Conrad Gesner: Illustrated Inventories with the use of Wonderful Woodcuts

Today marks the 501st birthday of influential Zurich born scholar, physician and naturalist, Conrad Gesner (26 March 1516 – 13 December 1565).


Portrait of Gesner by Tobias Stimmer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Gesner was every part the ‘Renaissance man’, a true polymath with a wide range of interests which are reflected in the breadth and variety of his works. Although perhaps best known for his influential encyclopedic works on the natural world his early works on other topics establish Gesner’s clear fascination with compiling and organising inventories of knowledge.

Take, for example, one of Gesner’s earliest works in our collection, the Bibliotheca universalis, published in 1545 (Sp Coll Ferguson Ak-x.17). Here, Conrad attempted to compile a compendium, organised alphabetically by author, of all the printed books (in Greek, Latin and Hebrew) in circulation for the first time. A daunting task not short on inventorial ambition and one that associates him with the origin of the bibliography as we know it. Ten years later in 1555, his Mithridates. De differentiis lingvarvm (Sp Coll Hunterian Bd.2.10) recorded a list of all the known languages in Conrad’s time.


De differntiis lingvarvm 1555 (Sp Coll Hunterian Bd.2.10)

In the sixteenth century intellectual interest in the natural world was growing, spurred on by advances in empirical knowledge developed through exploration and travel. Alongside this classical texts on these subjects, such as the works of Aristotle and Pliny, were also being made more widely available by the development of the printing press.

In 1551 Zurich based printer Christoph Froschouer published the first volume of Gesner’s monumental work the Historia Animalium (Sp Coll Hunterian A.a.1.1-4). Published in four volumes between 1551 and 1558, with an additional volume on snakes published after his death, Gesner aimed to bring together all the existing knowledge on every known animal, another bold and ambitious task! The first four volumes are divided into four-footed animals that gave birth to living young (viviparous quadrupeds); four-footed animals that that lay eggs (oviparous quadrupeds); birds; and finally, aquatic animals.


Printer’s device of Christoph Froschauer from Conrad Gesner’s 1553 Icones animalium quadrvpedvm viviparorvm et opviparorvm (Sp Coll Hunterian A.a.1.2)

One of the most appealing aspects of the Historia Animalium is Gesner’s use of over 1,500 woodcuts to illustrate the work. Gesner employed artists and drew upon existing woodcuts in circulation to illustrate the encyclopedic work and it is thought that Gesner himself produced drawings of specimens from his own collections. The work even includes a woodcut of a Rhinoceros by Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer. Each woodcut is accompanied by a description of the animal and various information such as its habitat, its use (for example medicinal, agricultural, culinary), philological information, and its name in various languages (primarily Latin, Italian, French and German).


Gesner’s use of woodcuts is seen as an important contribution to the scientific study of animals, exposing readers to images of species that may only have been previously studied by descriptive text. Indeed, the popularity of the illustrations at the time of publication is made clear by the fact that they were soon brought together in a separate work of their own, the Icones animalium and Icones avium omnivm (Sp Coll Hunterian A.a.1.2), published between 1553 – 1560.

Naturalists of this period recognised the importance of first-hand observation and working directly from nature. A discovery in 2012 of a collection of Gesner’s research drawings and watercolours in an Amsterdam Library evidenced that the illustration of the ‘Tigris’ was made in Florence from life, most likely viewed in one of the Medici menageries.1


Conrad Gesner ‘Tiger’ (Sp Coll Hunterian A.a.1.2)

However! Despite the seemingly empirical nature of Gesner’s works, the Historia Animalium is not short of its share of bizarre beasts and mythological creatures, perhaps influenced by the medieval bestiaries of the Middle Ages which portrayed animals against a backdrop of religious and moral allegory and tended to veer towards the exotic and fantastical.Gesner includes images and descriptions of Unicorns, various sea-monsters and even the strange cases of the anthropomorphic Monk and Bishop Fish.

What this shows is that Gesner was compiling a compendium of all the knowledge of animals in his day, representing both real and imaginary, thereby capturing an entire history of the subject.

Our collection also holds two copies of Conrad’s final work on fossils and gemstones, De omni rerum fossilium genere, gemmis… which was published shortly before his death and it is thought that he intended to expand this work to a larger scale work – perhaps on a par with his other encyclopedic works.


Conrad Gesner (1565) De omni rerum fossilium genere, gemmis… 

To celebrate his birthday, we (along with other Gesner enthusiasts) are celebrating #GesnerDay in his honour. Follow us on twitter @UofGlasgowASC where today we will be sharing some of the #wonderfulwoodcuts from our collections which Gesner used to illustrate his works on nature.

Happy Birthday Conrad!

Please note that the Historia Animalium volumes, from our Hunterian Collection (Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.1.1-4), are due to receive some care and attention from our Conservation team so are not currently available for consultation. Additional copies of Volumes 1-3 are held at Sp Coll Bh5-b.1-3. For any enquires please contact:

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  1. Egmond, F. (2017) ’16th century ‘zoological goldmine’ discovered – in picture’ [Accessed 15 March 2017]
  2. ‘Bestiary’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, [Accessed 20 March 2017]
  3. Meier, A. (2015) ‘The 16th-Century Fossil Book that First Depicted the Pencil’ [Accessed 12 March 2017]


Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

2 replies

  1. Reblogged this on jamesgray2 and commented:
    A very nice copy!


  1. Happy Birthday Conrad – #GesnerDay 2017 | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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