GESNER, Conrad.


GESNER, Conrad. Vogelbuch

Zurich, C. Froschouer, 1557.


FIRST EDITION thus. Tall folio, ff. [6], 263, [1], last blank. Gothic letter. Large woodcut title vignette with perching eagle, over 200 full-page or smaller woodcut birds, decorated initials and ornaments. A few ll. lightly browned, small scattered ink spots, minor worming at blank foot of title, handful of clean tears from edges, 3 touching text without loss, ink stain to upper blank fore-edge of second half. A fine, clean, well-margined copy in contemporary German pigskin over bevelled wooden boards, 2 brass clasps, double blind ruled to a panel design, outer roll of interlacing palmettes in blind, second border with blind roll of David (signed NZ, Haebler, p.514), St Paul, Salvator and St John, third with blind roll of Evangelists (signed NZ, Haebler, p.514), central panel with grille de St Laurent of 3 vertical blind rolls with heads within roundels, lozenges and tendrils, within row of blind-stamped ivy leaves, contemporary VGGIEFZA (Von Gotten Gnaden Ioachim Ernest Furst Zu Anhalt) and 1561 blind-stamped in black at head and foot of title, raised bands, early ms title to spine, corners and upper joint rubbed, minor soiling to covers, stamp ‘Edwin Schindler 1950’ to title.

A handsomely bound, tall, clean copy of the first edition of the German translation of Gesner’s renowned book on birds – with a total of over 200 fine ornithological woodcuts – produced by Rudolph Heusslin, in an adapted version, with additional references to German culture or language. ‘In Gesner’s “Historia” everything comes together: information taken from works by Aristotle, Pliny, Aelian, and other writers from antiquity; from […] medieval encyclopaedists […]; and from contemporary zoological texts, such as those by Belon and Rondelet; [as well as] […] all the information Gesner obtained through correspondence with his vast international scholarly network, […] from his own empirical observations, and […] from the whole of antiquity’s literature in Greek and Latin’ (Enenkel, p.31). The work opens with a long section on sundry species of eagles (Adler), proceeding in alphabetical order, through dozens of species and hundreds of subspecies, to the siskin (Zinsle). For each bird, the work provides a Latin and German name, as well as information on its origin, the birds’ nature and habitat (in one case, even reasons for the excessive growth of their population), and their appearance (at times even as chicks) immortalized by the handsome woodcuts.

Froschouer, who also printed Gesner’s ‘De avium natura’, unsurprisingly re-employed the woodblocks for this translation. The over 200 exquisite woodcuts (here in excellent impression), based on the work of several artists including Gesner, are so detailed that dozens of individual species, like those of the Linnaean order now known as ‘passeriformes’, are immediately recognisable to a modern eye. Some were based on earlier works including the ‘Gart der Gesuntheit’ or Peter Martyr’s ‘De orbe novo’. A few, including the pelican, were a blend of real and literary creatures. Many others were made ‘ad vivum’, either, like the birds of paradise, through Gesner’s memories of exotic animals he had seen at city fairs, or thanks to pictures and live or dried specimens from the cabinets of curiosities of major European naturalists. Among them was John Caius, physician at the Tudor court. 

This copy was in the library of the Protestant Prince Joachim Ernest (1536-86), ruler of Anhalt from 1570 and a great supporter of the arts and culture. The fine binding, signed NZ, in excellent impression, is attributed by Haebler (p.515) to a binder working in Dessau – the Prince’s seat, in 1556-69. A few more bindings produced by him for Joachim Ernest survive.

USTC 702117; VD16 G1734; Alden (later ed.); Vischer C-530; Nissen ZBI 350; Graesse III, p.68. Emblems and the Natural World, ed. E. Enenkel and P. Smith (2017); See S. Kusukawa, ‘The Sources of Gessner’s Pictures for the Historiae animalium’, Annals of Science 67 (2010), pp. 303-28.