Linda Hall Library

Linda Hall Library

Ulisse Aldrovandi

SEPTEMBER 11, 2018

Scientist of the Day - Ulisse Aldrovandi

Ulisse Aldrovandi, an Italian naturalist, was born Sep. 11, 1522. Aldrovandi was one of the most notable citizens of Bologna, not only because he was a professor there, but because he assembled one of the greatest collections of natural wonders the world had ever seen. His cabinet of curiosities was a must-see for any high-ranking visitor to Bologna, and it soon inspired other such collections all over Europe. Aldrovandi also kept artists on staff to draw the objects in his collection. Not until late in life did he get around to publishing an encyclopedia of natural history—the first volume, on birds, came out in 1599, when he was 77, and only a few more volumes appeared before his death.

However, Aldrovandi bequeathed his entire collection to the city of Bologna, and the funds to support it, with the proviso that the publishing program go on, and indeed it did, with the 13th and final tome being printed in 1668. We have a complete set of the Natural History in our History of Science Collection, and it is quite impressive, in its matching vellum-bound folios.

The volumes are filled with large woodcuts, some of them copies of similar cuts in Conrad Gessner’s History of animals, but many quite original, as are all of the images we include here. They depict, in order, a toucan, a kangaroo rat, an owl, and an armadillo.

Aldrovandi’s text included a lot of information that we no longer consider germane to natural history, but which was central to the subject in the Renaissance: animal proverbs, mythological stories that included animals, animal sympathies and antipathies, animal morals, and especially animal emblems.

Aldrovandi had an entire section titled  Emblemata for most animals; we see above the section for the fox.  Aldrovandi drew many of his animal emblems from Joachim Camerarius’s Symbola et emblemata, which appeared in four volumes between 1590 and 1604.  We reproduce one of Camerarius’ fox emblems, which Aldrovandi specifically cites.

We have Camerarius’ Symbola et emblemata in the Library; ordinarily, we do not collect emblem books, but since this one is entirely about animals and plants, and because Aldrovandi quoted from it so frequently, we thought it deserved inclusion. Camerarius was our Scientist of the Day on Nov. 6, 2017.

The portrait of Aldrovandi comes from the first volume of his Ornithologiae, 1599.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to