Historiae animalium Liber III qui est de avium natura.
Zürich: Christoph Froschauer, 1555.
Folio: 37.8 x 25 cm. , 779 p. Collation: a-c6 (c6 blank and present), a-z6, A-Z6, Aa-Tt6.
Illustrated with 217 fine woodcuts of birds. Bound in contemporary blind-tooled calfskin over beveled wooden boards (lacking clasps but with catch-plates preserved, sympathetic restorations to leather of spine, corners, and turn-ins, a few small portions of the leather of the boards patched, minor cracks or small defects to the leather along the spine (not affecting the hinge). The rich tooling includes decorative rolls of John the Baptist, King David, Lucretia (signed HW), and an unusual tool of a bare-breasted Venus with her son Cupid hovering above her.
A fine copy with broad margins, the text in fine condition with minor cosmetic faults: title page lightly soiled and with two closed tears; a few additional mended marginal tears in the text (lvs. f5, z6, A1, C2, Ll4, Tt5-6), not affecting the text or illustrations; occasional light marginal damp-staining or light soiling; a slightly darker damp-stain to the lower blank margin of the three opening gatherings, a few tiny wormholes and light soiling to the final few leaves.
A fine copy of the first edition of Conrad Gessner’s landmark book of birds "De avium natura”(1555), the third published volume of his lavishly illustrated encyclopedia of animals, considered “the basis of modern zoology” (Horblit). The 217 illustrations, which Gessner considered an essential part of his work, are the work of Hans Asper, Johann Thomas, and Lukas Schrön.
Conrad Gessner’s “Historia Animalium” is a landmark in the study of the animal kingdom. Drawing on a wealth of authorities both ancient and modern and illustrating his works with highly detailed and –to the degree possible- accurate woodcuts of the animals that he described, Gessner set a new standard for zoological literature. His encyclopedia eclipsed all other attempts at a comprehensive work on the subject, displacing Aristotle’s own “Historia Animalium” and substituting for it a tour-de-force of Renaissance humanist science.
Gesner’s work covered “all known animals, including mythical and imaginary beasts, and newly 'discovered' creatures from the far north, the New World, and the East Indies.” The work was first published in four volumes in Zurich, 1551-1558. Vol. 1, “De quadrupedibus viviparis” covered quadrupeds bearing live young; Vol. 2, “De quadrupedibus oviparis”, egg-laying quadrupeds; Vol. 3, “De avium natura”, birds; and Vol. 4, “De aquatilibus”, fish and other aquatic animals. A fifth volume, “de Serpentium natura” on snakes, imaginary serpents, and scorpions, appeared posthumously in 1587.
A Network of Exchange:
With each successive volume, Gessner solicited his readers for specimens, descriptions, and drawings of animals, with the promise of recognition for those contributions. In the preface to the book of birds, Gessner lists the names of those who had provided material for the volume and then made his appeal, which gives information on the way the network of exchange among naturalists functioned.
“In the front matter to this volume Gessner cast his widest appeal yet, after the catalogue of learned men who helped, addressing all readers in a general plea for contributions, but targeting especially those in far-flung locations like Spain and the remote regions of Scandinavia from which he had little material: ‘I ask that all learned men in remote regions who might come across these books, first, be fair and benevolent judges, then if they have something to correct or add with new descriptions or images or to illustrate in some other way, that they do so honestly and generously and rapidly.’ Gessner assured readers that, even if they could contribute just one thing, it would be most welcome. Gessner explained how readers wishing to send him something should find a merchant in their hometown who frequented the fairs of Antwerp, Venice, Lyon, or Frankfurt; there, their merchant could pass on to a merchant from Zurich material to reach Gessner. Gessner promised to answer by the same route in reverse ‘to the learned and generous men who will tell me their name and to whom I can express my gratitude in writing or by sending them something they would desire.’ Gessner thus offered to fill a request in return, in case getting thanked in print was not reward enough.”(Blair, Humanism and Printing in the Work of Conrad Gessner, Renaissance Quarterly Vol. LXX, No. 1, p. 18-21)
The names of those who furnished material for the birds volume are given on preliminary leaf b6. They include Ulisse Aldrovandi, the preeminent Italian naturalist of the 16th c.; the French zoologist and anatomist Guillaume Rondelet (whose landmark work on fishes, published in 1554, receives mention); the Prussian botanist Melchior Wieland (Guilandinus); the anatomist -and friend of Vesalius- John Dryander; and the English humanist physician John Caius, who was invaluable for gathering information on English birds.
Wellisch, Conrad Gessner, A Bio-bibliography, A25.1; Horblit, 100 Books Famous in Science, 39; Sparrow, Milestones of Science, 83; Adams G-535; Nissen, IVB 349; Anker, Bird Books and Bird Art An Outline of the Literary History and Iconography of Descriptive Ornithology, p. 10-11; PMM 77