Nature imitates art.
Oscar Wilde: Portrait of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde: Portrait of Dorian Gray
Giambologna: Grotta degli Animali, Firenze, Villa di Castello, after 1537
Pisa, Cathedral, detail of the bronze door made by the workshop of Giambologna, first half of the 16th century
Castle of Kronborg (Danemark), Netherlandish gobelin from 1550
As the above examples show, by the middle of the 16th century the rhinoceros spread all over Europe from the southernmost South to the northernmost North. These animals, however, were not the direct offsprings of the engraving by Dürer.
True, Dürer’s engraving was reprinted several times in the two centuries following its first publication. However, these stand-alone leaflets were usually conserved in the cabinets of curiosities of princely collectors like in private zoos. The “true image” of the rhinoceros established by Dürer was transmitted to the public principally through the engravings of the Renaissance handbooks and encyclopedias. This very exciting period of the birth of the modern encyclopedia has not been yet really discovered by modern research which focuses either on the medieval encyclopedies like the Etymologies by Isidor of Seville or the four Speculum’s by Vincent of Beauvais, or on the 18th-century French Encyclopedia by Diderot and Alembert and its immediate scientific predecessors (although the pendulum of Foucault as well as the lexicon of Lemprière and their epigons are already looting them with abundant profit). Nevertheless, these works were highly celebrated in their age, and even today they are very enjoyable readings, offering plenty of enchanting surprises. And besides they established all those standards that we consider as self-evident today, from alphabetic orden through thematic lexicons to the bibliography.
One of the first and most influential encyclopedias was the Cosmographia compiled by the Basel geographer and Hebraist Sebastian Münster and published in five languages and thirty-three editions between 1544 and 1628. Its success was very much enhanced by its beautiful engravings composed by eminent artists like Hans Holbein the Younger, Urs Graf or David Kandel. This latter one, who also illustrated another early encyclopedia, the epoch-making Kreütter Buch or Herbal (1546) by Hieronymus Bock, made that copy of Dürer’s picture which thereafter spread the true image of the rhinoceros in several reprints and editions all over Europe.
A characteristic feature of this engraving is that the printing block seems to have broken after an early edition, and since then a somewhat oblique thin horizontal line run through all the later prints like a watermark attesting its authenticity. In colored copies, like in the above 1580 French edition of the Cosmographia they tried to eliminate it through overpainting.
However, by later editions like this Basel 1598 one, the printing block became worn not only on its printing side but also on its joint surface, and the two halves were slightly shifted from each other.
This engraving was used in other handbooks as well, like here in the collection Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon (Chronicle of the miracles and omens), Basel 1557 by the illustrious German humanist Conrad Lycosthenes, an illustrated register of all the wonderful events, signs and phenomena mentioned from the Antiquity to the Renaissance. The rhinoceros appears here among the other wondrous animals. But it also entered in Paolo Giovio’s Dialogo dell’imprese militari e amorose (Discourse about the military and amorous symbols), the father of all 16th-century symbol encyclopedias, to which we will return in a next post.
The image self-evidently received an eminent place in the monumental Historia animalium (1551-8) by the Swiss physician Conrad Gessner, also published in German from 1565 and in English in 1606. This four volumes first zoological encyclopedia not only published an excellent copy of Dürer’s engraving, but it also carefully collected all the known information about the animal in three folio pages printed with small letters. The translation of the complete text will be offered in a next post as a curiosity.
However, prints could convey only forms and no colors. The different coloring of two copies of the Historia animalium shows well, how different ideas the contemporaries had about the true colors of this animal.
And it shines in even more striking colors in the great zoological encyclopedia published in eleven folio volumes between 1599 and 1640 by Ulisse Aldrovandi, founder of one of the earliest botanical gardens (Bologna) and owner of one of the largest collection of curiosities of his age.
Ambroise Paré, the surgeon of four French kings, who won our sympathy by his personal motto which bears witness to a serious self-criticism and psychological sense – Guérir quelquefois, soulager souvent, consoler toujours, “Intervene rarely, relieve often, console always” – was one of the most original natural scientists of the 16th century. Within his far-reaching and painstaking oeuvre he also dedicated a chapter to the rhinoceros. In his Discours de la licorne (Treatise on the unicorn), translated and published in several editions he attempts to establish the origin of the “corn of unicorn” considered as an effective medicine against poisoning and epidemy, and he also proposes its identification with the rhinoceros. On this occasion he publishes not only the above picture of the latter animal, but also illustrates its combat with the elephant as described by Pliny and as we will present it in a later post.