Gessner's Encyclopedia of Birds –Bound in Contemporary Pigskin

Gessner, Conrad (1516-1565)

Vogelbuch, darinn die Art, Natur und Eigenschafft aller Vöglen, sampt jrer waren Contrafactur angezeigt wirt: allen Liebhaberen der Künsten, Artzeten, Maleren, Goldschmiden, Bildschnitzeren, Seydenstickern, Weydleüten und Köchen nit allein lustig zuo erfaren, sunder gantz nutzlich und dienstlich zebrauchen ...

Zürich, Christoph Froschauer, 1557


Folio: 38 x 24.5 cm. [6], CCLXIII, [1] lvs. Illustrated with 219 fine, large woodcuts of birds.


Bound in contemporary blind-tooled pigskin over pasteboards, top and bottom of spine and corners somewhat scuffed, small loss to one corner. A fine copy with a few insignificant blemishes: Small paper flaw to the title and one leaf, not affecting text, occ. minor tears in margins, some mended tears entering into text (repaired with no loss), a few light stains, fingersoiling to title. Provenance: Collegii Societatis Jesu Hradecensis (manuscript entry on title).

A fine copy of the first German translation of Conrad Gessner’s landmark book of birds "De avium natura”(1555), the third volume of his lavishly illustrated encyclopedia of animals, considered “the basis of modern zoology” (Horblit). The book was translated from the Latin by the Zurich clergyman Rudolf Huesli (or Heusslein, 1530-1600). All 217 original woodcuts were reused and supplemented with two woodcuts borrowed from Olaus Magnus’ 'Historia de gentibus septentrionalis' of 1555. The other illustrations, which Gessner considered an essential part of his work, are the work of Hans Asper, Johann Thomas, and Lukas Schrön.

Conrad Gessner’s “Historia Animalium” is a landmark in the study of the animal kingdom. Drawing on a wealth of authorities both ancient and modern and illustrating his works with highly detailed and –to the degree possible- accurate woodcuts of the animals that he described, Gessner set a new standard for zoological literature. His encyclopedia eclipsed all other attempts at a comprehensive work on the subject, displacing Aristotle’s own “Historia Animalium” and substituting for it a tour-de-force of Renaissance humanist science.

Gesner’s work covered “all known animals, including mythical and imaginary beasts, and newly 'discovered' creatures from the far north, the New World, and the East Indies.” The work was first published in four volumes in Zurich, 1551-1558. Vol. 1, “De quadrupedibus viviparis” covered quadrupeds bearing live young; Vol. 2, “De quadrupedibus oviparis”, egg-laying quadrupeds; Vol. 3, “De avium natura”, birds; and Vol. 4, “De aquatilibus”, fish and other aquatic animals. A fifth volume, “de Serpentium natura” on snakes, imaginary serpents, and scorpions, appeared posthumously in 1587.

Wellisch A25.5; VD16, G-1734; Vischer C-530; Bäumer, Geschichte der Biologie II – Zoologie der Renaissance (1991), p. 66f.