‘Whatever the ray’s numbness may be it arises from a certain obscure and occult quality and not from a manifest one, as can be proved from reason and from the authority of the most respected authors’.
The 1550s was a golden decade for representations of all things aquatic, especially fish. Guillaume Rondelet (1507–66), Ippolito Salviani (1514–72), Pierre Belon (1517–1564), and Conrad Gessner (1516–65), produced heavily illustrated books on fish to which Aldrovandi was clearly indebted. Aldrovandi had met Rondelet and Salviani when he was in Rome in 1550 and he also knew Belon and Gessner.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, De piscibus libri V.: et De cetis lib. unus. Joannes Cornelius Uterverius … collegit. Marc. Antonius Bernia in lucem restituit (Bologna, 1638-1644), p. 693, sawfish.
As Egmond has noted, the speed with which these illustrated works appeared in mid sixteenth-century Europe was staggering: in 1551 Belon had produced 20 illustrations in his L’Histoire naturelle des estranges poisons marins (Paris, 1551), which, as Gudger noted, was the ‘first printed book devoted to fishes’.  Two years later Belon’s De aquatilibus (Paris, 1553) appeared, which discussed 110 species of fish. By 1555 a French edition, La nature et diversité des possions (Paris, 1555) included 185 pages with illustrations. As Gudger suggests, on the basis of this work alone Belon would be a contender for the title the ‘founder of ichthyology’. Another contender was his compatriot Rondelet, who in the previous year had produced a major work in the history of ichthyology, Libri de piscibus marinis (Lyon, 1554), which contained 220 illustrated pages in 600 pages of text. To this he added a further 130 illustrated pages in part two of the work which appeared in 1555. Aldrovandi therefore had a substantial image database from which to draw and he acknowledged this by drawing attention to the source of his own illustrations: for example, this image of a sawfish was taken from Rondelet’s work.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, De piscibus libri V.: et De cetis lib. unus. Joannes Cornelius Uterverius … collegit. Marc. Antonius Bernia in lucem restituit (Bologna, 1638-1644), p. 417, ray.
Ancient authors such as Pliny the Elder (d. 79 AD), whose Natural History was a best-seller in the early modern period, were fascinated by aquatic life and particularly its more unusual inhabitants. Fish with supposedly magical powers were considered especially worthy of consideration and, as Copenhaver recounted, two fish in particular were discussed with reference both to their medicinal properties and their supposed occult powers: rays and remoras. Most ancient authors, when writing about torpedos, were talking about Torpedo torpedo, the electric rays familiar to them from the Mediterranean. They were fascinated by the electric ray’s ability to stun: as Alexander of Aphrodisias (fl, 200 AD), queried: ‘No one is ignorant of the marine torpedo … How does it numb the body through a string?’ Writers such as Galen (129–200) were interested in the torpedo’s possible medicinal applications.
Early modern authorities such as Belon and Rondelet naturally commented on torpedos, including not only the experiences of ancient authorities but also their own. Rondelet recounted that:
Although summer’s heat was at its peak when I put my hand on it, I actually felt a sensation of cold from a torpedo long dead … and so I would judge that Galen was quite right to count contact with a living torpedo among the causes of numbness … The cause of this numbness is cold, which is also true of opium, mandrake and henbane, yet it is not cold alone but also some unseen power naturally innate in the torpedo. For Galen also seems to ascribe this power to the torpedo not only to cold but also to its obscure faculty’.
The Italian Ippolito Salviani (1514–72), with whom Aldrovandi corresponded, included an image of the torpedo in his Aquatilium animalium Historiae liber primus (Rome, 1554–8) and it was this image of a torpedo which Aldrovandi chose to reproduce. Salviani’s text contained at least 81 illustrated pages in all, and, though it could not compete with massive tomes such as Gessner’s Historia animalium IV (Zurich, 1558), which had numerous illustrations of all things aquatic, it provided Aldrovandi with a number of images. Like Aldrovandi, Salviani was another medically trained student of natural history and in his case, his focus was on the fish of the Mediterranean. As the title of his book suggests, Salviani did not limit himself to fish and included images other water-dwellers such as octopuses also. Aldrovandi, on the other hand, included amphibians and other water-dwellers such as molluscs and crustaceans in other volumes and set aside a separate book on whales. For this alone Gudger suggests that Aldrovandi’s De piscis deserves to be considered ‘the first published ichthyology’.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, De piscibus libri V.: et De cetis lib. unus. Joannes Cornelius Uterverius … collegit. Marc. Antonius Bernia in lucem restituit (Bologna, 1638-1644), p. 336, remora.
Aldrovandi was well aware that mystical powers were also attributed to the remora, which belong to the family Echeneidae of the bony fishes. Copenhaver points out that Pliny the Elder, in Book 32 of his famous Natural History, had alluded to the hidden powers of what he called ‘the sucking fish’:
‘This little creature suffices in the face of all these things forces to prevent vessels from moving … it is said that at the battle of Actium the fish stopped the flagship of Antonius, who was hastening to go round and encourage his men, until he changed his ship for another one, and so the fleet of Caesar at once made a more violent attack’.
Early modern authorities provided various explanations: Rondelet thought they might be lampreys and recounted his own experience of being in a ship that was impeded by them. Aldrovandi turned to another authority, Ferrante Imperato’s Natural History, which had been printed in 1599, for inspiration for his image but there was, as Copenhaver demonstrates, little agreement about the nature of the remora in the sixteenth century.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, De piscibus libri V.: et De cetis lib. unus. Joannes Cornelius Uterverius … collegit. Marc. Antonius Bernia in lucem restituit (Bologna, 1638-1644), p. 555, puffer fish.
Salviani was not the only Italian naturalist to whom Aldrovandi was indebted: both men were, in turn, heavily influenced by the Venetian patrician Daniele Barbaro (1514–70). Barbaro had been Patriarch of Aquileia in 1550, and had collected a large number of fish drawings, Libro dei pescei, which Egmond convincingly argues was an important precursor to many of the 1550s publications on fish. Aldrovandi had had access to Barbaro’s Libro dei pesci in the 1550s and 1560s, which, as Belon (who likewise benefited from Barbaro’s images) commented, included:
‘The lifelike portrait in accurate images not only of those brought to market or the fishmongers of Venice, but also others that have been sent to him one by one from the ports and the coasts of Croatia’. 
This image of Orbis Stellatus is based on Tavole vol. 4,043, which, unlike the printed image, bears the inscription: ‘Orbis stellatus seu Orbis astrifer, à Daniele Barbaro iconem habui’. Just as Barbaro had employed Maestro Plinio to paint fish for his fish album, Aldrovandi employed painters such as Giovanni de’ Neri to illustrate his natural history. De’ Neri worked for him for thirty years (between c. 1558 and 1590) and produced the majority of his images. Others were produced by an even more gifted painter, Jacopo Ligozzi (1547–1627), who also worked for the Medici in Florence.
Sawfish (Pristis pristis) © Zoological Museum, Trinity College Dublin.
Sawfish (Pristis pristis). Unlike other cartilaginous fishes, sawfish have evolved a spectacular long snout edged with special teeth. The saw-like snout, called a rostrum, can be used in a back-and-forth swiping motion to cut through prey, and to dig through the ocean floor in search of food. Sawfish eat fish and crustaceans, but in addition to its use as a weapon or digging tool, the saw has super-sensory powers in the form of thousands of small pores that can detect electric fields produced by prey.
Remora (Remora remora) © Zoological Museum, Trinity College Dublin.
Remora (Remora remora). A pelagic, marine fish, notable for the characteristic ‘sucker’ on the top of its head. Unlike most fish, remoras do not possess a swim bladder. They move around by attaching their sucker to other animals such as large sharks, whales and sea turtles where they remain, feeding on whatever comes their way, while still attached to their host.
Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, and Dr Martyn Linnie, Curator of the Zoological Museum, Trinity College Dublin.
Copenhaver, Brian P., ‘A Tale of Two Fishes: Magical Objects in Natural History from Antiquity through the Scientific Revolution’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 52, no. 3 (1991), 373–98.
Egmond, Florike, ‘Depicting Fish in Early Modern Venice and Antwerp’, in Van der Haar, Alisa and Annelies Schulte Nordholt (eds), Figurations animalières à travers les textes et l’image en Europe. Du Moyen-Âge à nos jours Essais en hommage à Paul J. Smith (Leiden, 2022), pp 63–77.
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.
Ganias, Kostas, et al., ‘Aristotle as an ichthyologist: Exploring Aegean fish diversity 2,400 years ago’, Fish and Fisheries, 18 (2017), 1038–55.
Gudger, E.W., ‘The Five Great naturalists of the Sixteenth Century: Belon, Rondelet, Salviani, Gesner, and Aldrovandi: A Chapter in the History of Ichthyology’, Isis, 22, no. 1 (1934), 21–40.
Pliny, Natural History, Books 28–32 translated by W.H.S. Jones (Harvard, 1963), 465–7.
 Quoted in Copenhaver, Brian P., ‘A Tale of Two Fishes: Magical Objects in Natural History from Antiquity through the Scientific Revolution’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 52, no. 3 (1991), 385.
 Gudger, E.W., ‘The Five Great naturalists of the Sixteenth Century: Belon, Rondelet, Salviani, Gesner, and Aldrovandi: A Chapter in the History of Ichthyology’, Isis, 22, no. 1 (1934), 36.
 Ibid., 26.
 On the mid-sixteenth-century proliferation of publications on fish see 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.
 Gudger, ‘The Five Great naturalists of the Sixteenth Century’, 27.
 Ibid., 23.
 Copenhaver, ‘A Tale of Two Fishes’, 378.
 Ibid., 380.
 Ibid., 384.
 Gudger, ‘The Five Great naturalists of the Sixteenth Century’, 40.
 Copenhaver, ‘A Tale of Two Fishes’, 376.
 Pliny, Natural History, Books 28–32 translated by W.H.S. Jones (Harvard, 1963), 465–7.
 Egmond, ‘Visual immersion’, 5.