‘Let us pass to the rest of the animals, and first those that live on land’.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book VIII, Chapter 1.
In the early modern period two major factors came together which would have an immense impact on the development of natural history: exploration of the ‘New World’ and the advent of the printing press. European expansion in the early modern period introduced ‘new’ animals to European natural historians such as Aldrovandi who were eager to comment on them (and, in his case, capitalize on them for his public museum). Coupled with this, the advent of the printing press not only spread news of the ‘new’ flora and fauna encountered in Africa, the Americas and the Orient, but it also, by its very nature, facilitated scholarly commentary on discoveries, which in turn led to attempts at classification.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri tres et De quadrupedibus digitatis oviparis libri duo Bartholomaeus Ambrosinus … collegit (Bologna, 1645), p. 68, ‘pardalion’: leopard hybrid.
At the same time, the printing press brought printed editions of ancient classics to a wider audience. The Aldine press of Venice had produced the first Greek edition of Aristotle’s works, including his History of Animals, as early as the 1490s and many more editions followed. These editions, together with those of another best-seller, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, encouraged interest in natural history throughout the sixteenth century. However, in the process of so doing, they drew attention to inconsistencies in the texts of the ancient authors and, in the case of natural history, sparked commentary on some of the more unusual animals included by them.
This image, of a ‘pardalion’ which Aldrovandi attributed to Aristotle, was considered to be one of many hybrids. Pliny the Elder (d. 79 AD), commenting on Aristotle’s views on big cats, explained the phenomenon of hybridization as follows:
The lion is specially high-spirited at the time when its neck and shoulders are clothed with a mane – for this occurs at maturity in the case of those sired by a lion, though those begotten by leopards always lack this characteristic; and the females likewise. Sexual passion is strong in this species, with its consequence of quarrelsomeness in the males, this is most observed in Africa, where the shortage of water makes the animals flock to the few rivers. There are consequently many varieties of hybrids in that country, either violence or lust mating the males with the females of each species indiscriminately. This is indeed the origin of the common saying of Greece that Africa is always producing some novelty…
Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus solidipedibus volumen integrum Joannes Cornelius Uterverius in Gymnasio Bononiensis Simplicium medicamentorum professor collegit, & recensuit; Marcus Antonius Bernia in lucem restituit (Bologna, 1639), p. 465, elephant.
Though Aldrovandi included domestic animals in the three volumes he devoted to mammals it is clear that he was especially attracted to more exotic animals such as elephants. The elephant had been identified by Pliny not only as the largest land mammal but also the animal ‘nearest to man in intelligence’. This image, of an African elephant, with its longer tusks and larger ears than an Asian elephant, was borrowed by Aldrovandi from the famous Swiss natural historian, Conrad Gessner (1516–65), who had, in turn, re-used an image from a manuscript by Pier Dicembrio. The same image would be used again in Edward Topsell’s The History of Foure-Footed Beasts (London, 1607), which, like Aldrovandi’s De quadrupedibus solidipedibus, relied heavily on Gessner’s account.
Aldrovandi did not travel himself and so was dependent for accounts of exotic animals from his colleagues and also from the natural histories appearing in print throughout the sixteenth-century. No publication was more important to him (or to which he owed so much), than Gessner’s encyclopaedic Historia Animalium. As its title suggests, it was composed with Aristotle’s History of Animals in mind. Gessner’s huge work appeared in five large volumes between 1551 and 1587 and in many ways formed the basis for much of Aldrovandi’s natural history project. Gessner not only referred to ancient authorities such as Aristotle and Pliny, but he also produced ‘the first animal encyclopaedia with figures drawn ‘from life’’. Unlike Aldrovandi, who in the main employed artists, many of the illustrations in the Historia Animalium were drawn by Gessner himself – whenever this was possible. Many of Aldrovandi’s images of exotic animals, such as this depiction of an elephant, did not represent his own experience but were directly taken from Gessner’s work.
Knowledge of elephants was not, of course, new in sixteenth-century Europe: elephants had been known in Greek literature from at least the fifth century BC. However, as Lach records, during the course of the sixteenth century thirteen Asian elephants were imported into Europe via Portugal and African elephants had been discussed during the Quattrocento by travellers such as Cyriac of Ancona. Elephants and other exotica such as rhinoceroses were generally given as gifts to emperors, kings and popes and were immortalized by famous artists such as Raphael (1483–1520) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). In time, the elephant became a staple iconographic symbol of regal power: in the fifteenth-century Christian I (1426–81) of Denmark had instituted an ‘Order of the Elephant’ (which is still in existence), while in the sixteenth century François I (1494–1547), of France, incorporated images of elephants in his chateau of Fontainebleau.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri tres et De quadrupedibus digitatis oviparis libri duo Bartholomaeus Ambrosinus … collegit (Bologna, 1645), p. 192, hippopotamus with crocodile.
The caption on this image might initially suggest that the image was of a hippopotamus and crocodile which Aldrovandi might have seen in the Vatican menagerie while he was in Rome, but it is clear that he owed this image to Gessner’s Historia Animalium (though as Spennemann points out, the rather crude depiction of Crocodylus niloticus was not up to the standard of Gessner’s other crocodile image, which he had included when he examined the species in more length). Crocodiles and hippopotami were considered to be synonymous with the Nile by no less an authority than Pliny:
A monster of still greater height is also produced in the Nile, the hippopotamus, which has cloven hooves like those of oxen, a horse’s back, mane and neigh, a snub snout, a boar’s tail and curved tusks, though these are less formidable, and with a hide that supplies an impenetrable material for shields and helmets, except if they are soaked in moisture. It feeds upon the crops, marking out a definite portion beforehand for each day, so it is said, and making its footprints lead out of the field, so that no traps may be laid for it when it returns.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, Quadrupedum omnium bisulcorum historia Joannes Cornelius Uteruerius … colligere incaepit, Thomas Dempsterus … perfecte absolvit, Marcus Antonius Bernia denuo in lucem edidit (Bologna, 1642), p. 356, ‘the bull of Florida’: bison.
Aldrovandi did not simply regurgitate ancient classical and contemporary authors on well-known animals such as elephants, hippopotami and crocodiles: he was also keen to introduce his readers to the animals of the ‘New World’. One such as the ‘bull of Florida’ and here he re-used information, albeit not an image, from Gessner’s Historia animalium to describe an animal about which there was much confusion in the sixteenth-century. As Jurkowlaniec and Herman have pointed out, ‘wisent’, ‘bison’ and ‘auroch’ are terms which even today are conflated. Gessner considered wisents and aurochs to be two separate species, and initially relied on Anton Wied’s map of Muscovy for his image of an auroch (which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as ‘an extinct large long-horned wild ox of Europe that is the ancestor of domestic cattle’). Gessner also had access to images of aurochs taken by Sigismund von Herberstein (d. 1566), a Carniolan diplomat, who, as Jurkowlaniec and Herman note, had a particular interest in the beast.
However, while aurochs were a known phenomenon from such sources, the ‘bull of Florida’ was far more intriguing and is generally taken to be the South American bison. Lia Markey directs our attention to the importance of image borrowing for Aldrovandi’s understanding of the flora and fauna of the New World for not only did he himself not travel there, there appears to be no evidence that he received images directly from American sources. The source of this particular image was not Gessner, but rather André Threvet’s Les singularitez de la France antarctique (Antwerp, 1558), for Gessner had had doubts about the image, and did not include it in his Icones (Zurich, 1560). As Jurkowlaniec and Herman note, Aldrovandi used a reproduction of Threvet’s image which he had found in the Discours (Paris, 1582) and Opera (Paris, 1582) of the famous French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510–90). The original source, Threvet (1502–90), described the animal, which he called a ‘wild bull’, as follows:
Between this Florida and the Palm River [Mississippi?] one encounters various species of monstrous beasts: among them one may see a species of large bull having horns only one foot long and on the back a hump or projection like a camel; the hair is long all over the body and its colour approaches that of a wild mule, whilst on the other hand there is more hair [a beard] under the chin. Once there were brought two live specimens over to Spain, of one of them I saw the hide, but nothing else; they could not be kept alive for a long time. This animal is, as the saying goes, the perpetual enemy of the horse and cannot bear its presence.
Threvet’s illustration was, in fact, the first European illustration of a Southern Plains Bison Bison bison bison.
Indian elephant (Elaphus maximus indicus). © Zoological Museum, Trinity College Dublin.
Indian elephant (Elaphus maximus indicus), one of three extant recognised sub-species of the Asian elephant. Elephants are arguably the most iconic animals on the entire planet. An elephant is like no other animal; it’s simply an elephant. Their closest living relatives – the aquatic based manatees and dugongs – may share taxonomical similarities, but to the casual observer, they look nothing like an elephant. Apart from its massive bulk, the first thing you probably notice is its trunk – an undulating, dexterous, wrinkled appendage – smelling, grasping, and touching as it moves: shoulders rising and falling with every measured step. It is estimated that fewer than 50,000 Asian elephants survive in the wild today.
Pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis). © Zoological Museum, Trinity College Dublin.
The pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis), as its name suggests, is mostly found in Liberia, West Africa. There are approximately 2,000 individuals remaining in the wild, living a mostly solitary, nocturnal existence. They weigh considerably less than their larger cousins, are about a quarter of their size, and are less than a metre in height. Shy and reclusive by nature, they differ in personality and character from their larger relative, being rather peaceful and passive: qualities that have endeared them to those fortunate enough to make their acquaintance.
Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, and Dr Martyn Linnie, Curator of the Zoological Museum, Trinity College Dublin.
Bedini, Silvio A., ‘The Papal Pachyderms’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 125, no. 2 (1981), 75–90.
Egerton, Frank N., ‘A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part II; Emergence of Vertebrate Zoology during the 1500s’, Ecological Society of America Bulletin, 84, no. 4 (2003), 206–12.
Enenkel, Karl A.E., ‘The Species and Beyond: Classification and the Case of Hybrids in Early Modern Zoology’, in Karl A.E. Enenkel and Paul G. Smith (eds), Zoology in Early Modern Culture. Intersections of Science, Theology, Philology, and Political and Religious Education (Leiden, 2014), pp 57–148.
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.
Jurkowlaniec, Grażyna, and Magadalena Herman, The Reception of the Printed Image in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, Multiplied and Modified (New York and London, 2021).
Krumbiegel, Ingo and Gunter G. Sehm, ‘The geographic variability of the Plains Bison. A reconstruction using the earliest European illustrations of both subspecies’, Archives of Natural History, 16, no. 2 (1989), 169–90.
Lach, Donal F., ‘Asian Elephants in Renaissance Europe’, Journal of Asian History, 1, no. 2 (1967), 133–76.
Markey, Lia, ‘Aldrovandi’s New world Natives in Bologna (or how to draw the unseen al vivo), in Elizabeth Horodowich and Lia Markey (eds), The New World in Early Modern Italy, 1492–1750 (Cambridge, 2017), pp 225–247.
Nauert, Charles G. Jr, ‘Humanists, Scientists and Pliny: Changing approaches to a classical author’, The American Historical Review, 84, no 1 (1979), 72–85.
Orsi, Laura, ‘The Emblematic Elephant: A preliminary approach to the elephant in Renaissance thought and art’, Anthropozoologica, 20 (1994), 69–86.
Pliny, Natural History, Books 8-11 translated by H. Rackham (Harvard, 2006).
Spennemann, Dirk H. R., ‘Matthäus Merian’s Crocodile in Japan. A Biblio-Forensic Examination of the Origins and Longevity of an Illustration of a Crocodylus niloticus in Jan Jonston’s Historiae Naturalis de Quadrupetibus’, Script and Print, 43(4) (2020), 201-223.
 Egerton, Frank N., ‘A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part II; Emergence of Vertebrate Zoology During the 1500s’, Ecological Society of America Bulletin, 84, no. 4 (2003), 206.
 On the reception of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History see Nauert, Charles G. Jr, ‘Humanists, Scientists and Pliny: Changing approaches to a classical author’, The American Historical Review, 84, no 1 (1979), 72–85.
 Pliny, Natural History, Books 8-11 translated by H. Rackham (Harvard, 2006), p. 33.
 Ibid., p. 3.
 Orsi, Laura, ‘The Emblematic Elephant: A preliminary approach to the elephant in Renaissance thought and art’, Anthropozoologica, 20 (1994), 82.
 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. 67.
 Lach, Donal F., ‘Asian Elephants in Renaissance Europe’, Journal of Asian History, 1, no. 2 (1967), 135.
 Ibid., 134; 143.
 Ibid., 172. On Pope Leo X’s elephant called ‘Hanno’ see Bedini, Silvio A., ‘The Papal Pachyderms’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 125, no. 2 (1981), 75–90.
 Lach, ‘Asian Elephants in Renaissance Europe’, 158. On the iconographical linkage between elephants and monarchs see Orsi, ‘The Emblematic Elephant’, 69–86.
 Spennemann, Dirk H. R., ‘Matthäus Merian’s Crocodile in Japan. A Biblio-Forensic Examination of the Origins and Longevity of an Illustration of a Crocodylus niloticus in Jan Jonston’s Historiae Naturalis de Quadrupetibus’, Script and Print, 43(4) (2020), 220.
 Pliny, Natural History, Books 8-11, p. 69.
 Jurkowlaniec, Grażyna, and Magadalena Herman, The Reception of the Printed Image in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, Multiplied and Modified (New York and London, 2021), p. 13.
 Markey, Lia, ‘Aldrovandi’s New world Natives in Bologna (or how to draw the unseen al vivo), in Elizabeth Horodowich and Lia Markey (eds), The New World in Early Modern Italy, 1492–1750 (Cambridge, 2017), p. 226.
 Jurkowlaniec and Herman, The Reception of the Printed Image, p. 16.
 Krumbiegel, Ingo and Gunter G. Sehm, ‘The geographic variability of the Plains Bison. A reconstruction using the earliest European illustrations of both subspecies’, Archives of Natural History, 16, no. 2 (1989), 174.
 Ibid., 177.