‘The Bolognese Aristotle’.
Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605) was the greatest encyclopaedist of his age. He was famous in his own lifetime for his enormous natural history collection and for opening a public museum in Bologna to display his many specimens. He also provided a ‘paper museum’ in the shape of thirteen volumes which form the ‘Aldrovandi set’, a set of volumes which became an essential item for seventeenth and early eighteenth-century collectors such as Edward Worth (1676–1733). In these he sought to immortalise in print the highlights of his wide-ranging collection, in an attempt to ensure his own immortality, that of his native city, Bologna, and the University of Bologna, where he had held the position of Professor of Natural History.
Portrait of Ulisse Aldrovandi by Joannes Cornelius Uterverius, c. 1596. Line engraving. Wellcome Collection.
Aldrovandi reputedly came from a noble and well-connected Bolognese family: through his mother he was related to Ugo Buoncompagni (1502-1585), who was elected as Pope Gregory XIII in 1572. However, though his family might have been noble, they were relatively poor and therefore Aldrovandi initially trained to become a notary, studying arts and law at the University of Bologna, before moving to the University of Padua to study philosophy, mathematics and medicine. In 1549 he was charged with heresy and was moved to Rome for questioning. He was able to prove his innocence but his sojourn in Rome in 1550 proved advantageous for there he met two of the most renowned natural historians of the age: Guillaume Rondelet (1507–66) and Ippolito Salviani (1514–72). It is clear that this encounter was not his first brush with study of the natural world, for years before he had been encouraged by Luca Ghini (1490–1556), an Italian physician and botanist who taught at the University of Bologna from 1528 to 1544, to concentrate on natural sciences. However, his Roman trip certainly left an imprint for when he returned to Bologna, all thoughts of a legal profession were cast aside: instead he would devote himself to ‘Writing only about what I have seen with my own eyes and touched with my own hands, and examined both externally and internally’.
He gained his doctorate in medicine from the University of Bologna in 1553 and started teaching logic there the following year. In 1555 he was appointed a professor of philosophy and in 1556 he became professor of botany. In 1561 he was appointed to the first chair of ‘Philosophiae Naturalis de fossilibus, plantis, et animalibus’. No doubt influenced by the example of Ghini, who had founded the first academic botanical garden at the University of Pisa in 1544, Aldrovandi did the same at Bologna, founding the Botanical Garden there in 1568. The Botanical Garden was primarily of use as a teaching tool for the Faculty of Medicine and this pedagogic impulse may be seen in all of Aldrovandi’s projects which were interconnected: his Museum, his archive and his printed works.
His position as Professor of Natural History at the University of Bologna offered him yet greater opportunities for collecting for his students regularly sent him material from their journeys. Added to these were the specimens and communications he received from like-minded scholars across Europe, for he was well aware that his project was not the work of one man, but required a whole community of scholars devoted to the study of the natural world, for, as he ruefully noted in his 1572 Discorso Naturale, ‘natural species are endless’. He was enabled to expand his collections in this fashion due to his marriage to Francesca Fontana, which proved advantageous in two respects for not only was she wealthy (which enabled him to greatly expand the scope of his collections), but she was also interested in natural history (and indeed became his research partner). Fontana would later edit his work on bloodless animals (1606) and would successfully get the Senate of Bologna to take over the production of subsequent printed volumes after Aldrovandi’s death in 1605.
In his Discorso Naturale of 1572 Aldrovandi had written the manifesto of his collecting project: to bring together ‘All the sub-lunar things, as Plants, Animals, and other mineral things in the Museum, almost as in a Nature Theatre’. In his will, dated 1603, he emphasised the pedagogical and social rationale of the enterprise: his library and museum were collected ‘so that they would last for ever for the common benefit of Scientists and Artists’. He decision to leave the contents of his museum and library, a collection which had been created over decades, to the Senate of Bologna, was designed to ensure that his museum and his printing project would be continued. Just as his 1594 printing contract shows a man with very definite ideas about how his publications should look, so too does his 1603 will give us a clear insight into what he wanted for his museum:
I want a suitable place be selected for my Museum, and the ‘Studio’ of the books … building there convenient rooms. The ‘Studio’ should be divided into rooms with the following order: First all the Books … The second room for all printed books … The third room for all natural things … The fourth room for all the Plates … also placing in this room the two mineral cupboards … where about four thousand boxes are contained.
He was aware also that a museum without staff is a museum under threat and he politely but firmly suggested that ‘the German medical Doctor John Cornelius Uterwer be appointed’ as Librarian of the institution. Like all good collectors, he was also careful to give numbers when referring to the contents of his library: ‘the number of my manuscript Books that should be about 200 folio volumes, 14 quarto volumes, 80 long-shaped volumes (called ‘Vacchetta’), and 8 loose volumes. The printed books [are] 992 folio volumes, 1061 quarto volumes, 1361 octavo volumes, 184 sextodecimo volumes’ – and this listing only related to his book collection, a collection which dwarfed by the thousands upon thousands of objects in his museum.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, Ornithologiae hoc est de auibus historiae libri XII[I], 3 vols (Bologna, 1646), i, title page.
Despite various printing plans Aldrovandi decided that the first volume of the set to see the light should be the first of his volumes on birds and in the preface to this volume outlined his project, a project which would begin with birds and then move on to quadrupeds, fish, and ‘the white blooded animals, both those which are serviceable to man, and those which are not’. This volume would be followed by one on fossils.
Worth’s edition of the volumes on birds were later printings, and the above title page was not the same as that of the original 1599 edition which appeared during Aldrovandi’s lifetime. The 1599 title page tells us far more about Aldrovandi’s self-perception than does the 1646 page, for on the title page of 1599 we see Aristotle and Alexander on the left, Pliny and Vespasian on the right, and at the end of the page Aldrovandi presenting his book to Pope Clement VIII (1538-1605) – a not so subtle attempt by Aldrovandi to represent himself as the ‘new Aristotle’ or ‘new Pliny’ to potential patrons. If this wasn’t enough, one has only to look at the motto in the portrait of Aldrovandi at the top of this webpage: ‘Non tua, Aristoteles, haec est, sed Ulyssis imago, dissimiles vultus, par tamen ingenium’ (‘This is not your portrait, Aristotle, but one of Ulisse: you look different, but you are equal in intellect’).
Aldrovandi was a follower of Aristotle in every sense of the word – he not only taught within an Aristotelian framework but sought to emulate Aristotle’s History of Animals by the breadth of his research. He commented on the influence of Aristotle a number of times:
I started considering the nature and differences, both outer and inner, of each natural thing, realizing that the true philosophy was to know openly generation, temperature, nature and faculty of each thing by means of experience. I was aware by Aristotle’s witness in the second book of Posteriores, that experience originates memories, and memories give rise to universals, which are principles of the Arts and Sciences. True universals are based on the first matters devoid of which the universals are illusion of the bare intellect. Everyone knows that no thing reaches our intellect unless through our outer senses in the process of induction (as witnessed by our Philosopher).
He was not, however, an unquestioning follower, and always eager to go beyond his intellectual idol. One of his motivations in collecting specimens and images of flora and fauna was because he had observed ‘that many errors had crept into the works of the most distinguished writers, such as Pliny and Avicenna &c’ and, having come to that conclusion, had decided to amass his collection in order to correct the scientific record.
Aldrovandi spoke about his own methodology on a number of occasions, and in particular emphasized the over-riding importance of sensory experience – his own and others:
My Natural History was truthfully written, not having ever written any thing not previously seen with my own eyes and touched with my own hands, examining the anatomy of both external and internal parts: and preserving each, one by one, in my little natural world, so that everyone at any time can observe and contemplate, all [things] being stored as paintings and samples in our Museum, collected not only while I was student but principally after my Doctorate in various trips for the benefit of scholars.
As this quotation makes clear, his collecting of specimens was simply not the result of an acquisitive urge but was considered essential so that his data bank would allow his own scientific conclusions to be examined also.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, De animalibus insectis libri septem: cum singulorum iconibus ad viuum expressis … (Bologna, 1638), title page.
In many ways his project was dependent on citizen-science. Aldrovandi commented on the assistance he had had, not only from fellow academics, but also the local people of the Bolognese countryside in collecting insects, some of which would later illustrate his De animalibus insectis libri septem: cum singulorum iconibus ad viuum expressis (Bologna, 1602), the only volume, apart from those on birds, which appeared during his lifetime:
For the attainment of my object, I was in the habit of going into the country for months, during the summer and autumn, not for relaxation, like others; for at these times I employed all my influence, as well as money, to induce the country-people to bring me such insects, whether winged or creeping, as they could procure, in the fields or underground, and in the rivers and ponds. When any was brought me, I made inquiries about its name, habits, locality, &c.
The next step in the process was to capture these specimens in pen and ink:
I often too, wandered through the vineyards and fields, over the marshes and mountains, accompanied by my draughtsman and amanuenses, he carrying his pencil, and they their note-books. The former took a drawing if expedient, the latter noted down to my dictation what occurred to me, and in this way we collected a vast variety of specimens.
As he noted in his 1572 Discorso Naturale, ‘To understand plants and animals there is no better way than to depict them from life’, and, since he wanted as accurate reproductions of nature as possible, and did not want interrupt his other studies, he employed many artists. He named some of them in the preface of the first volume on birds:
I also employed the most celebrated draughtsmen, L. Bennini a Florentine, and C. Swint of Franfurt, who superintended my engravings; and at Florence, the Duke of Tuscany’s famous painter, J. Ligoti, to delineate the birds in the most exquisite manner possible. Finally, I have wood-cutters and especially the illustrious C. Coriolanus of Nuremberg, and his nephew, who carved them so beautifully, that they appeared not to be represented in wood, but in brass.
Crucially, Aldrovandi viewed his project as not only an intellectual but also a social good. In his preface to volume I of his birds trilogy he had explained to his readers that the scope of the project spread beyond the reaches of the strictly scientific and would bring together all aspects of contemporary life:
I may add, that many things will be found in this work, relating to man’s life, both public and private, and to the proper establishment and regulation of manners; also remarks of a highly useful character on ethics, on rural and domestic economy, upon politics, and military affairs – remarks which have been gleaned from the ancient monuments of literature. There will also occur many directions for the preservation of health, some of a general nature, and others more especially professional.
This was not the first time that Aldrovandi had drawn attention to the public utility of his scientific projects for he had made a similar argument about the importance of that other integral part of his project, the Botanical Garden of the university, which he had set up in 1568 and which in many ways could be viewed as the twin of his museum:
I am extremely anxious to have it not only equal to any garden in Italy, but to make it a nature theatre and an ornament to this Citty. It is thus needed to send specialists to collect all things I shall ask them so that before I die a memorable garden, renowned in every part of Europe be available in this Citty. It has to be the source of officinal plants for medical doctors and herbalists who need them continuously for the health of the Citty, as well as an attraction for scholars to come to Bologna University, just as, thanks God, I see evidence every day of many foreign visitors coming to Bologna to see my ‘Studio’ and of many writers who mention it.
Given the plan and scope of the work, Aldrovandi’s decision to leave his collections to the Senate of Bologna therefore should not be seen only as an attempt to ensure the longevity of his museum. In many ways the Senate of Bologna were the obvious beneficiaries of a project which looked to benefit the common good, while at the same time enhance the renown of the city of Bologna as an internationally recognised centre of academic excellence. As Duroselle-Melish notes, the Senate of Bologna ‘played a central role in the intellectual life of the city’ not only by their oversight of the famous University of Bologna but also by their subsidizing a number of printers based in Bologna. Aldrovandi knew that the Senate would, necessarily, play a crucial role in the conclusion of his project, following his death. Aldrovandi’s project and the Senate of Bologna were symbiotic entities. As his wife Francesca Fontana reminded the senators in 1606, Aldrovandi’s collection could not have come about without their support:
It was by your assistance he was enabled to collect, from various quarters, so many observations on plants, animals, and atmospherical phenomena, and to procure so many paintings, sculptures, books, and other records, which are in his library. All these he determined should be your property, for he knew that thus was the best prospect afforded of preserving them from the injuries of time. My husband placed all in your hands, not only that they might be preserved for the public benefit, but because he considered them as your property, even when he lived.
The decision to leave his Museum, library and archive to the Senate was an inspired one for today travellers to Bologna can follow in the footsteps of curious sixteenth-century visitors, and take a tour of Aldrovandi’s museum, while those unable to visit Bologna can explore his volumes online (or in person at the Edward Worth Library), giving them access to what Gudger calls ‘the greatest collective natural history ever published’.
Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.
Batttistini, Andrea, ‘Bologna’s four centuries of culture from Aldrovandi to Capellini’, in Vai, Gian Battista, and William Cavazza (eds), Four centuries of the word Geology. Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna (Bologna, 2003), pp 13–63.
Baucon, Andrea, ‘Italy, the Cradle of Ichnology: the legacy of Aldrovandi and Leonardo’, Studi. Trent. Sci. Nat. Acta. Geol., 83 (2008), 15–29.
Duroselle-Melish, Caroline, ‘Centre and Periphery? Relations between Frankfurt and Bologna in the Transnational Books Trace of the 1600s’, in McLean, Matthew and Sara Barker (eds), International Exchange in the Early Modern Book World (Leiden: Brill, 2016), pp 31-58.
Findlen, Paula, Possessing Nature. Museum, Collecting, and Scientific Cultures in Early Modern Italy (London, 1996).
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.
MacGillivray, William, A History of British Quadrupeds, illustrated by Thirty-Four plates with Memoir and Portrait of Ulysses Aldrovandi (Edinburgh, 1838).
Vai, Gian Battista, ‘Aldrovandi’s Will: introducing the term ‘Geology’ in 1603’, in Vai, Gian Battista, and William Cavazza (eds), Four centuries of the word Geology. Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna (Bologna, 2003), pp 65–110.
 Legati, Lorenzo, Museo Cospiano annesso a quello del famoso Ulisse Aldrovandi e donato alla sua patria dall’illustrissimo Signo Ferdinando Cospi (Bologna, 1677), p. 8, quoted in Findlen, Paula, Possessing Nature. Museum, Collecting, and Scientific Cultures in Early Modern Italy (London, 1996), p. 23.
 On Aldrovandi’s museum and more generally the history of collecting in early modern Italy, see Findlen, Possessing nature.
 Duroselle-Melish, Caroline, ‘Centre and Periphery? Relations between Frankfurt and Bologna in the Transnational Books Trace of the 1600s’, in McLean, Matthew and Sara Barker (eds), International Exchange in the Early Modern Book World (Leiden: Brill, 2016), p. 56.
 Battistini, Andrea, ‘Bologna’s four centuries of culture from Aldrovandi to Capellini’, in Vai, Gian Battista, and William Cavazza (eds), Four centuries of the word Geology. Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna (Bologna, 2003), p. 16.
 Ulisse Aldrovandi, Discorso Naturale (1572), quoted in Baucon, Andrea, ‘Italy, the Cradle of Ichnology: the legacy of Aldrovandi and Leonardo’, Studi. Trent. Sci. Nat. Acta. Geol., 83 (2008), 17.
 Discorso Naturale, quoted in Battistini, ‘Bologna’s four centuries of culture from Aldrovandi to Capellini’, p. 18.
 Vai, Gian Battista, ‘Aldrovandi’s Will: introducing the term ‘Geology’ in 1603’, in Vai, Gian Battista, and William Cavazza (eds), Four centuries of the word Geology. Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna (Bologna, 2003), p. 67.
 Ibid., p. 68.
 Ibid., pp 69–70.
 Ibid., p. 70.
 Ibid. The University of Bologna gives the following figures: ‘18,000 natural specimens and archaeological and exotic objects, 7,000 dried plants preserved in fifteen volumes (the oldest in the world), seventeen volumes of watercolours and fourteen cupboards filled with woodcut blocks’.
 MacGillivray, William, A History of British Quadrupeds, illustrated by Thirty-Four plates with Memoir and Portrait of Ulysses Aldrovandi (Edinburgh, 1838), p. 43.
 Vai, ‘Aldrovandi’s Will: introducing the term ‘Geology’ in 1603’, p. 89.
 MacGillivray, A History of British Quadrupeds, p. 30.
 Vai, ‘Aldrovandi’s Will: introducing the term ‘Geology’ in 1603’, p. 90.
 MacGillivray, A History of British Quadrupeds, p. 27.
 MacGillivray, A History of British Quadrupeds, p. 27.
 Baucon, Andrea, ‘Italy, the Cradle of Ichnology’, 17.
 MacGillivray, A History of British Quadrupeds, p. 31.
 MacGillivray, A History of British Quadrupeds, p. 43.
 Vai, ‘Aldrovandi’s Will: introducing the term ‘Geology’ in 1603’, p. 90.
 Duroselle-Melish, Caroline, ‘Centre and Periphery?’, p. 33.
 MacGillivray, A History of British Quadrupeds, p. 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), 37.