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The Siren's Call: Full fathom five

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Who knew that the little, algae-lined glass jar on your child's dresser, the one that contains a yellowy-orange fish named Penny, is an important cultural object?

Bernd Brunner does, but that's not surprising. The Berlin-based author has devoted his other books — on the moon and bears in the woods — to things that are easily taken for granted and overlooked.

And now, with "The Ocean At Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium" (Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press: 168 pp., $29 paper) he turns to the common aquarium and finds an electrifying nexus of human obsessions — with cabinets and curiosities, a passion for exploration and scientific discovery and an abiding fear of (and love for) the ocean.

His book begins, as his others do, in myth and ends in fact.

Once upon a time, he writes, humanity viewed the ocean as "a cursed, dark world where terrifying monsters lurked, devouring anything in sight." It was an ominous vision that gripped the Victorian imagination — a far cry from the ancient Greek notion of the ocean as an immense world-river named for Oceanus, the Titan, and populated by a trident-toting Poseidon and schools of mermaids. To illustrate this darker view, the author includes spectacular images of French mariners, in 1861, battling a giant squid, its long tentacles dangling into the darkness below.

Today, our fear remains, but it's a different kind of fear: The worry isn't about menacing monsters, it's about what's happening to all of those precious ecosystems because of humanity's recklessness.

In between these two fears, Brunner traces how people were so fascinated by their glimpses of what the ocean contained — thanks to diving bells and what was dredged up as transatlantic cables were being laid — that they wanted to capture its essence in miniature.

With the merging of two fads — for cabinets of wonder and pet fish — soon the "aqua vivarium" was born. (British scientist Philip Henry Gosse, Brunner notes, squeezed that phrase to give us "aquarium" — a "vivarium," by the way, is a tank for reptiles.)

The earliest aquariums were leaky; oxygenating the water was hard to do, resulting in enough dead fish to rival Seattle's Pike Place market. But once the problems were solved, the interest among private owners of aquariums gave way to an even larger public competition among various museums to create the largest, most impressive aquariums around.

Even P.T. Barnum got into the act, presenting aquariums of fish along with what he billed as a "real mermaid" that, as Brunner explains, was actually "the upper body of a stuffed ape with the tail of a fish." Some exhibitions even arranged aquariums in a circle, like a panorama, striving to give spectators a feeling that they were in the water themselves. It was, Brunner writes, "a new kind of theatre."

Today, aquariums have grown so large that, as you observe the fish, you can walk through glass tunnels that seemingly take you into their world. Brunner dislikes these, just as he does the notion of aquariums in general: He says they accomplish nothing except the imprisonment of fish and undersea plants. He brings this book, which offers readers another display of his trademark thoughtfulness, to a close by suggesting that we need to pay better attention to what aquariums imitate – the actual realms of Oceanus and Poseidon.

"The effort to create an artificial ocean doesn't really get us anywhere," he writes. "We should focus instead on making the oceans, these gigantic ecosystems, a safe place. Saving life in the oceans is really the challenge for humanity."

***

It wasn't a fascination with the sea that caused two brothers to set sail for frozen waters in Andrea di Robilant's "Irresistible North: From Venice to Greenland on the Trail of the Zen Brothers" (Alfred A. Knopf: 230 pp., $25.95).

No, what prompted the Zen brothers, Antonio and Messer Niccolo, to explore the old Norse routes of the North Atlantic was a desire for adventure and wealth, and a strong sense of pride for their embattled Venetian republic, whose foes at the time of their travels — the late 14th century — included the Genoese and the Turks.

Or was it all just a legend?

"Today the vast majority of geographers and historians generally assume the story is apocryphal," explains the author, "especially in northern European countries, where the mere mention of the Zen brothers can still provoke an irritated twitching of the brow."

What first set European brows twitching was the book written by their descendant, the statesman Niccolo the Younger, in the 1500s. (Antonio was Niccolo the Younger's great-great-great grandfather.) His book possesses one of those long titles that, however unwieldy, retains a certain grand sound that's absolute poetry for a lover of antique books:

"On the Discovery of the Islands of Frislanda, Eslanda, Engrovelanda, Estotilanda and Icaria made by two Zen brothers under the Arctic Pole."

Di Robilant stumbled upon the book because of an American, a stranger, whom he helped to find the crumbling palazzo of the Zens, a distinguished, old Venetian family. His curiosity piqued, Di Robilant examined a copy of the book that included a "carta da navegar," a nautical map, of the region that offered a vague resemblance — a distorted one — of the actual place as it appears on an atlas. For a writer like Di Robilant, who has excavated marginal lives in his other books ("A Venetian Affair," "Lucia"), this was all he needed to launch a full-scale inquiry.

His book is a captivating work of recovery. At first, it seems that it will remain a bookish one — that the only travels he'll be making are those to archives and libraries around Venice. But then, Di Robilant abandons his study carrel for planes, boats and ferries so that he can see the places the Zen brothers may have seen.

"May have seen" is a necessary qualification because the places are hidden, not only by distortions on the map in Niccolo the Younger's book, but also by other names. Frislanda, Di Robilant suggests, is a distortion of Faroe Islands, a contraction and Italianizing of "the old Viking name from Faeroeisland to Frislanda."

Di Robilant has a flair for the evocative detail (Venetian ships, for example, "left such a profusion of pungent aromas in their wake at sea that they could be detected miles away given the right wind"). His willingness to travel to places far off the beaten path enlivens his account, giving it forward momentum as he grounds the Zen brothers' travels in the real world despite criticisms that the travels are a mere "tissue of fiction." His conclusion is that Niccolo the Younger was "a first-class muddler" but not "a fablemonger." But like the best stories about heroic, improbable lives, Di Robilant finally leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.

Owchar is deputy book editor of the Times. The Siren's Call appears monthly at latimes.com/books

nick.owchar@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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