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Ulisse Aldrovandi
De quadrupedibus solidipedibus volumen integrum
Bologna, 1616
fol. in 6s: p 2 A–2Y6
A 3. 7Med.

Aldrovandi’s elephant as depicted in his natural history of quadrupeds. The Studio Aldrovandi, which survives in the collections of the University of Bologna, became the most famous natural history collection of the sixteenth century and its founder was viewed as a ‘second Noah’. In the seventeenth century however, Aldrovani came to be criticized for relying too much on the authority of the ancients – primarily Aristotle and Pliny – as new emphasis was placed on the importance of making observations directly from nature. Catalogue no.29, p.465.
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Ulisse Aldrovandi, a professor in the medical faculty of the University of Bologna, created the most famous museum of natural history in the sixteenth century. It was meant to accumulate, organize and display the natural world arranged according to Aristotle and Pliny. As his collection extended and his fame grew, Aldrovandi came to be seen as a second Noah.

His publication programme was incomplete at his death in 1605, but further catalogues appeared in subsequent decades, when responsibility for the Studio Aldrovandi, which by 1600 contained about 20,000 items, had been accepted by the Senate of Bologna. The book included in the exhibition, dealing with quadrupeds, was published in Bologna in 1616, and in representing the work of Aldrovandi, must stand for his vast enterprise of collecting, taxonomy, display and publication.

As interest in natural history collections grew in seventeenth-century England, Aldrovandi’s approach was revised in favour of a closer scrutiny of actual speci mens. Hartlib observed in 1640 that ‘Out of all Aldrovandi 10 or 12. Opera scarce one will bee compiled ad rem, i.e. that shall containe a true botanical Historie. The other things bee impertinencys et digressions’ (Hartlib Papers, 30/4/54B [Ephemerides, 1640]). By the time of Grew’s catalogue of the Royal Society’s collection, published in 1681, a different culture prevailed in natural history (preface, sig. A):

I have made the Quotations, not to prove things well known, to be true; as one * (and he too deservedly esteemed for his great Diligence and Curiosity) who very formally quotes Aristotle, to prove a Sheep to be amongst the Bisulca … as if Aristotle, must be brought to prove a Man hath ten Toes.

*Aldrovandus [printed marginal note]


P. Findlen, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Berkeley, 1994); N. Grew, Musæum Regalis Societatis (London, 1681).

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