‘Reading the Book of Nature at the Edward Worth Library and the Zoological Museum, Trinity College Dublin’, an online exhibition celebrating the wonderful world of early modern natural history!

Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.

2022 witnessed the 500th anniversary of the birth of the famous Italian natural historian, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605). To mark this quincentenary, the Edward Worth Library, Dublin, and the Zoological Museum in Trinity College Dublin, created a joint exhibition which continues to be available online. This exhibition, curated by Dr Elizabethanne Boran, the Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, and Dr Martyn Linnie, the Curator of the Zoological Museum, draws together some of Worth’s zoological (and more generally natural history) collections and those of the Zoological Museum.

Image 1: Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri tres et De quadrupedibus digitatis oviparis libri duo Bartholomaeus Ambrosinus … collegit (Bologna, 1645), p. 104, tiger.

The online exhibition investigates the zoological discoveries of the early modern period as reflected in Worth’s wonderful set of volumes by Aldrovandi. In the main it follows Aldrovandi’s own preoccupations: exploring birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, mollusca, crustacea, insects, plants and minerals. Aldrovandi was fascinated by all forms in nature and not only also paid attention to domestic and more exotic specimens, he also included some more mythical animals among his volume of monsters. Many of the latter have been investigated in another Worth Library online exhibition: Mythical Creatures at the Edward Worth Library but some, such as the following ‘Sarmatian Sea Snail’, may be found lurking in Aldrovandi’s volume dealing with mollusca and crustacea!

Image 2: Ulisse Aldrovandi, De reliquis Animalibus exanguibus libri quatuor post mortem ejus editi : nempe de Mollibus, Crustaceis, Testaceis et Zoophytis (Bologna, 1642), p. 391, ‘Sarmatian sea snail’.

Known as ‘the Bolognese Aristotle’, Aldrovandi was the greatest encyclopaedist of his age.[1] He was famous in his own lifetime for his enormous natural history collection and for opening the first public museum to display his many specimens.[2] He also provided a ‘paper museum’ in the shape of thirteen volumes which form the ‘Aldrovandi  set’, a set of volumes which became an essential item for seventeenth and early eighteenth-century collectors such as Edward Worth (1676–1733).[3] In these he sought to immortalise in print the highlights of his wide-ranging collection, in an attempt to ensure his own immortality, that of his native city, Bologna, and the University of Bologna, where he had held the position of Professor of Natural Sciences.

Image 3 : Ulisse Aldrovandi, De piscibus libri V.: et De cetis lib. unus. Joannes Cornelius Uterverius … collegit. Marc. Antonius Bernia in lucem restituit (Bologna, 1638), p. 555, puffer fish.

His position as Professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Bologna offered him wonderful opportunities for augmenting his collections for his students regularly sent him material from their journeys. Added to these were the specimens and communications he received from like-minded scholars across Europe, for he was well aware that his project was not the work of one man, but required a whole community of scholars devoted to the study of the natural world, for, as he ruefully noted in his 1572 Discorso Naturale, ‘natural species are endless’.[4]

Image 4: Ulisse Aldrovandi, De animalibus insectis libri septem: cum singulorum iconibus ad viuum expressis … (Bologna, 1638), title page.

In many ways his project was dependent on citizen-science. In his De animalibus insectis libri septem: cum singulorum iconibus ad viuum expressis (Bologna, 1602), the only volume, apart from those on birds, which appeared during his lifetime, Aldrovandi commented on the assistance he had had, not only from fellow academics, but also the local people of the Bolognese countryside in collecting insects.

Crucially, Aldrovandi viewed his project as not only an intellectual but also a social  good. In his preface to volume I of his birds trilogy he had explained to his readers  that the scope of the project spread beyond the reaches of the strictly scientific and would bring together all aspects of contemporary life. This was not the first time that Aldrovandi had drawn attention to the public utility of his scientific projects for he had made a similar argument about the importance of that other integral part of his project, the Botanical Garden of the university, which he had set up in 1568 and which in many ways could be viewed as the twin of his museum. His decision to leave his Museum, library and archive to the Senate was an inspired one for today travellers to Bologna can follow in the footsteps of curious sixteenth-century visitors, and take a tour of Aldrovandi’s museum, while those unable to visit Bologna can explore his volumes online (or in person at the Edward Worth Library), giving them access to what Gudger calls ‘the greatest collective natural history ever published’.[5]

[1] Legati, Lorenzo, Museo Cospiano annesso a quello del famoso Ulisse Aldrovandi e donato alla sua patria dall’illustrissimo Signo Ferdinando Cospi (Bologna, 1677), p. 8, quoted in Findlen, Paula, Possessing Nature. Museum, Collecting, and Scientific Cultures in Early Modern Italy (London, 1996), p. 23.

[2] On Aldrovandi’s museum and more generally the history of collecting in early modern Italy, see Findlen, Possessing nature.

[3] Duroselle-Melish, Caroline, ‘Centre and Periphery? Relations between Frankfurt and Bologna in the Transnational Books Trace of the 1600s’, in McLean, Matthew and Sara Barker (eds), International Exchange in the Early Modern Book World (Leiden: Brill, 2016), p. 56.

[4] Discorso Naturale, quoted in Battistini, Andrea, ‘Bologna’s four centuries of culture from Aldrovandi to Capellini’, in Vai, Gian Battista, and William Cavazza (eds), Four centuries of the word Geology. Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna (Bologna, 2003), p. 18.

[5] Gudger, E.W., ‘The Five Great naturalists of the Sixteenth Century: Belon, Rondelet, Salviani, Gesner, and Aldrovandi: A Chapter in the History of Ichthyology’, Isis, 22, no. 1 (1934), 37.


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