Hill Ornithology Collection 16th and
The 16th century saw a stirring of serious interest in the nomenclature and
classification of birds. One example from early in the period is the British naturalist
William Turner, who died in 1568. In 1544 Turner had printed a small book entitled Avium
praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est, brevis et succincta historia.
In this work Turner not only discussed the principal birds and bird names mentioned by
Aristotle and Pliny but also added accurate descriptions and life histories of birds from
his own extensive ornithological knowledge. This is the first printed book devoted
entirely to birds.
In 1903 Cambridge University Press published Turner
on birds, a short and succinct history of the principal birds noted by Pliny and Aristotle,
which presented the original text and an English translation of the Avium praecipuarum.
The Hill Collection includes the very rare original 1544 edition as well as a copy of the
On the whole, in comparison with later centuries, the 16th and 17th centuries saw
limited serious work in ornithology. During that period, however, five major figures
should be noted, all of whom are well represented in the Hill Ornithology Collection:
Pierre Belon, Konrad Gesner, Ulisse Aldrovandi, Francis Willughby, and John Ray.
Pierre Belon [1517?-1564] earned his ornithological fame with his seven-part
de la nature des oyseaux, published in 1555 and illustrated with hand-colored
woodcuts. The importance of this work lies not so much in the general natural history it
contains but in its careful comparisons of the human and avian skeletons, unusual for its
time, and in Belon's rudimentary classification scheme based on ecological and structural
At about the same time the much more scholarly work of Konrad Gesner [1516-1565]
appeared, capturing the attention of his contemporaries and overshadowing the Belon's
work. Gesner's precise organization of vast amounts of material and his clear, detailed
texts combined to produce his justly famous four-volume Historia animalium, issued
from 1551 to 1558. So much interest was stimulated by the publication of the Historia
animalium that several editions were issued in Latin and German during the next
half-century. The third volume, on birds, was particularly popular. An edition of
1617-1621 is represented in the History of Science Collections.
Several printings of a German edition of Gesner's work, called Vogelbuch,
were also published. The Hill Collection includes a 1600 printing of the first Vogelbuch
edition of 1557 and also a popular, abridged, inferior edition published over one hundred
years later as
Gesner redivivi aucti et emendati Tomus II, oder Vollkommenes Vogel-Buch (1669).
Also in the History of Science Collections is a 1560 edition of Gesner's Icones
avium omnium, a compilation of bird pictures with short explanations that was also
issued in 1555, but separately from the third volume of the Historia animalium.
Ulisse Aldrovandi [1522-1605?], an encyclopedic naturalist like Gesner, began his
projected 14-volume natural history with three volumes on birds, entitled Ornithologiae
hoc est de avibus historiae libri XII, published from 1599 to 1603. Much of the
material he assembled was taken from the writings of earlier authors, particularly Belon
and Gesner, but new information was added based on his own researches. The best artists of
Europe were engaged to execute the woodcuts, with varied results in quality and accuracy.
Aldrovandi's grouping of species was new, rejecting Gesner's unsystematic alphabetical
arrangement, but contributed little in the long run to a rational classification scheme.
Although his research was extensive, his writings reflected only a very limited
understanding of the relationships among bird groups. The Hill Collection includes a copy
of the Ornithologiae
dated 1599-1637. The original edition, dated 1599-1603, appears elsewhere in the
History of Science Collections.
Notable among early 17th century ornithology books in the Hill Collection are two works
on falconry. The first of these is the 1607 edition of Federico Giorgi's Del
modo di conoscere i buoni falconi, astori, e sparauieri, considered one of the
best-known Italian books on falconry. A second is Nicolas Rigault's
Rei accipitrariae scriptores (1612).
In the 17th century Francis Willughby [1635-1672] and John Ray [1627-1705], working
together until Willughby's death at age thirty-seven, created the first major ornithology
classification system based on function and morphology rather than on form or behavior
combined with structure. The system was brilliantly devised and reflected great accuracy
in assessing relationships among bird groups.
libri tres (1676), completed by Ray and published after Willughby's death, is
considered the beginning of scientific ornithology in Europe. The Hill Collection contains
a copy of the original 1676 edition as well as a 1678
English translation, with additions, by John Ray. Years later Ray reworked and
enlarged the Ornithologia, which was then published posthumously in 1713 as his
Synopsis methodica avium et piscium. A copy of this work is also included in
the Hill Collection.
Online guide developed from:
Ornithology Collections in the Libraries at Cornell University: A Descriptive Guide
Revised Edition, 1999
Ithaca, New York
© 1999 Cornell University Library
Webpage last revised: 6/10/99 by jfc & clsb.