‘And these vipers are the foundation of theriac’.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, 13 August 1573.
Of the 10,000 geological and paleontological specimens originally in Aldrovandi’s collection, today only about 200 specimens survive and of these only 19 herpetological specimens (amphibians and reptiles) are extant. It is clear that there certainly were many more specimens, for at least 34 herpetological taxa alone have been identified among Aldrovandi’s watercolour collection, the Tavoli di Animali, and references to specimens among Aldrovandi’s manuscripts suggest that even this figure is an underestimate of what was available in his original collection.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo Bartholomæus Ambrosinus … opus concinnauit (Bologna, 1640), p. 115, ‘vipera mas’.
Aldrovandi’s two volumes dealing with herpetological subjects, the De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri tres et De quadrupedibus digitatis oviparis libri duo Bartholomaeus Ambrosinus … collegit (Bologna, 1637) and Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo Bartholomæus Ambrosinus … opus concinnauit (Bologna, 1639), though published decades after his death, had, in fact, almost been completed by 1605. Edited by Bartolomeo Ambrosini (1588–1657), they included engravings by Cristoforo Coriolano (also known as Christophorus Lederlein), and his son Gian Battista Coriolano. As in this image, vipers were usually represented showing teeth and tongue as it was unknown by what method they poisoned humans.
Judging by the Tavoli di Animali, Aldrovandi was particularly interested in vipers – Delfino and Ceregato state that three of the four Italian species are represented in the Tavoli di Animali and one of Aldrovandi’s most famous images was of two writhing vipers given to him by Francesco I de’ Medici (1541–87), Grand Duke of Tuscany, and illustrated by Jacopo Ligozzi (1547–1626), an artist who worked for both the grand duke and Aldrovandi. His interest is not surprising, given the importance of viper venom in the production of theriac – a famous medicinal compound which was thought to be a general cure all.
As Findlen notes, Aldrovandi viewed the study of nature through medicinal lens – he wished above all to reform the material medica. By the 1570s he had become a renowned producer of theriac in Bologna:
In 1574, being Protomedico of the College of Physicians, he made the theriac in the pharmacy of San Salvatore with the greatest diligence possible, using fewer substitutes than had ever been done before, having found true costo and amomo. The display of this theriac was made public for four or six days so that everyone could see it, and it was visited and approved by the Protomedici and the entire College.
By 1575, however, the Bolognese College of Physicians were no longer supportive of Aldrovandi’s innovations on the tried and trusted ingredients of theriac and a bitter dispute broke out. This centred on the use of vipers in the remedy for Aldrovandi took exception to the type and habitat of the vipers used in a new ‘Jubilee’ theriac, which was being proposed by the College. Though the other protomedicus agreed with Aldrovandi that the ‘Jubilee’ theriac was an inferior product, the College was incensed, and promptly expelled both Aldrovandi and his fellow protomedicus, Antoni Maria Alberghini. As Aldrovandi, writing to the papal nuncio Alberto Bolognetti, in 1576 ruefully noted:
‘because of those vipers that were killed to put in the Theriac, and prepared out of season. And my opinion was supported by the foremost Colleges in Europe as the truth … And this business has so tormented me until recently due to this annoying lawsuit, that it has distracted my soul from the study of nature, having applied myself to the defense of my honor’.
Aldrovandi, however, had friends in high places: he was not only in contact with the papal nuncio but also appealed to his cousin Ugo Buoncompagni, better known as Pope Gregory XIII (1502–85). Unsurprisingly, the latter found in his favour in 1577 and Aldrovandi and Alberghini were re-instated into the College of Physicians.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo Bartholomæus Ambrosinus … opus concinnauit (Bologna, 1640), p. 308, giant anaconda.
Bauer et al., in their exploration of the extant specimens of Aldrovandi’s herpetological collection in Bologna, located one specimen, possibly Eunestes marinus (Linnaeus, 1758), which may have been the basis for Aldrovandi’s image of a giant anaconda, which he calls ‘Serpens Americanus’, as it is a native of South America. Unfortunately, no watercolour of the specimen is available in the Tavoli di Animali to compare it with both the specimen and printed text, as is possible with some of Aldrovandi’s amphibian specimens. Bauer et al. note that this specimen and specimens of two boas are the only herpetological specimens from the New World that survive in Aldrovandi’s collection.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri tres et De quadrupedibus digitatis oviparis libri duo Bartholomaeus Ambrosinus … collegit (Bologna, 1645), p. 670, chameleons.
Aldrovandi also discussed other types of reptiles such as chameleons which, as Findlen notes, were very popular attractions in early modern museums. Given their colour-changing abilities, chameleons were ascribed magical powers and they fascinated ancient and early modern writers. Pliny the Elder (d. 79 AD) had included the following description of a chameleon in Book 8 of his Natural History:
‘Africa almost alone does not produce stags, but Africa has the chameleon, although India produces it in greater numbers. Its shape and size were those of a lizard, were not the legs straight and longer. The flanks are joined on to the belly as in fishes, and the spine projects in a similar manner. It has a snout not unlike a pig’s, considering its small size, a very long tail that tapers towards the end and curls in coils like a viper, and crooked talons; it moves rather slowly like a tortoise and has a rough body like a crocodile’s, and eyes in a hollow recess, close together and very large and of the same colour as its body. It never shuts its eyes, and looks round not by moving the pupil but by turning the whole eye. It holds itself erect with its mouth always wide open, and it is the only animal that does not live on food and drink or anything else but the nutriment that it derives from the air, with a gape that is almost terrifying, but otherwise it is harmless. And it is more remarkable for the nature of its colouring, since it constantly changes the hue of its eyes and tail and whole body and always makes it the colour with which it is in closest contact, except red and white …
Aldrovandi’s image of the chameleon with a fly on its tongue discounts this and, as Etheridge suggests, may be the earliest published image of a chameleon feeding. Aldrovandi discusses four different types of chameleon, at least one of which resembled earlier depictions in books by Pierre Belon (1517–64) and Conrad Gessner (1516–65) (who in fact had reused Belon’s image) but his image of a feeding chameleon was new.
As Bauer et al. note, Aldrovandi certainly had at least one specimen of Chamaeleo chamaeleon (Linnaeus, 1758) in the Palazzo Poggio museum. They suggest that Linnaeus’s use of the above image means that the illustrated specimen ‘should be regarded as one of the syntypes of this species’. They point out, however, that the link between the specimen and the watercolour in the Tavoli di Animali (and hence the printed image) is not an exact match.
As the title of his main volume on reptiles suggests, Aldrovandi did not limit himself to discussing actual snakes such as vipers and anacondas. He was well aware that what drew visitors to the doors of his museum were not his specimens of local reptiles but, instead, his wierd and wonderful tales of ‘monsters’ and ‘dragons’. The most famous (and in many ways the most illuminating) of these was the ‘Dragon of Bologna’ but his Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo also offered his readers the ‘Basilisk of Warsaw’, an African ‘Winged Dragon’, and a depiction of the Lernaean Hydra, all of which have been explored in ‘Mythical Creatures at the Edward Worth Library’.
Grass snake (Natrix natrix) also called the ringed-snake © Zoological Museum, Trinity College Dublin.
‘There live not. Then, Toads nor Serpents in all Erin; and even though be brought from other places into it, they die immediately; and this has been tested.’ Book of Glendalough, c. AD 1130.
The grass snake is the largest of the three snake species found in some parts of Britain. They are quite adept swimmers, and are particularly suited to wetland habitats, rivers and ponds, where they will hunt amphibians, fish, small mammals and birds. They are not found in Ireland.
Chamaeleon (Chamaeleo chameleon) © Zoological Museum, Trinity College Dublin.
Common chameleon (Chamaeleo chameleon). A highly specialised and distinctive group of Old World lizards, particularly known for their ability to quickly change colour. But they have many other notable features too: eyes that work independently of each other to provide stereoscopic vision, a prehensile tail used as a fifth limb, a rapid, projectile tongue for catching insects, and zygodactylous feet (from the Greek for even-numbered) to provide highly efficient arboreal ability.
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.
Delfino, Massimo, and Alessandro Ceregato, ‘Herpetological Iconography in the 16th century: the Tempura Paintings of Ulisse Aldrovandi’, Bibliotheca Herpetologica, 7, no. 2 (2008), 4–12.
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).
Fischel, Angela, ‘Drawing and the Contemplation of Nature – Natural History around 1600: The Case of Aldrovandi’s Images’, Horst Bredekamp, et al., The Technical Image. A History of Styles in Scientific Imagery (Chicago, 2015) pp 170-81.
Pliny, Natural History, Books 8–11, translated by W.H.S. Jones (Harvard, 1963).
 Quoted in Findlen, Paula, Possessing nature. Museums, collecting, and scientific culture in early modern Italy (Berkeley, 1996), p. 241.
 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), 317.
 Delfino, Massimo, and Alessandro Ceregato, ‘Herpetological Iconography in the 16th century: the Tempura Paintings of Ulisse Aldrovandi’, Bibliotheca Herpetologica, 7, no. 2 (2008), 4.
 Ibid., 9.
 Findlen, Possessing nature, p. 245.
 Ibid., p. 281.
 Ibid., p. 283.
 Ibid., p. 299.
 Pliny, Natural History, Books 8–11, translated by W.H.S. Jones (Harvard, 1963), Book 8: 51, pp 87–9.
 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. 71. Etheridge notes that it was based on an animal which had been sent to Aldrovandi.
 Ibid., p, 68.
 Bauer et al., ‘The oldest herpetological collection in the world’, 316.