Category Archives: History of Zoology

Renaissance science – XXXX

As we have seen in previous episodes, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605) was one of the leading natural historians of the sixteenth century. The first ever professor for natural history at the University of Bologna.

Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 – 1605). attributed to Ludovico Carracci. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He created the university’s botanical garden, one of the oldest still in existence. Collected about 4760 specimens in his herbarium on 4117 sheets in sixteen volumes, which are still preserved in the university and wrote extensively on almost all aspects of natural history, although much of his writing remained unpublished at his death. However, despite all these other achievements in the discipline of natural history, visitors to Bologna during his lifetime came to see his teatro di natura (theatre of nature), also known as his natural historical collection or museum.  This was housed in the palatial country villa that he built with the money he received from the dowry of Francesca Fontana, his wife, when he married her. His theatre contained some 18,000 specimens of the diversità di cose naturali (diverse objects of nature). These included flora and fauna, as well as mineral and geological specimens. He wrote a description or catalogue of his collection in 1595. 

In 1603, after negotiation with the Senate, Aldrovandi arranged for his teatro di natura to be donated to the city of Bologna after his death in exchange for the promise that they would continue to edit and publish his vast convolute of unpublished papers. This duly took place, and his collection became a public museum in the Palazzo Poggi, the headquarters of the university, opening in 1617, as the first public science museum.

Palazzo Poggi Bologna c.1750 Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with all of his natural history undertakings, Aldrovandi’s natural history museum was not the first, there being already ones in the botanical gardens of the universities of Pisa, Padua, and Florence but none of them approached the scope of Aldrovand’s magnificent collection. Also, later, the University of Montpelier had its own natural history collection. However, it wasn’t just institutions that created these early natural history museums. Individual apothecaries and physicians also set about collecting flora and fauna. 

The apothecary Francesco Calzolari (1522–1609) had an impressive Theatrum Naturae in Verona with 450 species on display. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Francesco Calzolari’s Cabinet of curiosities. From “Musaeum Calceolarium” (Verona, 1622) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, the papal physician, Michele Mercati (1541–1593), who was superintendent of the Vatican Botanical Garden, had a notable collection concentrating on minerology, geology, and palaeontology in Rome 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Engraving made by Antonio Eisenhot between 1572 and 1581, but published in 1717, representing the Vatican mineral collection as organized by Michele Mercati Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante Imperato (1523–1620?)  published Dell’Historia Naturale in Naples in 1599, which was based on his own extensive natural history collection and containing the first printed illustration of such a collection. 

Portrait of Ferrante Imperato by Tanzio da Varallo  Source: Wikimedia Commons
Title page of Dell’ historia naturale, Napoli, 1599, by Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625). Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikimedia Commons
Engraving from Dell’ historia naturale, Napoli, 1599, by Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625). Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikimedia Commons

In the sixteenth century it became very fashionable for rulers to create cabinets of curiosities also know by the German terms as Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer. These were not new and had existed in the two previous centuries but in the Renaissance took on a whole new dimension. These contained not only natural history objects but also sculptures and paintings, as well curious items from home and abroad, with those from abroad taking on a special emphasis as Europe began to make contact with the rest of the world. 

The curiosity cabinet is a vast topic, and I don’t intend to attempt to cover it in this blog post, also it is only tangentially relevant to the central topic of this blog post series. I will, however, sketch some aspect that are relevant. Although they covered much material that wasn’t scientific, they were fairly obviously inspired by various aspects of the increasingly empirical view of the world that scholars had been developing throughout the Renaissance. We don’t just go out and actually observe the world for ourselves, we also bring the world into our dwellings so that all can observe it there. They represent a world view created by the merging of history, art, nature, and science. Although principally the province of the rich and powerful, for whom they became a status symbol, some notable Wunderkammer were created by scholars and scholars from the various scientific disciplines were often employed to search out, collect, and then curate the object preserved in the cabinets. 

Some of these cabinets created by the Renaissance rulers also had sections for scientific instruments and their owner commissioned instruments from the leading instrument makers of the era. These are not the average instruments created for everyday use but top of the range instruments designed to demonstrate the instrument makers skill and not just instruments but also works of art. As such they were never really intended to be used and many survive in pristine condition down to the present day. One such collection is that which was initially created by Elector August of Saxony (1526–1586), can be viewed in the Mathematish-Physikalischer Salon in the Zwinger in Dresden. 

Portrait of the Elector August of Saxony by Lucas Cranach Source: Wikimedia Commons
Planetenlaufuhr, 1563-1568 Eberhard Baldewein et al., Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon

Equally impressive is the collection initially created by Wilhelm IV, Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel, (1532-1592), who ran a major observational astronomy programme, which can be viewed today in the Astronomisch-Physikalische Kabinett

Portrait of Wilhelm IV. von Hessen-Kassel by Kaspar van der Borcht († 1610) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Equation clock, made for Landgrave William IV of Hesse-Kassel by Jost Burgi and Hans Jacob Emck, Germany, Kassel, 1591, gilt brass, silver, iron Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City via Wikimedia Commons

Not surprisingly Cosimo I de’ Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany (1519–1574)

Agnolo Bronzino, Porträt von Cosimo I de’ Medici in Rüstung, 1545, Source: Uffizien via Wikimedia Commons

had his cabinet of curiosities, the Guardoroba Nuova, in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, designed by the artist and historian of Renaissance art Giorgi Vasari (1511–1574), who, as I have documented in an earlier post, in turn commissioned the artist, mathematician, astronomer and cartographer, Egnatio Danti (1536–1586), to decorate the doors of the carved walnut cabinets, containing the collected treasures, with mural maps depicting the whole world. Danti also designed the rooms centre piece, a large terrestrial globe. 

Source: Fiorani The Marvel of Maps p. 57

The alternative name Wunderkammer became common parlance because various German emperors and other rulers somewhat dominated the field of curiosity cabinet construction. Probably the largest and most spectacular Wunderkammer was that of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II (1552–1612).

Rudolf II portrait by  Joseph Heintz the Elder 1594 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was an avid art collector and patron, but he also collected mechanical automata, ceremonial swords, musical instruments, clocks, water works, compasses, telescopes, and other scientific instruments. His Kunstkammer incorporated the three kingdoms of nature and the works of man. Unusually, Rudolf’s cabinet was systematically arranged in encyclopaedic fashion, and he employed his court physician Anselmus de Boodt (1550–1632), a Flemish humanist, minerologist, physician, and naturalist to catalogue it. De Boodt had succeeded Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) as superintendent of Rudolf’s botanical garden.

Rudolf II Kunstkammer

Although it was a private institution, Rudolph allowed selected professional scholars to study his Wunderkammer. In fact, as well as inanimate objects Rudolf also studiously collected some of Europe’s leading scholars. The astronomers Nicolaua Reimers Baer (1551–1600), Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) all served as imperial mathematicus. The instrument maker, Jost Bürgi came from Kassel to Prague. As already mentioned, Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) and Anselmus de Boodt (1550–1632) both served as superintendent of the imperial botanical gardens. The later also served as personal physician to Rudolf, as did the Czech naturalist, astronomer, and physician Thaddaeus Hagecius ab Hayek (1525–1600). The notorious occultist Edward Kelly (1555-1597) worked for a time in Rudolf’s alchemy laboratory.

When Rudolf died his Wunderkammer was mostly transferred to Vienna by his brother and successor as Holy Roman Emperor, Matthias, where it was gradually dissipated over the years. Although, his was by far the most spectacular Rudolf’s was only one of many cabinets of curiosity created during the Renaissance by the rich and powerful as a status symbol. However, there were also private people who also created them; the most well-known being the Danish, naturalist, antiquary, and physician Ole Worm (1588­–1654).

Ole Worm and Dorothea Worm, née Fincke artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Son of Willum Worm a mayor of Aarhus, he inherited substantial wealth from his father. After attending grammar school, he studied theology Marburg and graduated Doctor of Medicine at the University of Basel in 1611. He also graduated MA at the University of Copenhagen in 1618. He spent the rest of his life in Copenhagen, where he taught Latin Greek, physics, and medicine, whilst serving as personal physician to the Danish King, Christian IV (1577–1648). He died of the bubonic plague after staying in the city to treat the sick during an epidemic.

As a physician he contributed to the study of embryology. Other than medicine he took a great interest in Scandinavian ethnography and archaeology. As a naturalist he determined that the unicorn was a mythical beast and that the unicorn horns in circulation were actually narwhal tusks. He produced the first detail drawing of a bird-of-paradise, proving that they, contrary to popular belief, did in fact have feet. He also drew from life the only known illustration of the now extinct great auk.

OLe Worm’s Great Auk Source: Wikimedia Commons

Worm is best known today for his extensive cabinet of curiosity the Museum Wormianum a great collection of curiosities ranging from native artifacts from the New World, to stuffed animals and fossils in which he specialised.

1655 – Frontispiece of Museum Wormiani Historia Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with other cabinets, Worm’s collection consisted of minerals, plants, animals, and man-made objects. Worm complied a catalogue of his collection with engravings and detailed descriptions, which was published posthumously in four books, as Museum Wormianum. The first three books deal respectively with minerals, plants, and animals. The fourth is archaeological and ethnographical items. 

Title page 
Museum Wormianum. Seu historia rerum rariorum, tam naturalium, quam artificialium, tam domesticarum, quam exoticarum, quæ Hafniæ Danorum in œdibus authoris servantur. Adornata ab Olao Worm … Variis & accuratis iconibus illustrata. Source

A private cabinet of curiosity that then became an institutional one was that of the Jesuit polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). Kircher referred to variously as the Master of a Hundred Arts and The Last man Who Knew Everything belonged very much to the Renaissance rather than the scientific revolution during which he lived and was active.

Athanasius Kircher engraving by Cornelis Bloemaert Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was author of about forty major works that covered a bewildering range of topics, which ranged from the genuinely scientific to the truly bizarre. Immensely popular and widely read in his own time, he quickly faded into obscurity following his death. Born in Fulda in Germany, one of nine children, he attended a Jesuit college from 1614 till 1618 when he entered the Jesuit Order. Following a very mixed education and career he eventually landed in the Collegio Romano in 1634, where he became professor for mathematics. Here he fulfilled an important function in that he collected astronomical data from Jesuit missionaries throughout the world, which he collated and redistributed to astronomers throughout Europe on both sides of the religious divide. 

Given he encyclopaedic interests it was perfectly natural for Kircher to begin to assemble his own private cabinet of curiosities. In 1651, the Roman Senator Alfonso Donnini (d.1651) donated his own substantial cabinet of curiosities to the Collegio, and the authorities decided that it was best placed in the care of Father Kircher. Combining it with his own collection, Kircher established, what became known as the Musæum Kircherianum, which he continued to expand throughout his lifetime.

Musæum Kircherianum, 1679 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The museum became very popular and attracted many visitors. Giorgio de Sepibus published a first catalogue in 1678, the only surviving evidence of the original layout. Following Kircher’s death the museum fell into neglect but was revived, following the appointment of Filippo Bonanni (1638–1725), Kercher’s successor as professor of mathematics, as curator in 1698. Bonnani published a new catalogue of the museum in 1709. The museum prospered till 1773 till the suppression of the Jesuit Order led to its gradual dissipation, reestablishment in 1824, and final dispersion in 1913.

Filippo Bonanni, Musaeum Kircherianum, 1709 Source: Wikimedia Commons

As we have seen cabinets of curiosities often evolved into public museums and I will close with brief sketches of two that became famous museums in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

John Tradescant the Elder (c. 1570–1638) was an English, naturalist, gardener, and collector. He was gardener for a succession of leading English aristocrats culminating in service to George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. In his duties he travelled widely, particularly with and for Buckingham, visiting the Netherlands, Artic Russia, the Levant, Algiers, and France. Following Buckingham’s assassination in 1628, he was appointed Keeper of the King’s Gardens, Vines and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey.

John Tradescant the Elder (portrait attributed to Cornelis de Neve) Source: Wikimedia Commons

On his journeys he collected seeds, plants, bulbs, as well as natural historical and ethnological curiosities. He housed this collection, his cabinet of curiosities, in a large house in Lambeth, The Ark.

Tradescant’s house in Lambeth: The Ark Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was opened to the public as a museum. The collection also included specimens from North America acquired from colonists, including his personal friend John Smith (1580–1631), soldier, explorer, colonial governor, and Admiral of New England.

His son, John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662) followed his father in becoming a naturalist and a gardener.

John Tradescant the Younger, attributed to Thomas de Critz Source: Wikmedia Commons

Like his father he travelled widely including two trips to Virginia between 1628 and 1637. He added both botanical and other objects extensively to the family collection in The Ark. When his father died, he inherited his position as head gardener to Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France working in the gardens of Queens House in Greenwich. Following the flight of Henrietta Maria in the Civil War, he compiled a catalogue of the family cabinet of curiosities, as Museum Tradescantianum, dedicated to the Royal College of Physicians with whom he was negotiating to transfer the family botanical garden. A second edition of the catalogue was dedicated to Charles II after the restoration.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Around 1650, John Tradescant the Younger became acquainted with the antiquarian, politician, astrologer and alchemist, Elias Ashmole (1617–1692), who might be described as a social climber.

Elias Ashmole by John Riley, c. 1683

Born into a prominent but impoverished family, he managed to qualify as a solicitor with the help of a prominent maternal relative. He married but his wife died in pregnancy, just three years later in 1641. In 1646-47, he began searching for a rich widow to marry. In 1649, he married Mary, Lady Mainwaring, a wealthy thrice widowed woman twenty years older than him. The marriage was not a success and Lady Manwaring filed suit for separation and alimony, but the suit was dismissed by the courts in 1657 and having inherited her first husband’s estate, Ashmole was set up for life to pursue his interests in alchemy and astrology, without having to work. 

Ashmole helped Tradescant to catalogue the family collection and financed the publication of the catalogue in 1652 and again in 1656. Ashmole persuaded John Tradescant to deed the collection to him, going over into his possessing upon Tradescant’s death in 1662. Tradescant’s widow, Hester, challenged the deed but the court ruled in Ashmole’s favour. Hester held the collection in trust for Ashmole until her death.

In 1677, Ashmole made a gift of the Tradescant collection together with his own collection to the University of Oxford on the condition that they build a building to house them and make them available to the general public. So, the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s second university museum and Britain’s first public museum, came into existence on 24 May 1683.

The original Ashmolean Museum building on Board Street Oxford now the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford Source: Wikimedia Commons

My second British example is the cabinet of curiosities of Hans Sloane (1660–1753), physician, naturalist, and collector.

Slaughter, Stephen; Sir Hans Sloane, Bt; Source: National Portrait Gallery, London via Wikipedia Commons

Sloane was born into an Anglo-Irish family in Killyleagh a village in County Down, Ulster. Already as a child Sloane began collecting natural history items and curiosities, which led him to the study of medicine. In London, he studied botany, materia medica, surgery, and pharmacy. In 1687, he travelled to Jamaica as personal physician to the new Governor Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle. Albemarle died in the following year, so Sloane was only in Jamaica for eighteen months, however, in this time he collected more than a thousand plant specimens and recorded eight hundred new species of plants, starting a lifetime of collecting.

Sloane married the widow Elizabeth Langley Rose a wealthy owner of Jamaican sugar plantation worked by slaves, making Sloane independently wealthy. There followed a successful career as physician, Secretary of the Royal Society, editor of the Philosophical Transactions, President of the Royal College of Physicians, and finally President of the Royal Society. Throughout his life, Sloane continued to collect. He used his wealth to acquire the natural history collections of Barbadian merchant William Courten (1572–1636), papal nuncio Cardinal Filippo Antonio Gualterio (1660–1728), apothecary James Petiver (c.1665–1718), plant anatomist Nehemiah Grew, botanist Leonard Plukenet (1641–1706), gardener and botanist the Duchess of Beaufort (1630–1715), botanist Adam Buddle (1662–1715), physician and botanist Paul Hermann (1646–1695), botanist and apothecary Franz Kiggelaer  (1648–1722), and botanist, chemist, and physician Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738).

 When he died Sloane’s collection of over seventy-one thousand items– books manuscripts, drawings, coins and medals, plant specimens and more–was sold to the nation for £20,000, well below its true value. It formed to founding stock of the British Museum and British Library, which opened in 1759.

Montagu House, c. 1715 the original home of the British museum

The natural history collection was split off to found the Natural History Museum, which opened in South Kensington in 1881.

The Natural History Museum. This is a panorama of approximately 5 segments. Taken with a Canon 5D and 17-40mm f/4L. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Renaissance practice of creating cabinets of curiosities played a significant role in the creation of modern museums in Europe. It also provided scientists with collections of materials on which to conduct their research, an important element in the development of empirical science in the Early Modern Period. 





Filed under History of botany, History of medicine, History of science, History of Technology, History of Zoology, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXIX

Over a series of episodes, we have followed how the Renaissance Humanists introduced materia medica into the university curriculum developing it from a theoretical subject to a practical empirical field of research and then over time, how the modern scientific study of botany developed out of it. We have also seen how some of the same energy was invested in laying down the beginnings of the modern scientific study of zoology. The beginnings of this evolution at the end of the fifteenth century coincided with the beginnings of the so-called Age of Discovery or Age of Exploration, which as I stated in the first episode on navigation I prefer to refer to as the Contact Period, when Europeans first came into contact with lands and peoples unknown to them, such as the Americas or sub-Saharan Africa, and at the same time vastly increased their knowledge of countries such as India; they also became acquainted with a vast number of new medicinal herbs and other plants as well as animals, which played an increasing role in their studies in these areas. 

Exotica out of the plant and animal kingdoms were not unknown to the European scholars, after all Alexander the Great had conquered Persia and Northern India and the Romans Northern Africa. They brought knowledge of these lands and their flora and fauna back into Europe and even imported many of those plants and animals. Famously, Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants and the Romans fed Christians to the lions in the Circus Maximus. Some of these exotica were also recorded in the works of Aristotle, Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Pliny. Later in the Middle Ages the Islamic forces created an Empire that stretched from China to Spain and the Islamic scholars also recorded much of the flora and fauna of this vast Empire. A lot of that material came into Europe during the twelfth century Scientific Renaissance when large quantities of Arabic material was translated into Latin. 

However, this knowledge of natural historical exotica was purely second hand and the European recipients in the Middle Ages and Renaissance had no way of knowing how accurate it was or even if it was true. They had no first-hand empirical verification. Were the accounts of real plants and animals or mythical ones. Just looking at the proto-zoological works of both Conrad Gesner and Ulisse Aldrovandi illustrates this problem. Both of them include many animals that we now know never existed, myths and legends from other times and other cultures. They had no way of differentiating between the real and the mythical, although they both put hesitant question marks behind some of the mythical beasts that they served up for their readers.

The vastly increased voyages of trade and exploration, although one could simply write trade as almost all exploratory voyages where motivated by the hope of trade, during the contact period gave the Renaissance scholars the chance to go and search out and describe the exotica with their own eyes. When talking about Renaissance zoology we saw that the French naturalist Pierre Belon (1517–1564) travelled as a diplomate in Greece, Crete, Asia Minor, Egypt, Arabia, and Palestine between 1546 and 1549 and observed and wrote about natural history there. Under the botanists Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) translated Garcia de Orta’s important materia medica text Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia, into Latin from the original Portuguese and published it in Europe in 1567. He also acquired information about the flora of the Americas by questioning seafarers returning to the Iberian Peninsula from there. Clusius’ interest in the materia medica and natural history of the newly discovered Americas didn’t end with just collecting information from returnees, he also translated and published in Latin. the work of Nicolás Monardes (1493–1588)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Monardes was born in Seville the son of Nicolosi di Monardis, an Italian bookseller, and Ana de Alfaro, the daughter of a physician. He graduated BA in 1530 and obtaining a first degree in medicine in 1533, began to practice medicine in Seville. He obtained a doctorate in medicine from the University of Alcalá de Henares in 1547. He wrote extensively on the materia medica of the Americas. In 1565, he published his Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales in Seville, which was based on the reports of a wide range of people returning from the Americas. In 1569, he published an extended version, his Dos libros, el uno que trata de todas las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales, que sirven al uso de la medicina, y el otro que trata de la piedra bezaar, y de la yerva escuerçonera. A second volume expanding on the material in the first two books, Segunda parte del libro des las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales, que sirven al uso de la medicina; do se trata del tabaco, y de la sassafras, y del carlo sancto, y de otras muchas yervas y plantas, simientes, y licores que agora nuevamente han venido de aqulellas partes, de grandes virtudes y maravillosos effectos appeared in Saville in 1571. A single edition of all three books, Primera y segunda y tercera partes de la historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de neustra Indias Occidentales, que sirven en medicina; Tratado de la piedra bezaar, y dela yerva escuerçonera; Dialogo de las grandezas del hierro, y de sus virtudes medicinales; Tratado de la nieve, y del beuer frio was published in Saville in 1574, with a second edition appearing in 1580.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

 In 1574, Platin in Antwerp published Clusius first translation De simplicibus medicamentis ex occidentali India delatis quorum in medicina usus est. Plantin published a revised edition, Simplicium medicamentorum ex novo orbe delatorum, quorum in medicina usus est, historia, in 1579. In 1582, Clusius produced a compendium of revised translations of the work of Garcia de Orta, Nicolás Monardes, and Cristóbal Acosta, to who we will return shortly. A further revised edition appeared in 1593 and a last revision in 1605. In 1577, John Frampton, a sixteenth century English merchant, published an English translation of the 1565 Spanish text, Ioyfull newes out of the newe founde worlde, wherein is declared the rare and singular vertues of diuerse and sundrie hearbes, trees, oyles, plantes, and stones, with their applications, as well for phisicke as chirurgerie in London. A new expanded edition based in the 1574 Spanish text appeared in 1580.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before we turn to Acosta, we need to deal with Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478–1557), who preceded him.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés Source: Wikimedia Commons

Oviedo was a Spanish, soldier, historian, writer, botanist, and colonist, who participated in the colonisation of the West Indies already in the 1490s. Born in Madrid, he was educated at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, where he served as a page to the Infanta, Juan de Aragón, until his death in 1497. He then spent three years in Italy before returning to a position as a bureaucrat in the Castilian imperial project. In 1514, he was appointed supervisor of gold smelting in Santo Domingo and in 1523 historian of the West Indies. He travelled five more times to the Americas before his death. 

In 1526, he published a short work, La Natural hystoria de las Indias, with few illustrations, in Toledo. It was translated into Italian appearing in Venice in 1534, with French editions beginning in 1545, and English ones beginning in 1555. In 1535, part one of a longer and more fully illustrated Historia general de las Indias was printed in Seville, which contained the announcement of two further parts. He continued to work on a revised version of part one and on parts two and three until his death in 1557, but they were first published in an incomplete edition in 1851 entitled, Natural y General Hystoria de las Indias. English and French editions of the 1535 Seville publication appeared in 1555 and 1556 respectively. The Saville publication is a ragbag of topics but contains quite a lot of both botanical and zoological information. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Portuguese physician and natural historian, Cristóbal Acosta (c. 1525–c. 1594), whose work was partially included in Clusius’ 1582 compendium, is thought to have been born somewhere in Africa, because he claimed to be African in his publications.

Cristóbal Acosta Source: Wikimedia Commons

He first travelled to the East Indies, as a soldier, in 1550. He returned to Goa with his former captain, Luís de Ataíde, who had been appointed Viceroy of Portuguese India, in 1568, the year Garcia de Orta died. He worked as a physician in India and gained a reputation for collecting botanical specimens. He returned to Europe in 1572 and worked as a physician in Spain. In 1578, he published his Tractado de las drogas y medicinas de las Indias orientales (Treatise of the drugs and medicines of the East Indies). This work included much that was culled from Garcia de Orta’s Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia but became better known that Orta’s work. The last entry was a treatise on the Indian Elephant, the first published in Europe. The work was translated into Italian in 1585 by Francesco Ziletti.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cristóbal Acosta is not to be confused with José de Acosta (c. 1539–1600), the Jesuit missionary and naturalist.

José de Acosta Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born in Medina del Campo, Spain José de Costa joined the Jesuit Order at the age of thirteen. In 1569, he was sent by the Order to Lima, Peru. Ordered to cross the Andes to journey to the Viceroy of Peru, he and his companions suffered altitude sickness; Acosta, as one of the earliest to do so, gave a detailed description of the ailment, attributing it correctly to “air… so thin and so delicate that it is not proportioned to human breathing.” Acosta aided the Viceroy in a five-year tour through the Viceroyalty of Peru, seeing and recording much of what he experienced. He spent the year of 1586 in Mexico studying the culture of the Aztecs. In 1587, he returned to Spain. He published many, mostly theological, works in his lifetime but is best known as the author of De Natura Novi OrbisDe promulgatione Evangelii apud Barbaros, sive De Procuranda Indorum salute (both published in Salamanca in 1588) and above all, the Historia natural y moral de las Indias(published in Savile in 1590). 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his Historia natural y moral de las Indias he presented his observations on the physical geography and natural history of Mexico and Peru as well as the indigenous religions and political structures from a Jesuit standpoint. His book was one of the first detailed and realistic descriptions of the New World. Acosta presented the theory that the indigenous populations must have crossed over from Asia into the Americas. The work was translated into various European languages, appearing in English in 1604 and in French in 1617.

Historia natural y moral de las Indias Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should be noted that just as the early Renaissance natural historians in Europe relied, to a great extent, for their information on plants, herbs and animals on farmers, hunters, foresters, and others who lived and worked on the land, so the Europeans studying the materia medica and natural histories of Asia and the Americas depended very heavily on the information that they received from the indigenous populations. This was particularly the case in the next natural historians that I will briefly present.

Bernardino de Sahagún (c.1499–1590) was born Bernadino de Rivera in Sahagùn in Spain and attended the humanist University of Salamanca and there joined the Franciscan Order, changing his name to that of his birthplace, as was the Franciscan custom, and was probably ordained in 1527. He was recruited in 1529 to join the Franciscan mission to New Spain.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

He helped found the first European school of higher education in the Americas, the Colegio Imperial de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in 1536. He learnt the Aztec language Nahuatl in order to be able to confer with the indigenous population about materia medica and natural history. In 1558, he was commissioned by the new provincial of New Spain, Fra Francisco de Toral, to formalise his studies of native languages and culture. He spent twenty-five years researching the topic with the last fifteen spent editing, translating, and copying. He was assisted in his research by five graduates of the Collegio, all of whom spoke Nahuatl, Latin, and Spanish, and as well as helping him to interview the elders about the religious rituals and calendar, family, economic and political customs, and natural history, also participated in research and documentation, translation and interpretation, as well as painting the illustrations. In the text he credited them for their work by name. 

Out of this research Sahagún created a twelve volume General History of the Things of New Spain, the manuscript was sent to Philip II of Spain. It was never printed, and the manuscript was bought by Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1580. He put it on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and it is generally known as the Florentine Codex. The volume that deals with natural history is titled Earthly Things and is the most heavily illustrated, containing paintings of thirty-nine mammals, one hundred and twenty birds and more than six hundred flowers. The hundreds of New World plants listed in the Florentine Codex are presented according to an Aztec system of taxonomy. The Aztec divided plants up into four main groups: edible, decorative, economic, and medicinal. 

The Florentine Codex Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Florentine Codex Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sahagún’s Historia general was not the only book on indigenous materia medica to emerge from the Colegio Imperial de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco. In 1552, a native graduate, Martín de la Cruz wrote a Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis (Little Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians) in Nahuatl, which was translated into Latin by Juan Badianus de la Cruz (1484–later than 1552) an Aztec teacher at the Collegio. The original Nahuatl manuscript no longer exists. The manuscript is a compendium of two hundred and fifty medicinal herbs used by the Aztecs. The Latin manuscript sent to Spain changed hands many times over the years before landing in the Vatican Library. In 1990, it was returned to Mexico, where it now resides in library of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City.

Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis Source: Wikimedia Commons
Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the seventeenth century copies of the manuscript were made by Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588–1657) and Francesco Stelluti (1577–1652), both members of the Accademia dei Lincei. The Dal Pozzo copy in now in the Royal Library at Windsor but the Stelluti copy has disappeared. 

For many years, Ulisse Aldrovandi hoped to get a commission from the Spanish Crown to study the natural history of New Spain but in the end, King Philip II sent his personal physician, Francisco Hernández de Toledo (1514–1587) there to study the medicinal plants and animals.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Of Jewish extraction, he studied medicine at the University of Alcalá from 1530 to 1536 and was connected with the leading scholars of the period. In the area of botanical studies, he won a good reputation for his study of the medical effectivity of plants and his translation into Spanish of Pliny’s Naturalis historia. In 1570, Francisco Hernández shipped out to the Americas accompanied by his son Juan, and the cosmographer Francisco Domínguez, who had been commissioned by the king to map New Spain.

Like Sahagún he learnt Nahuatl and acquired most of his knowledge by interviewing the indigenous population. He was accompanied in his work by three Aztec painters– baptized Antón, Baltazar Elías, and Pedro Vázquez–who provided the illustrations for his work. His work describes over three thousand plants unknown to Europeans, an incredible number when one considers that Dioscorides’ Materia Medica only contains about five hundred. Hernández sent at least sixteen bound volumes of manuscripts back the Philip before he returned in 1577. Theses were three volumes of twenty-four books on plants, one volume of six treatises on animals, eleven volumes of coloured illustrations, and at least one volume of dried plant specimens, there may have been more. 

As with Sahagún, there were problems when it came to the publication of his work. He intended to publish three editions, one in Spanish, one in Latin, and the third in Nahuatl for the indigenous population of New Spain. However, his voluminous material was in a mess, and he was unable to complete the mammoth task that he had undertaken, so the book remained unpublished in his lifetime. Philip II placed the manuscript in the library of the Monasterio y Sitio de El Escorial en Madrid (Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial), where it was destroyed in a fire in 1671. 

In 1580, Nardo Antonio Recchi (1540–1594) was appointed Hernández’s successor as Philip’s personal physician and took on the task of trying to bring order into Hernández’s chaos. Recchi produced a four-volume edition of Hernández’s work and Juan de Herrera (1530–1597), the architect of El Escorial began the process of preparing it for publication in 1582. However, by the time of his death in 1587 little progress had been made and the project died with him. However, Recchi had taken a copy of his manuscript back to Naples with him and it became the grail for all of the European natural historians, including, Giovanni della Porta, Ulisse Aldrovandi and Carolus Clusius, were eager to study the treasures that Hernández had brought back from the New World.

Part of Hernández’s work, the Index medicamentorum, an index that lists Mexican plants according to their traditional therapeutic uses, was published in Mexico City; the index was arranged according to body part, and it was ordered from head to toe. A Spanish translation appeared as an appendix to the medical treatises of Juan de Barrios (1562–1645) in 1607.  

A Spanish translation of Recchi’s four-volume edition was prepared by Fra Francisco Ximénez with the title, Quatro libros de la naturaleza y virtudes de las plantas y animales and published in Mexico City in 1615.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Accademia dei Lincei under the leadership of Prince Federico Cesi (1585–1630) took up the task of publishing a Latin edition of Recchi’s work. A partial, heavily redacted edition under the title Francisci Hernandez rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus appeared in print in 1628, however the project was laid on ice when Cesi died in 1630. Finally, a complete Latin edition of Recchi’s four volumes, edited by Johannes Schreck (1576–1630) and Fabio Colonna (1567–1640), was published in Rome, including material from Hernández’s original manuscripts not used by Recchi, with the title, Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium mexicanorum historia a Francisco Hernández in indis primum compilata, de inde a Nardo Antonio Reccho in volumen digesta (1648–51)

Source:Wikimedia Commons

Of course, what I have sketched above was only the beginning of the European awareness of the natural history of the world outside of Europe and down to the present-day thousands of research expeditions by scientists from all other the world have continued to add to our knowledge of the extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna on our planet. 


Filed under History of botany, History of medicine, History of Zoology, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXVIII

There is a strong tendency to regard the so-called scientific revolution in the seventeenth century as a revolution of the mathematical science i.e., astronomy and physics, but as I have pointed out over the years many areas of knowledge went through a major development in the period beginning, in my opinion around 1400 and reaching, not a conclusion or a high point, but shall we say a stability by about 1750. During the seventeenth century one area of knowledge that experienced major developments was that of the life sciences, mostly in combination with medicine. One area that had intrigued humanity for millennia, which found an initial resolution during the second half of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries was the puzzle of conception and procreation; in simple words, how are babies made? The starting point of this development is usually taken to be the work of the English physician, William Harvey (1578–1657),

William Harvey portrait attributed to Daniël Mijtens, c. 1627 Source: Wikimedia Commons

better known for his discovery of the blood circulation, who wrote a Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium, which was first published 1651, the main message of which was summed up on the frontispiece by the inscription Ex ovo omnia – All things come from an egg.[1]

The frontispiece Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium showing Zeus freeing all creation from an egg with the inscription Ex ovo omnia – All things come from an egg. Source Welcome Collection

It is not a coincidence that Harvey acquired his doctorate in medicine in Padua a Northern Italian, Renaissance Humanist university. Towards the end of the sixteenth century some of the Renaissance Humanist natural historians and physicians had taken up the study of embryology, not as many as had taken to botany or even as many as had taken to zoology, but the most significant work was produced by Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendende (1533-1619), who was Harvey’s teacher.

As we have seen in this series as a whole, and specifically in the episodes on natural history, the Renaissance Humanists, who regarded themselves as the inheritors of classical antiquity, turned to sources from classical antiquity as their inspiration, motivation, and role models, when undertaking scientific endeavours. For the transition from materia medica to botany the major role model was Dioscorides, for zoology Pliny and Aristotle. For embryology, although both the Hippocratic Corpus and the Galenic Corpus both contain writings on the topic, it was principally to Aristotle that the Renaissance humanists turned as role model.

It has become fashionable in recent times to heavily criticise Aristotle both as a scientist and as a philosopher of science, and even to suggest that he hindered the advancement of science through his posthumous dominance. His critics, however, tend to ignore that he was for his time quite a good empirical biologist. Yes, he got things wrong and also made some, by modern standards, ridiculous statements, but a lot of his biological work was based on solid empirical observation, so with his embryology.

In the Early Modern Period, there was a heated debate between the supporters of two different theories of embryology preformation and epigenesis. The theory of preformation claimed that the male sperm contained a complete preformed, miniature infant, or homunculus, that was injected into the female womb where it grew larger over the pregnancy before emerging at birth. 

A tiny person (a homunculus) inside a sperm as drawn by Nicolaas Hartsoeker in 1695 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Opposed to this the theory of epigenesis in which the form of the infant emerges gradually, over time from a relatively formless egg. The theory of epigenesis was first proposed by Aristotle in his De Generatione Animalium (On the Generation of Animals). This work consists of five books of which the first two deal with embryology. I’m not going to give an account of all that Aristotle delivers here but just note two things. For Aristotle human procreation is the male sperm, activating the female menstrual blood. 

A brief overview of the general theory expounded in De Generatione requires an explanation of Aristotle’s philosophy. The Aristotelian approach to philosophy is teleological, and involves analyzing the purpose of things, or the cause for their existence. These causes are split into four different types: final cause, formal cause, material cause, and efficient cause. The final cause is what a thing exists for, or its ultimate purpose. The formal cause is the definition of a thing’s essence or existence, andAristotle states that in generation, the formal cause and the final cause are similar to each other, and can be thought of as the goal of creating a new individual of the species. The material cause is the stuff a thing is made of, which in Aristotle’s theory is the female menstrual blood. The efficient cause is the “mover” or what causes the thing’s existence, and for reproduction Aristotle designates the male semen as the efficient cause. Thus, while the mother’s body contains all the material necessary for creating her offspring, she requires the father’s semen to start and guide the process.

Source: The Embryo Project Encyclpopedia

 Secondly, he developed his theory of epigenesis by the empirical examination of the foetuses in incubating birds’ eggs.

Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566) in his Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt (1554) and Pierre Belon (1517–1564) in his Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt and his Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt were both heavily influenced by Aristotle, and both included discussion on reproduction in their works. Famously, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) carried out studies of the human embryo and foetus amongst his more general anatomical investigations but these first became known in the nineteenth century so played no role in the historical development of the discipline. 

A page showing Leonardo’s study of a foetus in the womb (c. 1510), Royal Library, Windsor Castle via Wikimedia Commons

The Italian physician Julius Caesar Aranzi (1529–1589),

Portrait of Julius Caesar Arantius (Giulio Cesare Aranzi, 1530–1589). From the Collection Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio, Bologna, Italy. Source.

who was lecturer for anatomy and surgery at the University of Bologna, published his De humano foetu opusculum, which contains the first correct account of the anatomical peculiarities of the foetus in Rome in 1564. Further editions appeared in Venice in 1572 and in Basel in 1579. 

As with much else in sixteenth century zoology, a lead was taken by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605), who followed Aristotle in making daily examinations of fertilised chickens’ eggs, to follow the development of the embryo. He wrote in his Ornithologiae tomus alter de avibus terrestribus, mensae inservientibus et canoris (1600):

Source: Wikimedia Commons

“ex ovis duobus, et vinginti, quae Galina incubabat, quotidie unum cum maxima diligentia, ac curiositate” (each day, with the greatest care and curiosity, I dissected one of twenty-two eggy which a hen was incubating).

Although he describes in detail his embryological observation the lavishly illustrated volume only contains one picture of embryological interest, that of a chick in the act of hatching. 

Volcher Coiter (1534–1576), a Dutch student of Aldrovandi’s, who, before his studies with Aldrovandi, also studied with Gabriele Falloppio (1523–1562) and Bartolomeo Eustachi (c. 1505–1574), and then Guillaume Rondelet(1507–1566) after his time in Bolgna, and who became town physician in Nürnberg in 1569, also took up the systematic study of the development of chicken embryos at Aldrovandi’s urging.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

He published the results of his studies in his Externarum et Internarum Principalium Humani Corporis Partium Tabulae in Nürnberg in 1572, that is twenty-eight years before Aldrovandi published his.

Source: Welcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Skeleton of a child from Externarum et Internarum Principalium Humani Corporis Partium Tabulae

It has been speculated that Aldrovandi was in fact publishing the results of Coiter’s research without acknowledgement. In 1575, Coiter published his book on ornithology De Avium Sceletis et Praecipius Musculis, which contains detailed anatomical studies of birds. 

As already stated above the major Renaissance work on embryology was by Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendende (1533-1619), or more simply Girolamo Fabrici.

Source: Welcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Hieronymus Fabricius got his doctorate in medicine under Gabriele Falloppio (1523–1562) in Padua in 1562. He succeeded Falloppio as professor for surgery and anatomy. Fabricius was responsible for the construction of the university’s first permanent anatomical theatre. Here he gave lectures and anatomical demonstrations dissecting the uterus and placenta of pregnant women in 1586. He began lecturing on the foetus in 1589 and embryology in 1592. 

Fabricius’ work displays attempts to balance traditional views and the knowledge he has won from his work. His first book on embryology, De formato foetu was published in about 1600 with many editions appearing between 1600 and 1620. His studies in embryology were much more extensive than any previous researcher and in this, his first publication on the topic, he divides embryology into three areas, firstly semen and the organs that generate it, secondly how semen interacts and generates the foetus, and finally the form of the foetus. His planned book on semen never appeared and is considered lost and his book on the generation of the foetus, De formation ovi et pulli, was published posthumously in 1621.

L0008411 Plate from “De formato foetu…” Fabricius, 1604 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Plate from “De formato foetu…” Fabricius, 1604 Engraving 1604 De formato foetu. [De brutorum loquela. De venarum ostiolis. De locutione et eius instrumentis liber / Fabricius Published: 1604] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

In part one of De formato foetu, Fabricius discusses the form of the foetus and uterus based on his dissections. He discusses and criticises Aranzi’s De humano foetu opusculu.

L0008414 Plate from “De formato foetu…” Fabricius, 1604 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images – Engraving De formato foetu. [De brutorum loquela. De venarum ostiolis. De locutione et eius instrumentis liber Fabricus, Hieronymus Published: 1604 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

In part two he discusses the umbilical vessels, placenta etc. He follows the views of Galen and Aristotle although he gives some original but mistaken views on the placenta, which he had examined in greater detail than any previous investigators. 

L0008418 Plate from “De formato foetu…” Fabricius, 1604 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images – Engraving De formato foetu. [De brutorum loquela. De venarum ostiolis. De locutione et eius instrumentis liber Fabricus, Hieronymus Published: 1604 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

De formation ovi et pulli (On the Formation of the Egg and of the Chick) was earlier work than De formato foetu but only appeared in print two years after his death.


This book is also in two parts the first of which deals with the formation of the egg, whilst the second covers the generation of the chick within the egg.

L0012570 Plate from “De formatione ovi et pulli”, Fabricius 1621 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Chicken and egg. Engraving De formatione ovi et pulli Fabricius, Hieronymous Published: 1621 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

As before, the book is a balance act between the traditional views of Galen and Aristotle, and the knowledge that Fabricius had gained through his own research. Once again, he discusses and criticises Anzani’s views.

Both books are richly illustrated with engraved plates. 

Hieronymus Fabricius books represent the high point of Renaissance embryology and whilst far from perfect they laid the foundations for the work of his most famous student William Harvey. 

[1] The information on Harvey and his book is taken from Matthew Cobb’s excellent, The Egg & Sperm RaceThe Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth, The Free Press, 2006, which tells the whole story outlined in it’s almost 19th century title.


Filed under History of medicine, History of Zoology, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXVII

Over a series of posts, we have followed the emergence of the science of botany out of the Renaissance humanist physicians’ endeavours to integrate materia medica, the study of simples or medical herbs, into the Renaissance university teaching curriculum. By the end of the sixteenth century the books on plants that were being published were definitely works of botany and no longer works of medicine. However, one of the books that helped launch the gradual rise of botany during the century, Pliny’s more than somewhat disputed[1]Naturalis historia was actually encyclopaedic in its scope covering much more than just the flora of antiquity, which only made up sixteen of the thirty-seven books. Four of the other books were devoted to the fauna of antiquity, covering mammals, snakes, marine animals, birds, and insects. Aristotle had also written two books on the fauna his De Partibus Animalium and his Historia Animalium as well as the De Generatione Animalium, which is attributed to him. All three books were well known and published in the Renaissance. Albertus Magnus (c.1200–1280), who digested, interpreted, and systematized the whole of Aristotle’s works in the thirteenth century, also wrote a De animalibus, which was known and read in the Renaissance.

Albertus Magnus De animalibus (c. 1450–1500, cod. fiesolano 67, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) via Wikimedia Commons

All of this raises the question, was there development of zoology as a discipline during the sixteenth century similar to that of botany? The answer is both yes and no. A much smaller number of authors wrote books on the fauna and the development, at that time, progressed by no means as far as that of botany. However, as we will see two authors in particular stand out and they can and have been labelled the founders of modern zoology, they are the Swiss polymath Conrad Gesner (1516–1565) and the equally polymathic Italian natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605). However, before we look at the work of these two intellectual giants, and it is not an exaggeration to call them that, we will first take a look at the others, who published on fauna in the period and, to begin, briefly discuss why the development of zoology lagged behind that of botany.  

When you spell out the reasons why the development of zoology in the Renaissance lagged behind that of botany, they seem pretty obvious, but you first have to think about the problem.  Whereas the ongoing botanist could and did send each other, seeds, bulbs, dried plants in the form of herbarium sheets, and even living plants carefully packaged in letters and packages with the post you can’t pop a rhinoceros in an envelope and send it to someone. 

My example may seem more than somewhat ridiculous, but it refers to a real, notorious, historical occurrence. Perhaps the most well known of all Renaissance prints is Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros, which we will meet again later. Dürer’s print is based on verbal descriptions of an Indian rhinoceros that was sent, by ship, as a gift to King Manuel I of Portugal in 1515. Manuel actually staged a combat between his rhinoceros and a young elephant to test Pliny’s account that elephants and rhinoceroses were enemies. The young elephant fled, and the rhinoceros was declared the winner. Manual decided to give his rhinoceros to the Medici Pope Leo X, and it embarked one again on a ship across the Mediterranean, but this time did not survive the journey dying in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy. Dürer’s print was based on a letter and sketch of the beast sent from Lisbon to Nürnberg. As we shall see, many of the early printed accounts of animals were based on verbal descriptions and sketches rather than actual encounters with the animals themselves. The animal studies of Renaissance artists like Dürer or Leonardo also played a role in stimulating interest in animals amongst the humanist scholars. 

Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros woodcut Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another major problem is that if you go out on excursions or field trips to empirically study plants, the plants remain quietly where they are whilst you examine, sketch, or even dig them up to take them home with you. Most animals aren’t as accommodating. In fact, most wild animals will take to their heels and disappear when they hear humans approaching. Proto-zoologists were dependent on the second hand reports of hunters, field workers, or foresters of animals they didn’t get to observe themselves. Putting this all together, it is simply much more difficult to conduct empirical research on animals than on plants. It therefore comes as no surprise that the first zoological publications in the Renaissance were about fishes and birds, animals that humans eat and are thus more accessible to the researcher. It should be noted that in the Early Modern period people ate a much wider range of birds than we do today and that whales were also extensively eaten throughout Europe. In fact, the European whaling industry began in the Middle Ages because the Church classified them as fish, meaning they could be eaten on a Friday, a fast day when eating meat was forbidden. 

Before turning to the early Renaissance zoologists, we will take a brief look at the medieval manuscripts of animals, the bestiaries. Unlike the medieval herbals, which served a practical medical function, the bestiaries served a philosophical or religious function. The natural histories and illustrations of the individual beasts were usually accompanied by a moral lesson. The animals served a symbolic function rather than a practical one. The illustrations were mostly copied from earlier ancient Greek sources, the earliest known example is the second century Greek work, the Physiologus, which draws on earlier authors such as Aristotle, Herodotus, Pliny, and others.

Panther, Bern Physiologus, 9th century Source: Wikimedia Commons

The genre was further developed by Isidore of Seville and Saint Ambroise, who added a religious dimension. Bestiaries were very popular in the High Middle Ages, but had little or no influence on the beginnings of zoology in the Renaissance, unlike the influence herbals had with plants. 

Detail from the 12th century Aberdeen Bestiary Source: Wikimedia Commons

The earliest zoological text from the sixteenth century was published by the English naturalist William Turner (1509/10–1568), who, as we saw in the episode on herbals, was motivated by his travels and studies in Northern Italy. Before he began publishing his more famous herbal in 1551, he had already published Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est, brevis et succincta historia (The Principal Birds of Aristotle and Pliny…), which not only discussed the birds to be found in the two authors from antiquity but contained descriptions of birds based on his own empirical observations.

Title page of Avium Praecipuarum, 1544, by William Turner. This was the first ever printed book devoted wholly to ornithology. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much more extensive are the zoological works by the French traveller and naturalist, Pierre Belon (1517–1564).

Pierre Belon artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Little is known of his origins, but in the early 1530s he was apprenticed to the apothecary René des Prey. He entered the service of René du Bellay Bishop of Le Man (c. 1500–1546) in the second half of the 1530s, who permitted him to study medicine at the University of Wittenberg under Valerius Cordus (1515–1544).[2] He travelled through Germany with Cordus in 1542, continuing on through Flanders and England alone. He continued his studies in Paris, and then became apothecary to Cardinal François de Tournon (1489–1562) in whose service he undertook diplomatic journeys to Greece, Crete, Asia Minor, Egypt, Arabia, and Palestine between 1546 and 1549. An avid polymath he recorded everything he saw and experienced on his travels. During a Papal conclave, 1549–1550, he met up with Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566), who would be appointed professor for medicine in Montpellier, and the Italian physician Hippolyte Salviani (1514–1572). Returning to Paris he began to sort his notes and publish his zoology texts. In 1557 he undertook another journey to Northern Italy, Savoy, the Dauphiné, and Auvergne. In 1558 he obtained his medical licence and began to practice medicine. He became a favourite of the Kings Henry II (1519–1559) and Charles IX (1550–1574). The latter providing him with lodgings in Château de Madrid in the Bois de Boulogne. His promising career was cut short when he was murdered in 1564.

Between 1551 and 1557 he wrote and published a series of books based on his travel observations. His first book was his L’histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins, avec la vraie peincture & description du Daulphin, & de plusieurs autres de son espece. Observee par Pierre Belon du Mans published in Paris in 1551.

L’histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins A Paris :De l’imprimerie de Regnaud Chaudiere,1551. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is a description of the fish and cetaceans, such as dolphins and porpoises, that he had observed and dissected on his travels. Aristotelean in nature the work contained a classification system for marine fish, including both cetaceans and hippopotami under fishes, although he recognised that cetaceans had mammalian milk glands and were air breathing. Two years later he published a more general book on fish, his De aquatilibus. Libri duo Cum eiconibus ad vivam ipsorum effigiem, Quoad eius fieri potuit, expressis, also in Paris. This contained descriptions of 110 fish species and is a founding text of the discipline of ichthyology. A French edition De aquatilibus. Libri duo Cum eiconibus ad vivam ipsorum effigiem, Quoad eius fieri potuit, expressis was published in Paris in 1555.

In 1553 he also contributed to the botanical literature with his De arboribus Coniferis, Resiniferis aliisque semper virentibus…, a book on confers, pines and evergreen trees. It was published in both Latin and French in the same year. The same year saw the publication of his more general Les obsevations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres pays étrangèrsas well as a three-volume work on funerary customs in Antiquity. A revised edition of his Observations was published in 1555 and Clusius translated them into Latin for an international readership in 1559.

In 1555 he turned his attention to birds publishing his Histoire de la nature des oyseaux in Paris. It describes about 200, mostly European, birds. This book is particular notable for its comparison of the skeletons of a bird and a human, one of the earliest examples of comparative anatomy.

A comparison of the skeleton of birds and man in Natural History of Birds, 1555 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He rounded off this burst of publications with his Portraits d’oyseaux, animaux, serpens, herbes, arbres, hommes et femmes, d’Arabie et Egypte, in Paris in 1557.

Portraits d’oyseaux, animaux, serpens, herbes, arbres, hommes et femmes, d’Arabie et Egypte, 1557 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much of the information in his books on both fishes and birds was obtained by investigating those that came to market in the towns that he visited. On his trip to England, he also met the Venetian humanist scholar and architect, Daniel Barbaro (1514–1570), Palladio’s patron, who had made many drawings of Adriatic fish. 

Etching of Daniele Barbaro by Wenzel Hollar Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Italian physician, humanist scholar, and naturalist Hippolyte Salviani (1514–1572), who as we saw above met Belon at the Papal conclave in 1549–1550, was the personal physician to the House of Farnese from 1550 till 1555 and taught at the University of Rome until 1568.

Frontispiece of Hippolyte Salviani’s Aquatilium animalium historiae  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like Belon he wrote and published a work on fish Aquatilium animalium historiae (1554-1558), which depicted about one hundred Mediterranean fish species and some molluscs. He was aware of the difference between cephalopods and fish. This work was based on his own empirical observations, and he was supported financially in his work by Cardinal Marcello Cervini (1501–1555), later Pope Marcellus II. The work was dedicated to Cervini’s successor Gian Carafa (1476–1559), Pope Paul IV. Like Belon most of his fish research was done with fish from the markets.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566), who was also at that Papal conclave, went on to become professor for medicine at the University of Montpellier, where he taught several important natural historians including Charles de l’Écluse (Carolus Clusius) (1526–1609), Matthias de l’Obel (Matthias Lobelius) (1538–1616), Pierre Pena (c. 1530–c. 1600), Jacques Daléchamps (1513–1588), Jean Bauhin (1511–1582), and Felix Platter (1536–1614).

Guillaume Rondelet Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although he was one of the greatest teachers of medicine and natural history in the sixteenth century, he published very little himself. However, like Belon and Salvini, he published a work on marine life, his Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt (Lyon, 1554).

Libri de piscibus marinis, 1554 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the title refers to fish (piscibus), the book actually deals with all aquatic animals. Rondelet makes no distinction between fish, marine animals such as seals and whales, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. He investigated the difference between fresh water and saltwater fish. His approach was Aristotelean emphasising function. He dissected and illustrated many of his specimens and his anatomical drawings off a sea urchin is the earliest know drawing of an invertebrate. He made anatomical comparisons and found similarities between dolphins, pigs, and humans. The book became a standard reference work for many years and was translated into French in 1558 as L’histoire entière des poissons (The complete history of fish). 

Extract from Rondelet’s 1554 work De piscibus Source: Wikimedia Commons

Without doubt the most influential text on the road to the discipline of zoology published in the sixteenth century was the more than four-thousand-and-five-hundred-page, five-volume Historia animalia issued by the Swiss polymath Conrad Gessner (1516–1565) between 1551–1558 and 1587 posthumously in Zurich.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have written about Gessner in the past, but the short version is, he was the polymath’s polymath. A humanist, encyclopaedist, philologist, bibliographer, zoologist, botanist, alpinist, linguist, and professional physician. He was not only an encyclopaedist but a completist. His Bibliotheca universalis (1554–) was an attempt to list alphabetically all of the books printed and published in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew since the invention of printing with movable type. He followed this with a thematic index to the Bibliotheca universalis, the Pandectarum sive Partitionum universalium Conradi Gesneri Tigurini, medici & philosophiae professoris, libri xxi with thirty thousand entries in 1548. 

His approach to the Historia animalia was the same, it was an attempt to provide descriptions of all known animals. The animals were listed alphabetically but divided up in divisions in the style of Aristotle. Volume I Quadrupedes vivipares. 1551 (Live-bearing four-footed animals), Volume II Quadrupedes ovipares. 1554 (Egg-laying quadrupeds, reptiles and amphibia), Volume III Avium natura. (Birds) 1555, Volume IV Piscium & aquatilium animantium natura 1558 (Fish and aquatic animals), Volume V De serpentium natura (Snakes and scorpions).

Tiger and leopard, Book 1:Viviparous Quadrupeds Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1638 a further volume on insects was published from his Nachlass. To write his book, Gessner drew on multiple sources giving credit to their authors. As well as an illustration of each animal, here he famously used Dürer’s rhinoceros, he included vast amounts of information–the animal’s name in all the languages know to him, habitat, description, physiology, diseases, habits, utility, diet, curiosities, all crossed referenced to ancient and modern authorities. Gessner, in has attempt at completeness, also included some mythical creatures, in some cases stating that he didn’t know if they existed or not.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Historia animalia was immensely successful and an abbreviated version, the Thierbuch, appeared in German in 1565. 

Fantastical creatures in a copy of Historia Animalium in The Portico Library in Manchester, England. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Just as encyclopaedic as Gessner’s work were the volumes on animals put together by the Italian natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605), whose five hundredth birthday we will be celebrating on 11 September.

Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 – 1605). Ornithologiae, hoc est de avibus historiae libri XII. (De avibus), Bologna, 1599. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was born in Bologna into a noble family, a nephew of Pope Gregory XII. He father, a lawyer, died when he was seven. In his youth he studied first mathematics and then Latin under prominent private tutors. Following his mother’s wish he studied law but shortly before graduating he switched to philosophy. To complete his philosophy studies, he switched to the University of Padua, where he began to study medicine in 1545. In 1549 he was accused of heresy and had to go to Rome to clear his name. In 1550, he met Guillaume Rondelet, whom he accompanied on his visits to the local fish markets to study fish, which awakened Aldrovandi’s interest in zoology. Returning to Bologna he met Luca Ghini (1490–1556), who played such a central role in the early study of plants, and this awakened his interest in botany. When Ghini returned to Pisa, Aldrovandi followed him to attend his lectures on medical simples. In 1552 he graduated in philosophy at Bologna and a year later in medicine. In 1554 he was appointed lecturer for logic at the university and in 1559 professor for philosophy. 

In 1561 he became the first professor of natural history at Bologna, Lectura philosophiae naturalis ordinaria de fossilibus, plantis et animalibus. Aldrovandi devoted the rest of his life to the study and propagation of natural history. He set up the university botanical garden in 1568 and a museum for natural history, which I will look at more closely in a later post. Like Gessner, he spent years collecting material for a Historia Animalia, but didn’t start writing it until he was seventy-seven-years-old. He only managed to publish three of the eventual eleven volumes before he died aged eighty-two. The other eight volumes were published posthumously by Johannes Cornelius Uterverius (1592–1619), Thomas Dempster (1579–1625), and Bartholomäus Ambrosinus. Ornithologiae, hoc est, de avibus historiae libri XII. Agent de avibus rapacibus (1600); 

Aldrovandi Owl Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ornithologiae tomus alter de avibus terrestribus, mensae inservientibus et canoris (1600); De aninialibus insectis libri VII (1602); 

De animalibus insectis libri septem, cum singulorum iconibus ad vivum expressis, Bologna, 1602. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ornithologiae tomus tertius ei ultimus de avibus aquaticis et circa quas degentibus (1603); De reliquis animalibus exanguibus, utpote de mollibus, crustaceis, testaceis et zoophytis, libri IV (1606); Quadrupedum omnium bisulcorum historia (1613); 

Aldrovandi Red Hartebeest and Blackbuck Source: Wikimedia Commons

De piscibus libri V et de cetis liber unus (1613); De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri III, et de quadrupedibus oviparis libri II(1637); Historiae serpentum et draconum libri duo (1640);

Basilisk from Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo (1640) Source: Wikimedia Commons

 Monstruorum historia(1642)

Harpy. Ulisse Aldrovandi, Monstrorum historia, Bologna, 1642. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There were also some smaller individual studies published in the sixteenth century. The Cambridge scholar and physician John Caius (1510–1573)

John Caius, Master (1559-1573); Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge; artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

was a correspondent of Gessner’s and produced a study of British dogs for him, which Gessner didn’t publish, so he published it himself in 1570, De Canibus Britannicis.


In the same year he also published De Rariorum animalium atque stirpium historia, libellus (Of Some Rare Plants and Animals).

The Bologna senator, Carlo Ruini (1530–1598) wrote a very accurate and comprehensive Anatomia del cavallo, infermità, et suoi rimedii (On the Anatomy and Diseases of the Horse), which was published posthumously in Venice, in 1598.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, the English student of Felix Platter, Thomas Moffet (1533–1604) compiled the Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (Theatre of Insects) based on his own work and that of Gessner, Edward Wotten (1492–1555) and the physician Thomas Perry (1532–1589).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Edward Wotten, a graduate of Padua, had earlier published his Aristotelian research on animals De differentiis animalium libri decem, in Paris in 1552. 

Edward Wotton an engraving by William Rogers c. 1600 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the developments in zoology in the sixteenth century were not as widespread or as progressive as those in botany as we have seen they were not insubstantial and laid foundations that were developed further in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

[1] For details of that dispute see Episode XXXII of this series

[2] For more on Valerius Cordus see Episode XXXV of this series


Filed under History of science, History of Zoology, Natural history, Renaissance Science