his Fundamenta Testaceologiae ("Foundations of the Study of Mollusks"), published in 1771. Gould regards it as "one of the most remarkable paragraphs in the history of systematics." After stating that the hinge joining the two valves of the clam shell is a defining characteristic, Linnaeus writes Protuberantiae insigniores extra cardinem vocantur Nates, "the notable protuberances above the hinge are called buttocks." He then proceeds to enumerate the adjacent parts, naming each one after a woman's sexual anatomy, ut Metaphora continuetur ("so that the metaphor may be continued"). Above the nates (what now is termed the umbones) is the anus (lunule). Below are the hymen (the ligament connecting the two valves), vulva and labia (escutcheon), and pubes, culminating in a mons veneris.

In Table II, Figure 16, these parts all are identified in an accompanying illustration (left): a is the vulva; d, the labia; f, the nates; and g, the anus. It all must have seemed a ribald testaceological jest.

Although Linnaeus provided the first systematic morphology of the bivalve in his Systema Naturae (10th ed., 1758), such overtly sexual terminology was offensive to many, and there were attempts to provide an alternative vocabulary. The French naturalist Georges Cuvier says that it was da Costa, "as it would appear, who proposed to change the terms, which in reality are somewhat obscene, especially when translated into any modern language, which were imagined by Linnĉus to designate certain parts of the bivalve shells." As da Costa so vehemently protests, the names used by Linnaeus to describe Venus dione simply "are in no ways the parts expressed." Instead of labia and vulva, he suggests slopes or declivitas for the lunule and escutcheon, and beaks or umbones for nates.

In 1803, when two British conchologists reviewed the work of earlier authors, there still was considerable unease with the phrasing of Linnaeus, as they so ponderously explain.

"In regard to the terms and peculiar descriptive manner adopted by Linnaeus in this part of his labours, they are no less surprising for their happy expressiveness, appropriateness, and utility of application, than in other departments of the science of nature, to which he gave the same new aspect and stability of reformation. They constitute a language of his own,—a language so eminently subservient to the purposes for which it was calculated, that it would alone be sufficient to mark the superior genius of Linnaeus. At the same time we cannot hesitate to confess, that a few of these terms, however strongly they may be warranted by the similitudes and analogies which they express, and which when so pointed out are of great advantage to the language of science, are not altogether reconcilable with the delicacy proper to be observed in ordinary discourse; nor are they such, perhaps, as should be employed on any occasions, except those when their original signification is immediately implicated. Yet these terms may be exchanged for others without detriment to the Linnean phraseology in general; and though none probably more expressive can be adopted for the respective purposes, they may be abolished without any great disadvantage to those generic definitions into which they have been introduced" (pp.180-181).

Even by 1824, a Supplement to the Encyclopĉdia Britannica, in its discussion of conchology, chastises Linnaeus for his description of the genus Venus and for having "indulged in obscene allusions." Indeed, "It is now time that the pages of natural history were freed from such pollution. Other names, more expressive, can easily be substituted, alike advantageous to the interests of science, and the reputation of the illustrious Swede."

This distress can be better understood when one looks at several eighteenth-century illustrations of the shell. Venus dione was the species used by Linnaeus to describe the genus Venus in 1758. Considered by many to be the most handsome bivalve in the West Indies, the shell is characterized by its lavender and white color and two rows of long radial spines at the posterior end of the valves. Dione was the mother of Aphrodite, and Julius Caesar himself was called Dionaeus by Virgil (Eclogues, IX.47) from Caesar's claim to have descended from Aphrodite through his ancestor Aeneas.

In the Systema Naturae, Linnaeus cites this image (right) from Rumphius' D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer (1705, Plate XLVIII, No. 4), upon which the editor had remarked, "This one is the true Venus Shell with Hair."


Certainly, the representation of Venus dione can be anthropomorphic.

This illustration is from d'Argenville's La Conchyliologie (1765, 3rd ed., Plate XLVII).


  Although the figure (left) seems deliberately to evoke a sexual image, the spines summon a more disquieting one: the vagina dentata, a term coined by Sigmund Freud to denote the male's subconscious fear of castration upon first seeing the pudenda of the female. "Probably no male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals." Discovering that a woman has no penis, the man is fearful that his own can be lost as well. The perceived similarity between the vulva and a devouring mouth (cf. Shaw's "ringent mouth" below) must have been another unnerving association.

Given the similarity of shape, the Latin concha (mollusk or shell-fish) was a synonym for the pudenda in ancient literature and an artistic convention in the depiction of Venus herself. In Rudens ("The Rope") by the Roman playwright Plautus, a character remarks te ex concha natam esse autumant, cave tu harum conchas spernas (Act III, Scene iv, 704): since Venus is said to have been born from a shell, so the goddess should not neglect the "shells" of the two young women who have sought protection at her altar. (In the Loeb edition, the translation is "Folks say you were born of an oyster: don't be above mothering these pearls.")

Of less psychological or prurient interest but nevertheless intriguing, Martin-Kaye once counted hundreds of specimens of the Royal Comb Venus (another name for Venus dione, which now is called Pitar dione) at Cocos Bay on the east coast of Trinidad. He found a significant difference (almost 4:1) in the relative number of right and left valves washed ashore. At the southern-most end of the bay, 87% of the shells were the right valve; at the northern, only 11%. He postulated that the opposite symmetry of the spines on each valve possibly favored a slightly different direction to shore, the spines one side of the shell or the other affecting how it was sorted by tides and currents.

The first English use of concha is reported by the Oxford English Dictionary to have occurred in 1755. Da Costa's Elements of Conchology, which also is the first recorded use of "conchology," is cited as another early example.

Not everyone who gazed upon a Venus dione was so ready to perceive anything untoward. In The Naturalist's Miscellany (1794), for example, Shaw, in spite of the vivid rendering by the illustrator, saw only an innocuous eye or gaping mouth.

"The rare and curious shell represented on the present plate is numbered amongst the most valuable articles of the conchyliological cabinet, and is indeed considered, when in its complete and unblemished state, as one of the cimelia of modern museums. It is, however, not often that specimens can be obtained which have not suffered some accidental injuries, especially those which have attained their full size. The Venus Dione is a native of the American seas, and was first described and figured by Bonanni[.] Its general colour is a very pale or whitish pink; each valve is marked externally by a great number of sharpened concentric zones or prominent ribs: the hinder or flattened part is of a purple tinge, more or less deep in different individuals, and is ciliated on each side with a row of curved spines, so as to give the shell, when viewed in a transverse direction, an appearance not ill resembling that of an eye, or even of the ringent mouth of a quadruped."


The detail is from Volume 5 (1794) of Shaw's twenty-four volume Miscellany, Plate 163.

The specimen above, the orientation of which has been reversed, is from Venezuelan waters and measures only one-and-a-half inches in length. It comes from ViaNet Conchology. The illustration from Linnaeus has been photographed from a copy of Fundamenta Testaceologiĉ in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

References: Elements of Conchology: or, An Introduction to the Knowledge of Shells (1776) by Emanuel Mendes da Costa; "The Rise and Fall of Emanuel Mendes da Costa: A Severe Case of 'The Philosophical Dropsy'?" (2001) by Geoffrey Cantor, The English Historical Review, 116(467), 584-603; "The Anatomy Lesson: The Teachings of Naturalist Mendes da Costa, a Sephardic Jew in King George's Court" (1995) by Stephen Jay Gould, Natural History, 104(12), 10-15, 62-63; "The Jew of Crane Court: Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717-91), Natural History and Natural Excess" (2000) by G. S. Rousseau and David Haycock, Historical Society, 38, 127-170; "Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717-91) and the 'Conchology, or Natural History of Shells'" (1977) by P. J. P. Whitehead, Bulletin of the British Museum (Historical Series), 6(1), 1-24; Fundamenta Testaceologiĉ (1771) by Carl von Linné [as Linnaeus was known when he was ennobled]; "An Historical Account of Testaceological Writers" (1804) by William George Maton and Rev. Thomas Rackett, Transactions of the Linnaean Society of London, 7(1), 119-244; Shell Collecting: An Illustrated History (1966) by S. Peter Dance; The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet: Georgius Everhardus Rumphius (1999) translated by E. M. Beekman; The Mollusca and Radiata (1834) by Baron [Georges] Cuvier, Edward Griffith, and Edward Pidgeon; The Naturalist's Miscellany: or Coloured Figures of Natural Objects; Drawn and Described Immediately from Nature (1789-1813) by George Shaw, figures by F. P. Nodder; Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville: Shells (2009) by Veronica Carpita, Rainer Willmann, and Sophia Willmann; "Fetishism" (1927) by Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers (Vol. 5: Miscellaneous Papers, p. 201); "Sorting of Lamellibranch Valves on Beaches in Trinidad, B.W.I" (1951) by P. Martin-Kaye, Geological Magazine, 88(66), 432-434; "On the Nature and Definition of the Lunule, Escutcheon and Corcelet in the Bivalvia" (1967) by R. M. Carter, Journal of Molluscan Studies, 37, 243-263; "Plautus' Rudens: Venus Born from a Shell" (1974) by Eleanor Winsor Leach, Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Special Classics Issue), 15, 915-931.

See also Rumphius.

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