GESNER, Conrad


GESNER, Conrad Historiae animalium

Zurich, Christoph Froschouer, 1551, 1554, 1555, 1558, and 1587


FIRST EDITIONS. 5 volumes, folio. 1) pp. (xl) 1104 (xii); 2) 2 parts in 1. pp. (viii) 110 (ii) 27 (i); 3) pp. (xxxvi) 779 (i); 4) pp. (xl) 1297 (i); 5) 2 parts in 1. ff. (vi) 85, 11. Roman letter, some Italic, Greek, Gothic, and Hebrew. Historiated and decorated initials, over 900 extraordinary woodcut illustrations of animals (full, ½, or ¼ page), printer’s device to titlepages, arms of Holy Roman Emperor and Swiss cities and cut of the creation of Eve to t-p and initial leaf of vol. 1 respectively, portrait of Gesner to t-p verso in vol. 3. General light age yellowing, occasionally small mostly marginal water stains, ink splashes, thumb marks, or foxing. Vol. 1 with tiny marginal worm holes to first few gatherings; age yellowing to last gathering in vol. 2; age yellowing to vol. 5. Fine set of very good, well-margined copies, light scratching and rubbing on covers. early ms title and shelfmark to spines (C19 red morocco label to vol. 2). 1) Very high-quality contemporary (probably Swiss) deerskin over bevelled wooden boards (see BL c66g3), lacking clasps, slightly wormed. Richly blind-tooled, triple fillet, rolls of fleurons to outer and central panels of upper cover; rolls of charming lilies, roses, and fleurons, floral decorations and trefoils to lower. C19 stamp ‘+ 8 III’ to front pastedown, c.1600 ex-libris ‘Sum B: Mariae Virginis in Ruttenbuech’ to t-p. 2) C19 boards. Inscription ‘Leydig 1869’ to first blank, stamps ‘BVT’, ‘Vernaufte Doublette’, and ‘Bonn University’, ex-libris ‘Monasterij Weingartensis An. 1598’, and ‘M: Andreas Cochleus parrochij Sigmaringa me tenet’ all to t-p. 3) Contemporary German pigskin over bevelled wooden boards, lacking clasps. Blind-tooled to three-panel stamp, double fillet. Upper cover with rolls of fleurons to centre, female figures (Spes, Fides, Caritas) and Christ holding a sword, church, and globe (Gratia Christi, Doctor, Ecclesia) to outer panels. Lower with all’antica motif and male and female heads in roundels to outer panel, female figures of vices and virtues to middle and centre, floral centrepiece. C16 inscription ‘NB Hic author numeratur in prohibitos libros primae classis in Cathalogo Iudicii Concilio Tridentino annexi’, and ex-libris ‘Honoratus Abbas in Seon. 1646’ to t-p, occasional early inscriptions throughout. 4) Contemporary German pigskin over bevelled wooden boards, with ties. Blind-tooled three-panel stamp, triple fillet, rolls of fleurons to outer panel, figures of the Four Evangelists and male heads in roundels to middle and centre, floral centrepiece. C16 ex-libris ‘Joannis Jacobi à Magenburg’ to t-p, ‘[illegible] Staatsbibliothek’ faint stamp to t-p and last blank. 5) Contemporary (probably German) deerskin over bevelled wooden boards, original clasps. Richly blind-tooled stamp (some faded gilt), triple fillet. Alternate rolls of fleurons and all’antica motif, third panel with male heads in roundels, centre with fleurons to corners and arabesque centrepiece, blue fore-edges. Spine a bit cracked, blind-tooled fleurons to compartments. Shelfmark ‘Q II 2’ to first blank, ex-libris ‘Collegij Socis Jesu Nissae’, ‘ex dono Sermi Carolij Episcopi Brix. & Wra:’, ‘Anno 1622’, ‘Catalogo inscriptus C3’ to t-p, stamp ‘Ex Biblioth. Gymnasii Nisseni’ to t-p verso.

Most unusually complete five-volume first edition of this extremely influential compendium of the history of zoology. Conrad Gesner (1516-1565), a Swiss naturalist, studied natural and medical sciences at Lausanne, Montpellier, and Zurich. The ‘Historiae animalium’ is his masterpiece, and was still being consulted by C19 scientists. The first four volumes—on viviparous and oviparous quadrupeds, birds, and aquatic animals, following Aristotle’s classification—were published during Gesner’s lifetime, while vol. 5 on reptiles and scorpions—which is also the rarest—was printed posthumously in 1587. An epitome of all available knowledge on the animal kingdom, the ‘Historiae’ combined fabulous and real animals, literary (proverbs, etymology) and scientific (behaviour, physical features, medical uses) material. On the one hand, it still relied on classical, biblical, folkloric, and religious interpretations of the animal world, some of which caused the volumes to be added to the index of prohibited books at the Council of Trent, as noted by a C16 hand on this copy of vol. 3. On the other hand, the ‘Historiae’ paid greater attention to the analytical observation and representation of animals.

The 900 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’, Olaus Magnus’s ‘Historia’, Peter Martyr’s ‘De orbe novo’, and Dürer’s famous rhinoceros. 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, like the guinea pig, thanks to pictures and live or dried specimens from the cabinets of curiosities of major European naturalists. Among them were John Caius, physician at the Tudor court, and Gisbert Horstius, who owned a garden in Rome with snakes and aquatic animals copied for Gesner by Cornelius Sittardus. ‘Although the ‘Historia Animalium’ does not yet show any recognition of a connexion between different forms of living nature and fails to conform to our modern ideas of biological research, it was a great step forward and remained the most authoritative zoological book between Aristotle and the publication of Ray’s classification of fauna in 1693. It was many times reprinted and […] it remained the standard reference book even as late as Linné and beyond, because neither Linné nor Ray included illustrations. Editions were published in German in 1557-1613, an English abridgment by Topsell in 1607; and Gesner’s unpublished notes on insects formed the basis of Moffet’s ‘Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum’, 1634. Cuviet was one of his greatest admirers and named him the “German Pliny”.’ (‘Printing and the Mind of Man’, 77)

Exceptional owners of these copies were Charles von Habsburg, Archduke of Austria, Bishop of Brixen and Wroc aw, who donated vol. 5 to the Jesuit Collegium he founded in Niesse in 1622. The ex-libris of Franz von Leydig (1821-1908), professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Tübingen, is recorded in vol. 2. In 1875, after publishing major studies on the morphology of human and animal cells and tissues, von Leydig became professor at Bonn, where vol. 2 was recorded in the C19, and later sold as a duplicate. In the C16 and C17, four volumes were for a time in possession of German religious institutions: Rottenbuch Abbey (vol. 1), Weingarten Abbey (vol. 2), Seeon Abbey (vol. 3), and the Jesuit Collegium of Neisse (vol. 5). In the same years, vols 4 and 5 were also privately owned by a priest in Sigmaringen and Johannes Jacob from Magdeburg.

Only 4 complete copies recorded in the US.Brunet II, 1564: ‘la plus belle et la plus estimée; mais il est difficile d’en trouver des exemplaires bien complets, aver la 5e partie’; Graesse III, 67: ‘la plus belle et la plus recherchée éd.’; BM STC Ger. p. 358; Wellcome I, 2815 (vol. 5 only). See S. Kusukawa, ‘The Sources of Gessner’s Pictures for the Historiae animalium’, Annals of Science 67 (2010), pp. 303-28; Printing and the Mind of Man, 77.

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