I was reminded of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) after reading Isaac D’Israeli’s mention of him, in his article on the “Poverty of the Learned,” wherein he laments that the great naturalist “was suffered to die in the hospital of that city to whose fame he had eminently contributed.” The implication being, I guess, that one only died in an hospital if one were too poor to expire in relative comfort at home, surrounded by ones family, and were obliged instead to fall back on public charity.
D’Israeli’s anecdotes, alas, are not always as reliable as they are diverting, and, as with anything you might read at this website, are best taken with a pinch of salt. Other sources cast doubt on Aldrovandi’s having been reduced to poverty at all. Whatever the truth of the matter, the event in question took place four hundred years ago, an anniversary that will not pass unmarked in Italy.
Aldrovandi’s magnum opus, only partially realised during his lifetime, was to be an encyclopædic publication encompassing everything that was then known about natural history. The work’s illustrations were to be drawn from the hundreds of watercolour paintings that Aldrovandi had commissioned from a number of artists, over a period of some thirty years. As part of their on-line presentation of Aldrovandi’s work, the University of Bologna have scanned a large number of these watercolours, a few of which I have selected for display here.
Plants, sea-creatures, serpents, birds, domestic beasts, exotic creatures, ‘monsters’ (deformed animals, freaks of nature, conjoined twins, etc.) are all depicted in these watercolours, as are fantastic fauna, such as dragons, whose existence one supposes had not yet been altogether disproved. Many of the paintings are very beautifully and vividly executed. I’m particularly impressed by the pair of entwined snakes, above, which, whilst I can hardly vouch for their zoological verisimilitude, appear very much alive.
Click on the details to see the relevant manuscript pages in full. Note that I have deliberately ignored the warning on the University of Bologna pages to the effect that it is forbidden to reproduce or duplicate images taken from manuscripts viewable at their site without written permission, but I will undertake to remove these images if anyone objects to their presence here.