Aldrovandi’s herpetological works, De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri tres (Bologna, 1637) and Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1639), were posthumously published by his former student Bartolomeo Ambrosini (1588–1657); Worth had a 1645 edition of the former and a 1640 edition of the latter. Both texts contain a large number of illustrations and, in particular, Aldrovandi’s book on serpents and dragons has attracted much attention. However, he was also fascinated by other reptiles, and amphibians such as the common toad and salamanders.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri tres et De quadrupedibus digitatis oviparis libri duo Bartholomaeus Ambrosinus … collegit (Bologna, 1645), p. 611, common toad.
Aldrovandi not only collected images and information about amphibians; like many other collectors he also collected specimens. Most herpetological specimens from early modern collections no longer survive but luckily some of Aldrovandi’s huge collection are still extant. As the pear-wood blocks used for the printed editions remain in the Museo Ulisse Aldrovandi in the Palazzo Poggio, Bologna, and Aldrovandi’s extensive collection of watercolours, known as the Tavoli di Animali, are available in the Biblioteca Universitaria Bolognese, it is possible to compare 19 dried specimens to both the watercolours and the printed images.
Most recently these have been examined by Bauer et al., who also explored Aldrovandi’s manuscript collection in the Biblioteca Universitaria Bolognese which was used by Ambrosini to create the printed editions. Naturally not all specimens survived but Bauer et al, located seventeen herpetological specimens in the Museo Ulisse Aldrovandi and two more in the Museo di Zoologia in Bologna. Two specimens of Bufo bufo (the common toad) remain in the Palazzo Poggio museum; one is labelled ‘Bufo caudatus since dentibus’ and the other ‘Budo caudatus & dentibus’. The first has an artificial tail and the second is missing hands and parts of its forearms. Aldrovandi was aware that both specimens were in fact fakes (like his ‘Dragon of Bologna’), but nonetheless thought them useful. Both are represented in the Tavoli di Animali (T.VII.c.30-31) and the above image is the pictorial representation of the second specimen, which has additional mammal teeth. Bufo bufo, the common toad, was native to Italy and it is likely that Aldrovandi had many more local specimens. Few of these survive and the higher survival rate of more exotic taxa (such as his reptile specimens from the New World) probably reflects the greater care taken with such rare specimens.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri tres et De quadrupedibus digitatis oviparis libri duo Bartholomaeus Ambrosinus … collegit (Bologna, 1645), p. 648, salamanders.
As Florike Egmond has noted, the early modern understanding of the term aquatilia encompassed not only fish but anything living in water. Delfino and Ceregato point out that Aldrovandi divided salamanders on the basis of their ecology: ‘salamandra aquatilis’ or ‘aquatica’ referred to water-based newts while ‘salamandra terrestris’ was his name for Salamandra salamandra. Salamanders have had a relatively long iconographic history and may be found decorating medieval bestiaries. The reason for this was because they were reputed to have the ability to be able to survive fire and extinguish it, a myth which seemed to be corroborated by the bright yellow and orange markings sometimes to be found on Salamandra salamandra, called the ‘fire’ salamander. Francis I (1494–1547), King of France (following the example of his father, Charles of Orléans (1459–96), Comte d’Angoulême and grandfather Jean d’Orléans (1399–1467), Comte d’Angoulême) chose a salamander as his device simply because it was a symbol of durability. As Knecht noted, the medal Francis I’s mother, Louise of Savoy (1476–1531), had struck to mark his tenth birthday in 1504 had a salamander on one side and his motto on the other: ‘Notrisco al buono, stingo el reo’ (‘I feed upon the good (fire) and put out the evil one’). Various salamanders had been illustrated in the works of Pierre Belon (1517–1564), and Conrad Gessner (1516–65), and, given Aldrovandi’s interest in the symbolism of animals and what Ashworth calls his ‘emblematic view of nature’, it was inevitable that Aldrovandi would include examples in his own publication.
Natterjack toad (Epidalea clamita) © Zoological Museum, Trinity College Dublin.
Natterjack toad (Epidalea clamita). Ireland’s rarest and most endangered of our amphibian species. It’s natural distribution in Ireland is restricted to a handful of coastal habitats in Kerry, although it is known to occur in small populations elsewhere in the country. Natterjack toads are mainly nocturnal; in the spring, the males all sing together at night to attract females and their calls may be heard over long distances.
Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus) © Zoological Museum, Trinity College Dublin.
The Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus), at 1.5 metres in length, is the second largest extant amphibian in the world. Adults lack gills and working lungs, so all ‘breathing’ takes place across their folded, wrinkled skin. They live in fast-flowing, well oxygenated waters, feeding mostly on crustaceans and other arthropods. Giant salamanders have many unique features. Not least their ability to excrete a foul smelling odour when aggravated or stressed, which is often described as akin to a type of Japanese pepper. Others have been less complimentary – describing it as more like the smell of ‘the rankest public urinal crossed with stale sweat’.
Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, and Dr Martyn Linnie, Curator of the Zoological Museum, Trinity College Dublin.
Bauer, Aaron M. et al., ‘The oldest herpetological collection in the world: the surviving amphibian and reptile specimens of the Museum of Ulisse Aldrovandi’, Amphibia-Reptilia, 34 (2013), 305–321.
Egmond, Florike, ‘Visual immersion: Daniele Barbaro’s fish album and the wave of interest in aquatic creatures in mid sixteenth-century Europe’, Notes and Records, May (2022), 1–18.
Etheridge, Kay, ‘Loathsome Beasts: Images of Reptiles and Amphibians in Art and Science’, in S.L. French and Kay Etheridge (eds), Origins of Scientific Learning: Essays on Culture and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (Lewiston, 2007), pp 63–88.
Findlen, Paula, Possessing nature. Museums, collecting, and scientific culture in early modern Italy (Berkeley, 1996).
Johnson, Martin, ‘The mysterious salamanders of King Francis I: medieval myth or genuine creature’, The Natter Jack. The newsletter of the British Herpetological Society, 222 (2020), 7–10.
Knecht, R.K., Francis I (Cambridge, 1982).
 Bauer, Aaron M. et al., ‘The oldest herpetological collection in the world: the surviving amphibian and reptile specimens of the Museum of Ulisse Aldrovandi’, Amphibia-Reptilia, 34 (2013), 318.
 Egmond, Florike, ‘Visual immersion: Daniele Barbaro’s fish album and the wave of interest in aquatic creatures in mid sixteenth-century Europe’, Notes and Records, May (2022), 1.
 Delfino, Massimo, and Alessandro Ceregato, ‘Herpetological Iconography in the 16th century: the Tempura Paintings of Ulisse Aldrovandi’, Bibliotheca Herpetologica, 7, no. 2 (2008), 10.
 Etheridge, Kay, ‘Loathsome Beasts: Images of Reptiles and Amphibians in Art and Science’, in S.L. French and Kay Etheridge (eds), Origins of Scientific Learning: Essays on Culture and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (Lewiston, 2007), p. 65.
 Knecht, R.K., Francis I (Cambridge, 1982), p. 6.
 Ashworth, William B., ‘Emblematic natural history of the Renaissance’, in Nicholas Jardine et al. (eds), Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), pp 17–37.