De Psittaco Albo Cristato

De Psittaco Albo Cristato
from Ornithologiae, hoc est de avibus historiae...
by Ulisse Aldrovandi

metal engraving/etching

Hill Ornithology Collection — 16th and 17th Centuries

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 1903 translation.

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 compendium, Histoire 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 likenesses.

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.

Willughby's Ornithologiae 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.


from L'histoire de la nature des oyseaux...
by Pierre Belon

woodcut/wood engraving