From the Rare Book Collections: Aldrovandi, Ulisse. 1642. “Monstrorum Historia”

“Monstrorum Historia” is a visually stunning book on the history of monsters. It is part of a larger work, an enormous 13-volume encyclopedia on natural history. The author, Ulisse Aldrovandi, wrote parts of the encyclopedia using the raw material in his museum and the botanical garden in Bologna in Italy. He collected not only specimens of plants, animals, fossils and minerals, but also reports and drawings of sightings of dragons and the “fabulous races” of Greek mythology such as centaurs, cyclops, satyrs and mermen. The current boundary between art, science, myth and reality is not present in Aldrovandi’s encyclopedia or in his museum collections. According to Konrad Gesner, another encyclopedist of that period, the goal of encyclopedias of the 16th and centuries was to acquaint the reader with the unusual.

Human beings are the subject of the first of 13 chapters, which have woodcut illustrations and commentary on the unusual “human beings” of myth and reality. The cyclops, satyr, mermen and centaurs of Greek mythology are adjacent to portraits of a family with hypertrichosis, or Werewolf Syndrome (page 16 and following pages). Giants and dwarves and a visual catalog of non-European peoples of the world occupy other pages. It was all unusual to the 17th-century European reader. Aldrovandi makes no distinction between art and science or myth and reality.

The history of monsters contains other case histories of continuing medical interest besides the family with hypertrichosis in the first chapter. A later chapter on skin abnormalities includes a woodcut portrait and an early case report for an Indian man with neurofibromatosis. English translations of this case history were first given in a paper by Madigan and Masello (1989) and later by Stephanie Brosius (2010).

 

Sources:

Aldrovandi, Ulisse. 1642. Vlyssis Aldrovandi patricii Bononiensis Monstrorum historia: Cum paralipomenis historiae omnium animalium. Bononiae (Bologna): Typis Nicolai Tebaldini.

Beck, David. Knowing nature in early modern Europe. Routledge, 2015 Preview on Google books

Biolcati, G. Dolazza C. 2006 “1599: first iconographic description of hepatoerythropoietic porphyria.” International Journal of Dermatology, 45(8):976-8.

Brosius, S. 2010. “A History of von Recklinghausen’s NF1.”  Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 19 (4):333-348. doi: 10.1080/09647041003642885 .

Findlen, Paula. 1996. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy, especially page 25-26.

Madigan, P. and Masello, M.J., 1989. Report of a neurofibromatosis-like case, monstrorum historia, 1642. Neurofibromatosis, 2(1), p.53

“Ulisse Aldrovandi.” Encyclopædia Britannica. November 07, 2013. URL: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ulisse-Aldrovandi Access Date: December 22, 2017