A Revolution in Zoology & Zoological Illustration

Gesner (also Gessner), Conrad (1516-1565)

Icones animalium quadrupedum viviparorum et oviparorum. [BOUND WITH] Historiae animalium liber II. de quadrupedibus oviparis. Item oviparorum quorundam appendix.

Z├╝rich: Christoph Froschauer, 1553 and 1554


Folio: 2 books bound as one: 40.25 x 25.5 cm. I. 64, [3] p. Collation: A-G4, H6. II. [6], 110, 27 p. Collation: a4 (a4 blank and present), A-H6, I8 (I8 blank and present); a6, b-c4


Bound in contemporary limp vellum (minor soiling, coming loose front text block). Fine, broad-margined copies. Occ. light toning, clean tear in leaf B4 of 2ndwork (entering text but without loss), clean tear in leaf H5 of "Icones" (not affecting text), a few leaves loose. Copiously illustrated with fine woodcuts of animals.

First editions of these landmarks in zoology and zoological illustration. The works are illustrated with 146 fine woodcuts of mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. The full-page woodcut of the rhinoceros is based on Dürer’s iconic engraving. At the end of the "De quadrupedibus oviparis” (egg-laying quadrupeds) volume is an appendix of additional material for Gessner's volume on those quadrupeds that bear live young (the subject of Vol. I of Gessner's encyclopedia.) The "Icones" is a special volume that comprises 102 illustrations from both volumes of the quadrupeds, with the names of the animals given in Latin, Italian, French, and German. These naturalistic illustrations, revolutionary in the accuracy, were the first zoological illustrations of their kind.

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. For each animal, the text gives the name of the animal in various languages; its habitat; physical features and habits; its character; culinary uses; medical uses; the use of the animal (other than for food or medicine); and philology (etymology, epithets, proverbs, etc.)

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”(1551) covered quadrupeds bearing live young; Vol. 2, “De quadrupedibus oviparis”(1554), egg-laying quadrupeds; Vol. 3, “De avium natura”(1554), birds; and Vol. 4, “De aquatilibus”(1558), fish and other aquatic animals. A fifth volume, “de Serpentium natura” on snakes, imaginary serpents, and scorpions, appeared posthumously in 1587.

The illustrations:

"Gessner explained that unless otherwise stated, which (he pointed out) was rare, all pictures were made ‘ad vivum’ by either having them drawn himself or accepting from trustworthy friends pictures similarly drawn (for example the picture of the porcupine was of the animal shown around in Zurich by a beggar, presumably for money.) It is tempting to translate ‘ad vivum’ as ‘from the life’, but Gessner’s own comments on and uses of images suggest a more complex practice. 

"Of the 96 images in the first volume, 25 were sent in by correspondents. Hence the picture of the ‘zibeth cat’ was drawn ‘ad vivum’ by the ‘learned nobleman Petrus Merbel’; the picture of the ‘glis’ (dormouse) was sent to him by ‘the most learned physician at Bergamo’, Guilhelmo Gratorolo; a picture of the ‘hortulana’ was sent to Gessner by Ulisse Aldrovandi, a man ‘most excelling in medical matters as well as in the history of plants’… Gessner reported that he had not seen a live cricetus (hamster), but had once seen its pelt at the Frankfurt fair, and that he borrowed its image from a German book on animals by Michael Herr… [Gessner] also relied on other sources, such as artists, broadsides, books, and manuscripts, and he was usually meticulous about stating the source of his images…

"Ostrich eggs, crocodile skins, as well as hides and pelts of other exotic animals made their way into collectors’ cabinets, while leopard skins and ostrich feathers adorned fashionable clothes in the period. Whilst Gessner hoped he could obtain specimens, or failing that, their pictures or descriptions, through (free) gift exchange among friends, there were certain things that were out of his reach because of their extraordinary price. A unicorn’s horn was just one instance where the exorbitant price charged by apothecaries made Gessner state that its medical efficacy should be tested by those richer than himself."(Kusukawa, The sources of Gessner’s pictures for the Historia Animalium, in Annals of Science, Vol. 67, No. 3, July 2010, 303-328)

VD 16, G 1724 & 1726; Nissen, ZBI 1550-51; Wellisch A 24.1 & 29.1; PMM 77