From The Library: History of Monsters

This is the first of what we hope will be a series exploring some of the many treasures in our fabulous library. Today’s highlight from the collection dates from 1642 and is one of the many natural history books that we hold.  Monstrorum Historia  (A History of Monsters) is one of a 13 volume series compiled by one the renaissance’s most important  natural scientists, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) –  a prolific publisher of over 400 works  and creator of what was at that time a vast collection of more than 18,000 natural objects and 8000 drawings .

The study of the natural world changed dramatically in the 16th century from solely observing and describing to explaining, classifying and testing.  The amassing of collections of specimens and high-quality illustrations were becoming viewed as essential and Ulisse Aldrovandi was a leader.

Ulisse had enrolled at his local University of Bologna at the age of 17 to study law, and medicine (amongst many other subjects) but an unexpected event shifted his direction.  Finding himself in his own personal lockdown,  gaoled and under house arrest for nearly a year for his heretical religious beliefs Aldrovandi used the time to build friendships and correspond with naturalists of the time.  Fuelled by enthusiasm and financed by his own wealth Aldrovandi was to devote the rest of his life to natural history. He  aimed to record all that was known of the natural world of the 16th century by direct observation rather than repeating the works of other (mainly Greek and Roman) scholars.

Whilst most of his 13 volume Opera Omnia or General Natural History adheres to his principles the History of Monsters does not. Clues to its unusual content can be seen in the small discs in the frontispiece (right) which display images of foetal deformities, a two headed bird and a winged horse. The page is headed by a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II to whom the posthumous work was dedicated.

Considering that Aldrovandi was such a keen exponent of direct observation and his aim to only describe things in his works that he had actually seen, this volume is rather out of character. It is, for want of better words, a freak show of deformities and abnormalities in the natural world such as six -legged cats, two headed foetuses but most incongruously creatures of myth and legend such as unicorns and dragons.

However there is some real science in the book with Aldrovandi speculating on the causes of foetal abnormalities and many other valid observations.   He was one of the first describers of Neurofibromatosis, a series of skin conditions caused by tumours in the nervous system. The figure on the left shows an Indian man suffering from a mosaic form of the condition that has affected half his body.

Among the fabulous creatures portrayed is the “Monster of Ravenna” (right) . Supposedly the result of a liaison between a nun and a friar, the creature came to symbolise amongst other things the corruption of the clergy. Aldrovandi records this many-times-told and exaggerated story which probably had its origins in a real child born with serious mutations. 

Crane men (above) had been illustrated and described in many forms in Europe over the years before Aldrovandi and his engravers captured them here. They were reputed to inhabit the remotest parts of Africa and to be fierce warriors.

Although some later naturalists such as Carl Linnaeus lauded Aldrovandi as the “Father of Natural History Studies”, the inclusion of these fabulous creatures brought some criticism from others such as the great French naturalist, Compte de Buffon (also represented in our library) who acknowledged his great efforts but was critical of this volume. Buffon complained that Aldrovandi’s work “is often mingled with the fabulous, and the author reveals in it too much of a tendency toward credulity…”     

The importance of Ulisse Aldrovandi cannot be underestimated.  His ideas and research significantly advanced renaissance scientific thought and he left a legacy to The University of Bologna and the world in a botanic garden and a large and comprehensive collection of natural science objects that could be studied to the present day. He had effectively created the world’s first natural history museum and established the principles of using specimens as a resource for scientific study and investigation that are so crucial today.

Dr Rob Huxley