Aldrovandi’s Natural History of Monsters - The First Treatise on Teratology

Aldrovandi, Ulisse (1522-1605); Ambrosini, Bartolomeo (1588-1657)

Monstrorum historia

Bologna: Typis Nicolai Tebaldini, 1642


Large Folio: 35 x 23.5 cm. Two volumes in one: I. †4 (including engraved t.p.), A-Z6, Aa-Zz6, Aaa-Ppp6, Qqq8, Rrr6, Sss8; II. A-O6 (final signature O has 5 leaves, as in all copies examined. See note at end of description.)


Bound in 18th c. calf, spine tooled in gold, minor wear, corners bumped. Internally a fine copy with occasional light toning to leaves, and minor blemishes. The only prominent blemish is a water stain to a single bifolium in the Paralipomena (A1/8). With an engraved t.p by G.B. Coriolano. trimmed ever so slightly at head and fore-edge, as often. Profusely illustrated with 477 woodcuts, many full-page, of “monsters” and deformities both human and animal.

Aldrovandi’s “Monstrorum historia” was the first treatise on teratology, the study of deformities, monstrosities, and prodigies. The subjects are drawn from across the spectrum of the natural world, from animals and plants to minerals and monstra (portents such as comets and atmospheric phenomena). Some of the specimens were physically kept in Aldrovandi’s renowned museum and gardens in Bologna, others were represented in his collections by paintings, engravings, and written accounts. The second volume, “Paralipomena”(Things omitted), was written by Bartolomeo Ambrosini, custodian of Aldrovandi’s collections from 1632 to 1657.

The work includes many “fabulous” specimens, including “counterfeits”, but also a wealth of genuine material of interest to historians of medicine, including accounts and illustrations of 17th century individuals with physical deformities, such as Aegisthus, who visited Bologna from India in 1592-93 and seemed to suffer from a type of neurofibromatosis; the enslaved Pedro Gonzales, who suffered from hypertrichosis, a condition that he passed on to several of his children; and the famous “dwarf” Sebastiano Biavati, who guided visitors through Aldrovandi’s collections, and his sister Angelica. There are also elements of American interest, specifically the full-page images of a “Wild man from the New World with a feathered headdress worn in war”, believed to be a Tupinambá man of Brazil, and a “Queen from the Island of Florida.”

“Aldrovandi’s museum was ‘a collection of plants, animals, and subterranean things’ that grew to become the most extensive collection of its kind in sixteenth-century Europe. It was in large part a result of having access to such a vast and varied collection that Aldrovandi was able to study aspects of what today would include botany, teratology, embryology, ichthyology, and ornithology. His reputation was such that he came to be referred to by his contemporaries as a ‘second Pliny’ or the ‘Bolognese Aristotle.’" (Daston and Park 1998:154)

Aldrovandi conceived of illustrations as an indispensable part of his work: "By the means of these pictures together with the histories, scholars can gain a full knowledge of what [the plants and animals] were according to the ancients. And one cannot imagine anything more useful; if the ancients had drawn and painted all of the things that they described, one would not find so many doubts and endless errors among writers.” (Aldrovandi, ‘Discorso’)

Garrison-Morton 534.53; Krivatsy 187; Wellcome I, 172; Goldschmid 43; Alden and Landis 642/2; Nissen, ZBI 74.R. As regards the 5-leaf final signature O in the “Paralipomena”, I have left the quire as “O6” in my collation since it is unclear if there was a cancelland leaf O5, or if final O6 was a blank. Either way, the final quire is consistent with all copies examined.