GESSNER, Conrad (1516-1565)
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HISTORIAE ANIMALIUM liber IIII qui est de PISCIUM & AQUATILIUM animantium natura. Cum iconibus singulorum ad vivum expressis. Continentur in hoc volumine, Gulielmi Rondeletii & Petri Belonii Cenomani de aquatilium singulis Scripta.
Very rare first edition. Zürich, Christof Froschauer, 1558. Folio (389 x 238 mm), pp. 40, 1297, with printer's device on title page. Over 700 woodcuts in the text (Nissen, 1951). Engraved headpieces. Contemporary German blindstamped pigskin over wooden boards, roll-tool panels of prophets and bible scenes, intact brass clasps and catches. Some marginal dust-soiling and occasional marginal spotting, otherwise in mint condition. Inscriptions on title page: Christophero Arnoldo Artini Med. Doctor, me sibi & gratae posteriati comparavit; ...emit D. Johann Macholt: & other early illegible inscriptions.The book was exposed at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht (2004), at the Amos Andersons Konstmuseum, Helsingfors (2004), and as part of the Linnaeus exhibition at the University Library of the University of Amsterdam (2007).
A complete copy of the rare FIRST EDITION in an impressive contemporary binding.
The present volume on fish and aquatic animals is a part of the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner’s encyclopaedia of animals, Historiae Animalium. Educated with the aid of scholarships provided by key players in the Swiss reformation such as Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, Gessner became first professor of Greek at Lausanne and later professor of medicine at Zürich, whilst also maintaining a medical practice as town physician. He wrote prolifically on a wide variety of subjects, but the Historiae Animalia was by far his most influential and most popular publication. In this work, one of the most popular books on natural history until the mid-eighteenth century, Gessner attempted to bring together all that was known about the animal kingdom in his day and to add to this as much new information as possible. The book is considered the first systematic treatise of the Renaissance and the basis of modern zoology. It was extremely well-received and was reprinted in rapidly succeeding editions during the following two centuries. Gessner was mentioned by Artedi and Linnaeus as well as many earlier ichthyologists as a researcher who influenced them. In fact, no systematic study of animals on the same level appeared until that by Cuvier, who nicknamed Gessner ‘the German Pliny’, in the early nineteenth century.
Interestingly, this volume on fish and aquatic animals is fundamentally different in style and more systematic than Gessner’s other three volumes. Due to a relative lack of literature on fish from the classical era, Gessner based this volume primarily on contemporary research and first-hand observation. As a result, although the species are described in alphabetical order, the descriptions place much emphasis on the physical appearance of species and provide references to wider groups of morphologically similar fish (Hendrikx, 2014). The latter morphology-based organisation is independent from the physical organisation of the books. The number of species Gessner described was at the time absolutely spectacular. Up until then the publication describing the highest number of fish species was Guillaume Rondelet’s Libri de Piscibus Marinis (1554) at around 450 species, in contrast Gessner described around 750 in the first edition of the work. Gessner’s descriptions of aquatic species focus on physical characteristics, habitat, habitus, nomenclature, and use as medicine or food. In his work on fish Gessner placed greater emphasis on the medical component than in his work on other animals, and it appears he regularly used fish in his medical practice.
This fourth volume of the Historiae Animalium, on fish and other aquatic animals, first appeared in 1558 and was followed by many expanded editions, translations and reissues over the course of the following two centuries. During Gessner’s lifetime new descriptions and depictions, as well as new species, were added to the work. In addition Gessner’s 1560 Nomenclator aquatilium animantium was based on it, containing the same illustrations as the Historiae Animalium but with an abridged and more purely scientific text. A vernacular edition, the Fischbuch, which was also based on the Historiae Animalium and contained the same illustrations but an abridged text, was first published in 1563.
In his descriptions of species Gessner quoted all important publications, most importantly those by the naturalists Pierre Belon (1553), Guillaume Rondelet (1554) and Hippolito Salviani (1554-1558). In addition he mentions many less important publications such as Paolo Giovio’s De romanis piscibus, Gregor Mangolt’s Fishbuch, and even the 1553 Bavarian civil code Bairische Landt Ordnung. He discussed these and supplemented the information obtained from them with new observations. Gessner’s method of information gathering included both the study of books on natural history, and interviews with expert witnesses such as fishermen or famers, as well as direct observation of nature. In addition he obtained descriptions and depictions of species from an extended network of acquainted scholars across Europe. This network provided Gessner with much information on species that were new to science and subsequently first appeared in a printed work in Gessner’s Historiae Animalium. When he received such information on species he was unable to observe first hand, Gessner tried whenever possible to find sources that confirmed the observation. Occasionally this thoroughness led to confusion, as is demonstrated for example in the inclusion of an asp alongside the first depiction of a pike-perch in a scholarly work. Gessner obtained information on the latter species from four acquainted scholars who all lived and worked near Prague, where the species was known under the name Schied. The depiction of the asp was taken from the Bavarian civil code, the Bairische Landt Ordnung, which restricted the catch of this species. The confusion stemmed from the fact that the asp was also locally known as Schied. Since the pike-perch at the time could only be found in Eastern Europe and Gessner was not able to verify the information he received from his acquaintances, he included the illustration of the asp alongside that of the pike-perch and added text explaining which information he obtained from which sources.
Gessner’s Historiae Animalium was one of the first scholarly publications in which illustrations play a crucial role. Recent innovations in the field of printing meant that for the first time illustrations could easily be reproduced and placed within the text of a book. Taking advantage of the opportunities this offered Gessner used illustrations to provide his readers with important information. In particular in this volume on fish and aquatic animals, where more emphasis was placed on describing the physical characteristics, illustrations could demonstrate what the author tried to explain in his descriptions. Over 700 illustrations were included in the work; over half of these were copied from other books on the subject. The rest were obtained through Gessner’s extensive network of correspondents across Europe, made on commission, or drawn by the author himself. The use of his correspondents and of other publications on fish as sources of information meant Gessner was able to describe and depict species from all over Europe, including fish that were not local to Switzerland and he had never seen in real life.
Gessner’s excellent understanding of the morphology of fish enabled him to assess whether or not a drawing of an unknown species was likely to be a realistic depiction. In his preface to the readers of Liber IIII Gessner makes the general statement that very few illustrations are not realistic; with the exception of the fabulous Equus neptuni from Belon's work, and a number of illustrations taken by Olaus Magnus (1555). On the Equus neptuni Gessner remarks that it does not exist. The terrifying drawings of whales of Olaus Magnus, like Balaena erecta (page 138) and Cetis diversis (page 248), are mentioned by Gessner as examples of animals which exist but have not been correctly depicted. Despite this, the inclusion of these drawings was used by some later authors of textbooks on the history of science to perpetuate the myth that Gessner was an ardent believer in fabulous animals. Gessner’s text however indicates that he included these images in order to be able to discuss well-known depictions and clear up misconceptions for his readership, or, in the case of Olaus Magnus’ whales, because no better depiction was available.
The following can be remarked about the condition of remaining first editions of this work. Copies in excellent condition and in their original binding with intact clasps and catches are rare. It is particularly unusual that the clasps are still present and have not been damaged. Furthermore, while good copies of this first edition can be found it is unusual to find a copy in as good a condition as this one and in such a beautiful original binding.