University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Aldrovandi's Natural History

Volume V · Winter 1950 · Number 2Aldrovandi's Natural History--SHERMAN C. BISHOPThe Treasure Room has recently been enriched by the acquisition of a complete set of Ulisse Aldrovandi's "Opera omnia," or General Natural History, in thirteen volumes, folio, the gift of Ira M. Olsan, M.D., Class of 1914, in memory of his brother and sister, David Byron Olsan and Jennie Olsan, and his father and mother, Samuel and Rachel Leah Olsan.Ulisse Aldrovandi was born at Bologna in 1522, a descendant of the family of the Counts of Aldrovandi. He was educated in Bologna and Padua and studied at Rome where his main interests were in the antiquities. At Bologna and at Pisa he studied botany and was appointed to the chairs of philosophy and logic and to a lectureship in botany at Bologna in 1553. At one time, in his long career, he practiced medicine and studied law. He was also primarily responsible for the establishment of a botanical garden at Bologna in 1567, and gathered material for one of the first museums. He was the author of several works on natural history, medicine, and natural philosophy. The work by which he is best known, however, is the "Opera" of thirteen volumes. This great undertaking probably best represents the status of natural history at the end of the sixteenth century, Aldrovandi's only rival in the field having been Konrad Gesner whose Historia animalium, in five parts, appeared in 1551-1587.The personal fortune of Aldrovandi was spent in the collection of materials from various parts of the world, in the preparation of manuscripts, drawings, and woodcuts, and in printing. volumes I to IV of this set appeared during the lifetime of Aldrovandi, who died in 1605. The succeeding volumes, compiled by his students from the great accumulation of notes and drawings, were published by the state. It has been said that artists were employed for a period of thirty years and the thousands of drawings of animals and plants, reproduced by woodcuts, attest to the truth of the statement.The set here considered is in excellent condition with calf bindings, gilt backs and edges, and beautiful marbled lining-papers. Each volume has a different, elaborately engraved, title-page. In three of the volumes these beautifully engraved title-pages are signed by Giovanni Luigi Valesio, and six others carry the signature of Giovanni Battista Coriolano, who studied under Valesio. Both were well-known artists and engravers of the time, who may well have also assisted in the preparation of the many interesting woodcuts. One reason for the excellent condition of the set is the fact that it was for many years in a famous private library; bookplates in two of the volumes state that it was from "The Hamilton Palace Library -- Beckford Collection" and give the names of William Beckford, the Author of Vathek, and the tenth Duke of Hamilton as former owners. It should also be noted that while later editions of many of the individual titles were published, all of the volumes in the set are first editions, which adds to its bibliographical interest.The dates of publication of the volumes indicate that work on several different groups of animals was being carried on at the same time. In dealing with particular animals and plants, it was apparently the intention of the author to include every bit of information which was available through study of existing literature, by collecting specimens in the field, and by subsidizing others to collect in out-of-the-way places of the world. As might be expected, the accounts vary greatly in completeness. The lesser known animals were sometimes dismissed with a brief description, the better known, local species, with detailed accounts under a great variety of topics. Each animal or plant was designated by a descriptive Latin phrase, the introductory word of which being somewhat comparable to the generic part of a technical name as understood today. Following a brief description, the topics under which the organisms were discussed include: distribution, synonymy, uses as food or in medicine, mating habits and sexual difference, a reference to or figure of the animal or plant on coins, emblems, or in hieroglyphics, or mention in fables, proverbs, or poems.The volumes, when arranged chronologically, treat of the several groups of organisms as follows:Volume I. Ornithology, pp. 1-893 plus index. 1599. In addition to the bird, certain other winged creatures were included such as bats, the fabled rocs, Harpies, and gryphons.Volume II. Ornithology, pp. 1-862 plus index. 1600. Includes accounts of the anatomy of certain domestic fowls and charts and drawings depicting dissections.Volume III. Insects, pp. 1-767 plus index. 1602. In addition to the insects proper, representatives of other groups, such as starfish, spiders, leeches, and tube worms, were included.Volume IV. Ornithology, pp. 1-560 plus index. 1603. Skeletal features and anatomy, including drawings and description of the trachea of the swan and its convolutions in the sternum.Volume V. Mollusca, Crustacea, Testacea, and zoophytes, pp. 1-593 plus index. 1606. The squid and octopus are properly included among the Mollusca and reference is made to the fable of the origin of the goose from the barnacle.Volume VI. Fishes, pp. 1-732 plus index. 1613. Includes accounts and figures of some of the rarer fishes, like chimaeras and ocean sunfish, and fossils in rock.Volume VII. Solid-hoofed quadrupeds, pp. 1-495 plus index. 1616. Very few figures are given in this volume.Volume VIII. Bisulcated quadrupeds, pp. 1-1040 plus index. 1621. Few figures are provided.Volume IX. Oviparous quadrupeds, pp. 1-718 plus index. 1637. In addition to mammals, various lizards, salamanders, and frogs are included.Volume X. Serpents and dragons, pp. 1-427 plus index. 1640. Many of the figures do not measure up to the high standard set in the other volumes.Volume XI. Monsters, pp. 1-748 and 1-159 plus index. 1642. The "monsters" include not only fabulous creatures but abnormal humans, birds, and mammals. One of the most interesting volumes in the entire series. Includes descriptions and figures of fan-eared humans, four-eyed Ethiopian, Cyclops, bearded lady, hairy man, mermaids, and centaurs.Volume XII. Minerals and mining, pp. 1-979, plus index. 1648. Some accounts of petrefactions.Volume XIII. Dendrology, pp. 1-660 plus index. 1668. Trees, other plants, fruits, and berries.