While I’ve found a great deal of blog fodder on eBay, it’s always immeasurably more pleasurable to spot a book in person, out there in the wild. As it happens, my friend Huseyin actually found this one, amid the glorious chaos of the aptly-named Raining Books shop here in Brighton. Originally published in 1982 in Italian, with this English translation arriving in 1987, The Prehistoric World was written by Giorgio P Panini and illustrated by a variety of artists, most (but not all) of whom were also Italian. The cover Stegosaurus is credited to A Fedini of Milian, an artist I haven’t been able to find very much about online. It very much sets the tone in terms of artistic style, and is yet another book that covers a wide range of prehistoric life, but knows exactly what kind of animal to stick on the cover to shift copies.
Most of the art in here adheres to a style that you might call Classical Realism – realistic, sure, but not strictly so, with less important background elements becoming increasingly indistinct and blobby (see above), as if the artist had really sat out on a Jurassic fern prairie with their canvas. There’s also an awful lot of bloody violence, which is of course absolutely marvellous. For my money, by far the most memorable art in this book is that produced by P Cozzaglio of Brescia. I should note that artists are often only credited by their initial and surname (and hometown), but in this case, I believe the artist’s name was Piero.
Perhaps the most striking of Cozzaglio’s pieces to appear here is the above scene depicting a group of Allosaurus savaging a Diplodocus. Although the theropods are quite muscular and athletic – and even sport birdlike tarsal scutes (and finger scutes!) – the sauropod is quite definitively old-school, with a snakelike neck and the mismatched head of a small lizard. Even so, it’s hard not to compare this with similar scenes from much better-known artists, like Zallinger, and come to the conclusion that Cozzaglio’s is far more dynamic, exciting and visually arresting. It’s not just the unflinching depiction of blood and gore, although that helps, obviously – it’s also in the motion of the animals, the way their muscles are moving under their skin, and, well, the water. Just look at the water! It’s absolutely breathtaking to look at, giving us a real sense of the power of this huge beast, which has already managed to topple one of the predators. The carefully painted droplets streaming from the Diplodocus‘ tail are simply stunning.
Cozzaglio also provides this resolutely retro depiction of Brontosaurus, although by this time Panini feels obliged to point out that the head shown here is no longer considered accurate (you can just about see the jaws of a more accurate, diplodocid head in the top left of my scan). Although so much about these Zallingerian reconstructions is glaringly wrong to the modern eye (and, in fact, would have been equally glaringly wrong back in ’87), these creatures do seem to somehow make sense as living things – undoubtedly because Cozzaglio was a wildlife artist. There’s an uncanny sense of realism to the saggy skin folds and ridges of muscle, the hallmark of artists who know their way around animals, even if they don’t know all that much about dinosaurs.
It’s not all Cozagglio, all the time, of course. Continuing into the Jurassic, we come upon this Archaeopteryx painted by Luciano Corbella, sporting a very familiar colour scheme. That aside, this is a really quite beautiful reconstruction, for the background detail as much as the animal itself – just look at the texturing on that fallen tree (got to love a fallen tree!) and on the rocks. Archaeopteryx‘s colours might be familiar, but its feathering is beautiful, and the hands are properly incorporated into the wing. It’s a nice piece.
Moving into the Cretaceous, and oh boy, it’s a retro Spinosaurus. In fact, it’s a Spinosaurus that’s a short-necked quadruped with thin, needle-like neural spines, almost as if it’s been confused with some synapsid or other – although having said that, its head seems almost presciently long and low. A happy accident? It’s depicted confronting a rather blobby Dicraeosaurus, because they were from around the same part of the world, ish, even if they lived tens of millions of years apart. I really don’t fancy Spino’s chances much – the sauropod looks like it could reduce it to roadkill with a single blow from its forepaw. This one’s by P Cataneo, by the way, and is a bit more painterly than usual, but one still gets a sense of the spinosaur’s scaly skin, and Dicraeosaurus‘ terrifyingly jacked forelimbs. (Or maybe I just have a complex.)
Back to Cozzaglio now, and an “Anatosaurus” (basically Edmontosaurus. Look, even if some people think it should be split off again, I’m sick of all these taxonomic shenanigans – they’re all Edmontosaurus to me now). It begs the question: what makes something look real? Like, really real. To me, this creature looks uncannily, disturbingly real, even though it isn’t painted in a strictly realistic style. It’s a testament to the skill of the artist that all the tiny details that you don’t even perceive at first – the carefully placed skin folds, the scaly crest that splits into multiple rows of scutes on the tail, the gnarly, wrinkled legs, the sheer solidity of the thing – instantly add up to a reconstruction that’s striking in its sheer presence. And yes, I know those colours are a bit second-hand, but blimey – it really looks like it might leap off the page. And I’d probably be fairly alarmed here if it did.
In a similar vein, here’s an ankylosaur by Sergio (“Palaeoscincus”, basically a fusion (geddit?) of Ankylosaurus and Nodosaurus) with the most intimidating stare you’ve ever seen. It helps, of course, that the whole thing is just incredibly detailed, with almost every scale and armour scute in sharp focus, and every bony lump appearing convincingly three-dimensional and solid. But, yikes, that’s a worrying glare. It’s the type of glare that one might give a small child on a scooter that’s nearly crashed into your shins when you’re walking to work. Given that retro ankylosaurs normally resemble adorably chubby cartoonified versions of their later selves, this is rather remarkable.
We’re getting to the end of the Cretaceous now, and continuing with the Burian riffs, here’s Cozzaglio’s rather obviously Zdenek-inspired Tarbosaurus. Not exactly the same, of course, but if you know your classic palaeoart you’ll see it straight away – even the colours are similar. Again, there’s a stunning attention to detail in the animal’s scaly hide in particular, with the grotesquely lumpen neck and face being a definite highlight. This would certainly appear to form part of a contemporary trend of lumpen-faced tarbosaurs.
And finally…it’s Rexy, of course. A not entirely unfamiliar scenario, but once again,Cozzaglio’s interpretation is unusually brutal. Those bloody wounds look painful, and given the biting power of a tyrannosaur, that’s only fitting. The pose of the individual on the right looks very familiar, too, although at this point my mind is so addled by subpar vintage palaeoart, disappointment, and alcohol, I can’t quite remember the source. Perhaps this is the source, and it merely resembles the work of Zallinger, Burian and Parker by virtue of being retro. Whatever the case, it’s certainly very good from an artistic point of view, even it would have been horrendously dated scientifically by 1987. I can only hope that young Ben Puddicombe was happy with his Christmas present. For you see, this is yet another book that I’ve acquired with an inscription in the front. In this case, it reads:
Happy Christmas 1987
From Nanny & Grandad
So, young Ben acquired this book when I was a week old. I hope he enjoyed it. Then again, perhaps he was some precocious Darren Naish-alike, and rejected it for being so dated – and that’s how it ended up in my hands. We’ll never know! Probably.
There’s a lot more to this book than dinosaurs, of course. Let me know if you want to see it!