The transit of Venus – an alternative view

transit of Venus, Venus, Tahiti, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell,

The above satirical cartoon was published by Robert Sayer & Co of Fleet Street, London and dated 16 December 1793.

“Titled ‘Viewing the Transit of Venus’, the caption is a play-on-words with respect to astronomy. A gentleman looks through his glasses at a young woman as she leans forward showing her cleavage to use the telescope; a satyr in the garden has an emulatory leer,” according to the Science Museum’s record for the image.

As a post on the Royal Observatory Greenwich blog points out, “The scene isn’t topical at all – the most recent transit of Venus had taken place over twenty years earlier in 1769. And the statue of the satyr on the right hints at rather more sexual interests, emphasized by the way in which the man lightly fingers the telescope, suggesting that it is akin to what contemporaries called the ‘staff of life’. Perhaps he is hoping for a more bodily transit of Venus, recalling stories of the amorous encounters of the Greek goddess of love. This telescope, then, has become a most impolite instrument.”

As with all satire there is usually more than a grain of truth in the subject being parodied. One reviewer of Andrea Wulf’s new book Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens writes of how Edmond Halley issued a call in 1716 for scientists to fan out across the globe to witness the event more than 20 years after his death.

“You would be hard-pressed to find a more colorful cast of characters than those who answered the call, including British explorer Capt James Cook, whose randy crew slept with as many Tahitian women as they could while setting up observation sites on the island paradise,” says The Washington Post, inevitably somewhat reductively.

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