2014 July Aldrovandi’s Monsters

Aldrovandi’s Monsters


Ulysses Aldrovandi (1522–1605) was a Bolognese naturalist, collector, and sixteenth-century Aristotelian. His private museum attracted naturalists and noblemen from around Europe who came to marvel at his collection. He corresponded with naturalists all over Europe with whom he swapped samples and on his death in 1605 he bequeath thousands of objects to the Senate of Bologna in order to open his collection to the public. Aldrovandi spent so much time collecting and recording his samples of plants, animals, rocks and other curiosities that he failed to publish much of his work during his lifetime. Therefore, it was a condition of his will that his notes be published posthumously. Eight volumes were published in the fifty years following his death including Monstrorum Historia published in 1642 and edited by Bartolomeo Ambrosini, custodian of Aldrovandi’s museum.

Monstrorum Historia details nature’s strange and rare phenomena as seen through the eyes of a seventeenth-century naturalist. Some of the items listed are known to be true, others we now accept as mythological. The pages of Aldrovandi’s texts are heavily illustrated with depictions of humans, animals, fish, plants and even rocks that strayed from his perceptions of normality. These vary from the fantastic – satyrs, Cyclops, and half-human half-animal hybrids – to humans and animals with recognisable visual genetic mutations and physical disabilities. Aldrovandi attempted to explain these phenomena of nature by examining ways in which the foetus may be affected during pregnancy or childbirth. The attributes of different peoples across the world were also outlined in order to account for variation. By doing so, Aldrovandi was not merely relaying information but attempting to analyse and engage with the more mysterious aspects of nature.

Aldrovandi and his naturalist colleagues were following new trends of knowledge creation and verification. They sought to list, categorise, and standardize everything in the natural world. However, with every standard model naturalists created, there was a possibility of deviations from the norm which were considered monstrous. Thus, parallel strands of investigation were carried out to contextualise the so-called ‘monsters’ in relation to the standard and broaden overall knowledge of the natural world. Vesalius was one of the most famous individuals who helped create the new normative framework [1]. He observed, dissected and outlined a standardized human body but in doing so solidified perceptions of what was ‘normal’. Every individual who strayed physically from this standard was labelled a ‘monster’. To interpret the term ‘monster’ in the modern sense of the word would be anachronistic however. Whilst there were ‘monsters’ of the ocean that terrified sailors and fit with modern ideas of ‘monsters’, on the whole, ‘monsters’ were not necessarily feared by naturalists. ‘Monsters’ were also treated as curiosities and delights of nature and often valued for their rarity. Daston and Park note that horror, delight and repugnance all co-existed in the early-modern period towards ‘monsters’ [2].

Aldrovandi claimed to only describe things he had seen, handled or dissected personally[3]. Aldrovandi participated in a community of naturalists who prized facts and personal experiences over hearsay. How then do we reconcile his professed adherence to these standards with the pages of Monstrorum Historia? The negotiation of fact from fiction in the early modern period was a tricky business. Aldrovandi and his correspondents created networks of trust. Aldrovandi both sent and received specimens such as seeds and dried plants from other naturalists on the basis that he trusted their expertise. The source of the information was not always trusted however and it was not always possible to obtain specimens to witness first-hand. The increased exploration of the world during the Renaissance created accounts of strange natural occurrences overseas brought to Europe by sailors and explorers. Usually these individuals had no knowledge of the guidelines and methods used by naturalists to verify information. They were often uneducated and sometimes only relayed tales that had in turn been passed on to them in varying degrees of alteration. Artists had to create depictions based on verbal descriptions which resulted in interpretations humorous to modern eyes. For example, one can imagine a description of a seahorse resulting in the following image but it cannot be said to be a true-likeness of the actual creature we now know as a seahorse.


Likewise this bishop fish could potentially be a poorly described or exaggerated type of jellyfish.


Although Aldrovandi, for the most part, kept to his principle of personally experiencing all natural phenomena he described, the evidence in Monstrorum shows that in some cases he negotiated the truth of unverifiable accounts rather than dismissing them outright. The lure of the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Indies and all of the un-described nature that lay in wait was too great for Aldrovandi and other naturalists to ignore. When entire continents were filled with the unknown, the relative believability of some accounts compared with verified new phenomena from these lands is understandable. Even when presented with specimens in person naturalists needed to be cautious. There were individuals who learnt to manipulate the market of valuable oddities as discovered by Linnaeus in the 1730s when he revealed that a seven-headed monstrous hydra was only an elaborate taxidermy hoax [4]. Many of the images lining the pages of early modern monster tracts illustrated ‘monsters’ such as satyrs which had been copied again and again in ancient texts and in medieval bestiaries. The naturalists relied on these ancient and medieval accounts as a baseline to build upon and these ‘monsters’ were copied once more into early modern publications.


There are plenty of verifiable accounts in Monstrorum Historia too however. Siamese twins, dwarves and people with physical deformities and missing limbs feature in the pages of Aldrovandi’s text. Many of these individuals passed through Bologna on tours of courts of Europe or Italy. For example the illustration of the Humuncio was of a man named Aegisthus who visited Bologna from India in 1592-93. Posthumously diagnosing people from two-dimensional images is problematic but Aldrovandi’s text is a popular historic source among doctors who attempt it. One of the suggested diagnostics for Aegisthus was a multiple neurofibromatosis type 1[5].

One of the most famous examples from Aldrovandi is the case of Pedro Gonzales and some of his children who were posthumously diagnosed in the 20th century with congenital hypertrichosis, a disease which left them with hair covering their bodies. Pedro Gonzales was taken from the Canary Islands by the Spanish as a boy due to his appearance and eventually given as a gift to the French court where King Henry II ensured the highest education for one of his prized possessions. Despite his enslavement Gonzales was treated more as a subject of the court and was permitted to marry and had seven children including three who also carried the genetic trait of hypertrichosis. Following the deaths of Henry II and Catherine de Medici the Gonzales family made their way to the de Medici in Parma and from there toured some of the courts in Italy. In the 1580s Gonzales and his daughter Antoinette visited Bologna where they met Aldrovandi. Similar accounts exist for the subjectivity of dwarves within court culture. In particular the de Medici prized the presence of dwarves and often entrusted them as messengers to other courts. For some ‘monsters’ their appearance became an asset and assisted entry into court life rather than ostracization from society [6].


Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum was not the only book on ‘monsters’ Edward Worth collected for his library. He also purchased a copy of Ambroise Paré’s Book on Monsters as part of his complete works (1685 edition) and Fortunio Liceti’s (1577-1657) De Monstris (1665 edition). Both of these works post-date the 1642 edition of Aldrovandi but there are overlapping elements in all three texts such as the pig with a man’s head. Aldrovandi and Fortunio Liceti both depict a man with an elephant’s head and Paré includes images of a bishop ‘monster’ and a monk ‘monster almost identical to those shown in Aldrovandi’s text.


 A physician such as Edward Worth may have used them as a means to study medical curiosities. The authors’ speculations on the relationship between incidents during pregnancy and the birth of ‘monsters’ may have been used as a reference to caution pregnant women against certain activities. Whatever the reason for Worth’s purchase of these books, their presence shows the persistence of interest in rare and unusual occurrences in nature through to the eighteenth-century from ancient times.


Ulisse Aldrovandi, Monstrorum Historia 1642.

Ambroise Paré, Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré 1685.

Fortunio Liceti, De Monstris 1665.

[1]Touba Ghadessi, ‘Visualizing Monsters: Anatomy as a Regulatory System’ in Matthew Landers & Brian Muño, Anatomy and the Organisation of Knowledge, (London, 2012) p146.

[2] Lorraine Daston & Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750, p176.

[3] Paula Findlen, Possessing Nature,(California, 1994)p156.

[4] Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters, an unnatural history of our worst fears, (Oxford, 2009) p123

[5] M. Ruggieri, A. Pollizzi , J Med Genetics 2003;40; p227–232.

[6] Touba Ghadessi, ‘Inventoried monsters, Dwarves and hirsutes at court’ in Journal of the History of Collections, vol.23 no.2 (2011) pp.267-281 for information on Gonzales and Dwarves in court culture.

Text by Neasa McGarrigle, B.A. (TCD), M.Sc. (Oxon); Candidate for Ph.D, Trinity College Dublin.

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