Conrad Gesner's Animals

Conrad Gesner, Conradi Gesneri medici Tigurini Historiæ animalium lib. I. De quadrupedibus uiuiparis. Tiguri: Apud Christ. Froschouerum, 1551

Conrad Gesner (1516 – 1565) was a Swissnaturalist and bibliographernne. In 1541 he took his degree of doctor of medicine at Basel and then obtained the post of lecturer in Physics at the Carolinum, the precursor of the University of Zürich. He died of the plague in 1565.. Born and educated in Zürich, Gesner was the son of a furrier. His father was killed in 1531 leaving Gesner reliant on friends and sponsors who, in 1537, obtained for him the professorship of Greek at the newly founded academy of Lausa.

Conrad Gesner by Tobias Stimmer, 1564

Gesner had a startling range of interests, reflected in his writings. These include a Greek dictionary and a catalogue of all authors who had ever written in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew, together with a listing of their works (Bibliotheca universalis, 1545-1549). He also wrote Mithridates de differentis linguis (1555), an account of approximately 130 different languages. In addition, Gesner wrote voluminously about plants, although most of his botanical works were published posthumously.

His magnum opus, however, was the Historiae animalium (“Accounts of Animals”), published at Zürich, between 1551-1558, a 4,500-page encyclopaedia of animals, now regarded as the starting point of modern zoology. In it, Gesner attempted to list and describe all of the world’s animals. He tries not only to give an account of animals as denizens of the natural world, but also to convey their place within literary tradition. The volume on live-bearing quadrupeds includes an image of a rhinoceros based on Dürer’s 1513 woodcut.

The Old Library copy of Historiae animalium is bound in 16th century London calf over wooden boards. It originally belonged to Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, (1538-1572) who made his own annotations throughout. It was given to the college by Frances Combes (fl.1601-1641).

Also displayed is a volume from Icones Animalium, an abbreviated and highly illustrated version of the first two volumes of Historiae – live bearing and egg-laying mammals. It was first published in 1553 with this, 2nd edition, appearing in 1560.

Page from Icones Animalium

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