Artefact of the Month - March 2012. Historiae animalium / Conradi Gesneri [Konrad Gessner]. Tiguri : Froschover, 1551-85
As this month we celebrate World Book Day on 1 March 2012 and National Science Week 9 -18 March 2012 we are featuring Gessner’s Historiae animalium as our `Artefact’. These amazing books, published between 1551-85 attempted to record and classify all knowledge of the animal world as it was known at that time. As you can see from the woodcuts below all known, rumoured and unknown animals were included! The book was published in Latin the language then used by scholars. The books occupy 25cm of shelf space – any similar attempt to describe every species would more than fill our whole library as according to the 2010 IUCN red list of threatened species more than 1,365,555 animal species have been described.
As there were no effective copyright regulations at that time, the images were often copied in later publications, for instance the rhinoceros image was used again over 100 years later in Edward Topsel’s History of four-footed beasts published in 1658.
As more of the world was `discovered’ travellers tales resulted in sometimes accurate descriptions of animals, for example the giraffe or cameleopard description is accurate, they have long necks and legs, spotted skin and horns but the resulting image does not quite appear how we now know they look! Similarly the image of the ostrich depicts it as the correct shape but it is covered with the feathers normally found only on its tail, whilst one of the images of a ray is completely fantastical.
The image of the bird of paradise is particularly interesting as they were always depicted as not having legs, indeed it was believed they never stopped flying. Linnaeus himself named these birds Paradisa apoda – footless bird of paradise. The fact they had feet was not confirmed until they were observed in the nineteenth century by Rene Primevere Lesson on a voyage of the French ship La Coquille, he also observed how the birds were prepared by local people. However the myth about them continued until Alfred Russel Wallace reported observing them in the wild, he managed to send two living Lesser birds of paradise to ZSL London Zoo which were displayed in 1861.
It is free to use ZSL Library; however an appointment needs to be made in advance for special collections including rare books.Proof of address and photo ID need to be shown unless the user is already a member of the Library or of ZSL.