Science and sea monsters

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”!

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