Historiae Animalium

Conrad Gesner, Published 1558

Conrad Gesner (1516-1565)

Born in Zurich, linguist, naturalist, and botanist Conrad Gesner (spelled variously in different locations and publications, often Konrad Gesner or Conrad Gessner) dedicated his time to amassing an enormous library and collecting information on the natural world. As a student he had studied classics and language, but afterwards he began traveling and observing the diversity of the natural world. He was particularly enthusiastic about plant life and fossils, and eventually published 72 works, but was always planning for bigger and better works. When he died of the plague in 1565, he left behind mountains of specimens and unfinished works.

Historiae Animalium was his masterwork, published between 1551 and 1558. It was more than 4,000 pages long, divided into four volumes covering, respectively, four-footed animals, amphibians, birds, and fishes and other aquatic animals. Illustrated with beautiful woodcuts, some drawn from life, as well as copies of famous works like Durer’s famous armored rhinoceros (itself was drawn based only on descriptions). It included Biblical and classical sources, referenced both Pliny and Physiologus, as well as folklore and earlier bestiaries.

Although monsters are not all not confined to Book IV, the fourth book dedicated to creatures of the sea includes many wonderful scenes of sea serpents and terrifying whale monsters attacking ships and sailors, including one of the most famous images from this work is his woodcut of the Great Orm, a Scandinavian sea monster most likely copied from the Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus.



Collection of scanned pages from volumes 1-4 of Historaie Naturaium, some colorized – National Library of Medicine

Full book scans at Biodiversity Heritage Library:

Volume I

Volume II

Volume IV

Conrad Gessner’s Private Library, Urs B. Leu, Raffael Keller and Sandra Weidmann – Brill Publishing