This wonderful fish is from Cardiff’s exceptional copy of De Piscibus libri V, et de cetis lib. vnus by the 16th century Italian naturalist, Ulisse Aldrovandi. It is one of nearly 400 full page woodcuts of fish, sharks, whales, dolphins … and sea monsters!
Aldrovandi (1522-1605) was a student of the universities of Bologna and Padua, completing his degree in medicine in 1553. By then, however, he had developed a strong interest in botany and zoology, and in 1561 Aldrovandi became Bologna’s first professor of natural sciences. He was a leading figure in the Renaissance movement that sought to place a renewed emphasis on the study of nature through direct observation.
Aldrovandi was one of the first great specimen hunters and regularly organized expeditions in search of exotic new items; in the course of his life he would assemble one of the most acclaimed cabinets of curiosities in Europe. These private collections of fossils, minerals and rare plants were the forerunners of modern natural history museums and Aldrovandi’s cabinet eventually comprised some 18,000 specimens, many of which he described in the thirteen volumes of his greatest work, Storia naturale.
Although he described his own observations with considerable accuracy, Aldrovandi passed along his share of misinformation, often displaying what the naturalist Buffon would later describe as “a tendency towards credulity”. If a previous writer had described an unusual creature, he considered it only polite to mention it, no matter how improbable the beast appeared. Our copy of De Piscibus, the fifth volume of Aldrovandi’s Natural history, features numerous monstrous serpents and fanciful oddities alongside the more familiar marine life.
Despite these occasional flights of fancy, Aldrovandi’s work represented a great advance towards science based on observation. He arguably did more than any other to establish zoology and botany as fields of study and came to be regarded by later scholars such as Linnaeus as the ‘father of natural history studies’. High praise indeed for the man who once observed of stingrays that they “love music, the dance and witty remarks”!
Posted in Ken Gibb
Tagged 17th century, book illustrations, Cardiff Rare Books Collection, fishes, illustrations, natural history, rare books, sea monsters, Ulisse Aldrovandi, woodcuts, zoology
Among the older Welsh books in the Salisbury Collection at Cardiff we have the two seventeenth century editions of “Llwybr hyffordd yn cyfarwyddo yr anghyfarwydd i’r nefoedd” by the Puritan Arthur Dent (d. 1607), originally published in English as “The plain man’s pathway to heaven” in 1601. When I first came across this title I was struck at once by the author’s name being the same as that of the hapless main character of Douglas Adams’ “The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy”, and indeed, the similarity of the title. I filed the information away in the recesses of my memory, used the catalogue record whenever I wanted an example to explain the display of a uniform title for a translated work, and thought that one day I would look into it further. As is the way with such things, others got there before me, as you can read here on the h2g2 online guide (“The guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything”).
The site’s article mentions Douglas Adams’ interview of March 1987, in which he said that he had been contacted by someone with a research interest in the period. The (unnamed) researcher had jumped to the same conclusion, pushing it further by finding many parallels in the respective texts. Adams stated that he had never heard of the book or of its author Arthur Dent, so the similarity really is a pure coincidence. Both works, as article and interview point out, are a version of the “Everyman” story, the innocent in a strange world which may or may not be a version of our own world which must be explained to him. (Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is probably the best-known later example of this popular genre).
“The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy” has not, as far as I am aware, been translated into Welsh, but “The plain man’s pathway to heaven” was, first appearing in 1630 and again in 1682. It is one of several translations of religious works made by Robert Llwyd, Vicar of Chirk (1565-1655), intended to improve Welsh devotional life by making suitable books available in the Welsh language. While there are a number of locations for the 2nd edition of 1682, the 1st Welsh edition of 1630 is rarer (it is also held at the National Library of Wales, the British Library, and Bangor University Library). As was usual with Welsh books before the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695, it was printed in London. The printer, Nicholas Okes (d. 1645), is better known for his editions of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, including his1st Quarto of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Othello.
The copy at Cardiff formerly belonged to Victorian Bible collector James Dix of Bristol (and is inscribed many times over with the name of an earlier owner, Ellis Powell, 1740). While the title-page is worn, the book is otherwise in good condition.
Matthew Hollis, author of Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, has won the Costa (formerly Whitbread) prize for best biography. The judges called it “dramatic and engrossing. A brilliant biography that moved us all.”
The biography gives an account of the last five years of Thomas’ life, in particular his friendship with poet Robert Frost, his struggles with depression, the late discovery and rapid blossoming of his talent for poetry, cut short by his decision to voluntarily fight in WWI, which culminated in his death at Arras on Easter Monday, 1917.
It was a surprise win for the debut biographer, as Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens had been a strong favourite. Matthew Hollis is now 2-1 favourite to win the overall award, Costa’s Book of the Year, announced on 24 January.
During his research for the biography, Hollis drew heavily on Edward Thomas’ letters, photographs and poetry manuscripts, held at Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University. We hope this award will raise the profile of Edward Thomas’ poetry, and his substantial archives at Cardiff.
The Edward Thomas collection is fully catalogued and will shortly be available to search online. It contains around 4000 letters to and from friends and family, 2000 reviews, 500 photographs and 300 poetry manuscripts, as well as notebooks, diaries and other personal effects. It is available for consultation on appointment. Please contact the Archivist, Alison Harvey, for more information: HarveyAE@cardiff.ac.uk.