“So, naturalists observe, a flea Hath smaller that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Thus every poet, in his kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind.”
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
On the 2, June 1676 the Duke’s Company performed the spectacle “The Virtuoso” in the Dorset Garden Theatre in London.
The Virtuoso was a comedy of great success, a tale about a strange philosopher busy to explore, as he believed, the greatest secrets of nature using glowing mould on putrefying flesh to read in the dark, establishing the weight of thin air, teaching a spider to dance, trying to transfer blood between a sheep and human to produce a new kind of wool and dissect a dog still alive.
The public was delighted – only one man could not laugh at the spectacle. His name was Robert Hooke, Fellow of the Royal Society, architect, physicist, engineer, astronomer, but mostly natural philosopher – and model for the buffoon on the stage. Hooke was deeply offended how apparently society saw himself and the work he had done – he had in fact studied the weight of air, the decay and putrefaction of flesh, even the function of the lungs in a living dog, an experiment he later strongly regret, but also geology.