|Conrad Gessner's Walrus. 1558. Historia Animalium. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/42165842|
Conrad Gessner desired to reconcile ancient knowledge about the animal kingdom with the modern discoveries of the Renaissance. This endeavor spurred him to produce his magnificent Historia Animalium, a work synonymous with the beginning of modern zoology. This five-volume masterpiece covered the subjects of "live-bearing four footed animals" (mammals), "egg-laying quadrupeds" (crocodiles and lizards), birds, fish and sea creatures, and a fifth posthumous volume on snakes and scorpions.
Compiling knowledge from Old Testament, Greek, Hebrew and Latin sources, Animalium boasts a rich collection of woodcut illustrations - something uncommon in other contemporary natural history publications. Gessner repurposed images from many famous researchers of his time, including Olaus Magnus, Guillaume Rondelet, Pierre Belon, Ulisse Aldrovandi, and Albrecht Durer. Their existing images were carved into woodblocks by craftsmen, which were used to "stamp" the reproductions onto designated pages within the text blocks.
Though Gessner intended to produce an authoritative encyclopedia of scientific knowledge about the natural world, his five volumes do include mythical beasts and fancifully-rendered factual creatures. Many of the more exotic of the species he depicted were based on textual or second-hand accounts, explaining the sometimes substantial divergence from reality.
Case in point: The Walrus.
|Olaus Magnus' Walrus. 1555. |
Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus.
Gessner voiced some hesitations about Magnus' representation of the Walrus. Writing that he believed Olaus based many of his creatures on sailors' accounts rather than life studies, Gessner reasoned that "fish don't have feet." Since common wisdom of the day, and even Olaus himself, grouped Walrus with fish, it was an understandable concern. Nevertheless, Olaus was a well-respected authority, with a good family lineage and a travel resume that had brought him further north than any of his intellectual European contemporaries. Thus, Gessner included two illustrations in his work, one closely resembling Olaus' beast and another more recognizable as the pinniped we know today.
|Gessner Walrus, resembling Magnus' image. 1558. Historia Animalium. http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/42165841|
Thus, all things considered, though we today may look at Gessner's Walrus and giggle, his was actually a much more accurate representation of the animal than many alternative sources in his time. Despite the factual deviations it may contain, "for an understanding of the history of zoology and a peek at some truly fascinating and five-hundred-year-old illustrations, there is no better historical guide than Conrad Gessner's Historia Animalium." (Ellis, pg. 2).
And, come on, Gessner's Walrus is pretty adorable!
Outreach and Communication Manager | BHL
- Ellis, Richard. "The First Animal Book." Natural Histories. Ed. Thomas Baione. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2012. pg. 1-2.
- McKay, John. "The White Elephant of Rucheni." Scientific American Blog. Scientific American, 25 July, 2014. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/11/22/the-white-elephant-of-rucheni/
- Scott, Michon. "Sea Monsters." Strange Science. 25 July, 2014. http://www.strangescience.net/stsea2.htm