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Gesner, Topsell, and the purposes of pictures

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‘Veritie and not tales’: Gesner, Topsell, and Early Modern Zoological Illustration

Katherine Acheson

[This is the point at which I wondered if we could have a bit more of an introduction to Gesner and Fuchs and how they were pioneers of what has retrospectively been seen as the beginnings of scientific natural history and all that. This would strengthen the contrast you make with the way in which Gasener’s image was later reused in other contexts. I felt this was more important here than the issue of their ambivalence over pictures (to which in any case you return on p. 6.)]

Historians of print and historians of science agree that the circulation of pictures and diagrams, especially in books, was fundamental to changes in science in the early modern period. Cosmological, anatomical, botanical, and zoological illustrations depended on illustrations, which greatly aided identification and standardization (Gmelig-Nijboer 24). These images constituted substantive and material knowledge gained by what Alix Cooper calls ‘new kinds of attention’ (9) to the natural world. The reproduction of illustrations that print allowed encouraged comparative and collaborative research, which Elizabeth Eisenstein argues were the most distinctive methodological innovations of the time [footnote Eisenstein]. Images in these books were ‘the backbone of the exchange between distinct bodies of practical and theoretical knowledge’ (Büttner et al, 4) and thereby bridged the gap between abstract and applied science. The role of natural historical books (both image and text) in moving knowledge from theory to practice was particularly important in medicine, in which knowledge of anatomy, botany, and zoology enhanced treatment, while the empirical, comparative, and collaborative methods they endorsed and promoted supported a paradigm shift in the arts of diagnosis (Pomata?). But all of the images in all scientific genres contributed to what we might call a critical mass of knowledge and an essential density in the networks of its exchange that supported what we usually call the early modern scientific revolution.

In addition to allowing for collaboration between scientists, the production and reproduction of images in natural historical texts, among other sorts, promoted the exchange of knowledge between artists and scientists. I mean here not just the artists who were employed by scientists and publishers to create the woodblocks for the printed texts, and the scientists who learned to draw to preserve observations made in the field or anatomy theatre, but artists and scientists in general, even those who never consciously practiced the skills or thought about the principles of the other discipline. There are many recognized examples of the use of scientific illustrations as sources for decorative arts, and thousands more that have yet to be – or may never be – pinpointed, as the task of tracing and documenting the movement of these images between media and genres is enormous in both material and intellectual terms. The examples that have been traced are instructive: William B. Ashworth has tracked several instances of images that moved from literary works into scientific texts (and sometimes back again), and demonstrated that the existence of available examples often overrode the watchwords of direct observation and empirical theory. Martin Kemp and Samuel K. Edgerton have documented many instances in which artistic practice, particularly in the representation of perspective, influenced scientific theories about natural phenomena (according to Edgerton, in Galileo's illustrations we have "a clear case of cause and effect between the practice of Italian Renaissance art and the development of modern experimental science" (Edgerton 225)) and their representation within scientific treatises. This research has shown that what we might call the intimacy of shared purpose between artists and scientists in the early modern period enriched their inventiveness, enhanced their skills, and bolstered the professional status and collective ethos of each (see Smith). [As Allan Ellenius writes, the ‘cross-fertilisation of art and scientific ambitions was wedded to the idea of progress. The search for truth introduced a new dynamics which at times made older formulae obsolete; by making dimostrazioni, artists proved their skill in solving new and often intricate problems of composition, movement and action.’ ] It also proves that the images, along with the disciplinary values of both naturalistic art and empirical science, were widely dispersed in the societies in which they were produced: they became, that is, part of the general, fluid, circulation of signs, marked but not necessarily determined by their origins in theory or practice.

The consequences of this dispersal to the value and cogency of illustrations in scientific works – the subject of this essay – have not been examined in any detail. Here I will concentrate on zoological images, because both their wide dissemination and their persistence were exceptional. As Brian Ogilvie writes, while illustrations in botanical treatises diminished in number and importance over the course of the early modern period, illustrations remained a key part of zoological works. Conrad Gesner’s four-volume Historia animalium, published between 1551-1555, was the premier work in its field of the era, and it “remained a zoological reference for the next two hundred years” (Ogilvie, Science 44). But the illustrations in Gesner’s works were not just zoological reference points: they were one of the principal sources for animal images in a wide range of fine and decorative arts, across the European continent. At the same time they continued to be copied into other zoological texts, even in – especially in – works that emphasize direct observation, material evidence, and empirical procedures, values that are certainly reflected in the verbal content of the works. The wide dispersal of these zoological images in popular culture, coupled with their persistence within scientific works, raises questions about the truth-value of zoological illustrations and their function as components of the dissemination of new scientific knowledge. It is possible, for instance, that just as artists imported the values of scientists (naturalism and materialism) into their works, so too did science import traditional artistic values, such as aesthetic integrity and the role that normative forms and iconic representations can play in securing the attention, interest, and trust of the reader. MOVE TO END: “But for Konrad Gesner and several of his contemporaries, the artistic representation of animal and plant species…came to be regarded as a welcome means that assisted them in communicating precise botanical or zoological data as well as serving to arouse in their readers a sense of the wonderful variety, beauty, and purpose of divine creation. Thus, ideally, art, science, and the advancing technology of the printing trade went hand in hand, and sometimes this ideal was accomplished” (Hoeniger, “How Plants and Animals Were Studied” (146). In The Nature of the Book, Adrian Johns asks, “Were images to be trusted as truthful representations of the world? On what basis?” (Johns, The Nature of the Book. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1998. 434). The present essay will not answer those questions, but will divide and complicate them in what I hope is a useful manner for those interested in the rhetoric of visual images in the history of the natural sciences.

Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) is the most important author to consider in the matter of early modern zoological illustration. Gesner was a Swiss polymath whose range and output was extraordinary, even in an era rich in prolific intellectuals with broad interests. His first major publication was Bibliotheca universalis (four volumes, 1545-49), a bibliography of printed books that included 1800 authors and about 10,000 titles gathered from visits to Italian and German libraries. A professor of Greek, doctor of medicine, and lecturer in physics, he was a natural scientist in his spare time. While his botanical research was known to his peers in his wide network of correspondents, most of it was not published during his lifetime. The most significant of Gesner’s natural historical works that was published in his lifetime were the four volumes of his Historiae animalium (between 1551 and 1558, volumes on live-born quadrupeds, egg-born quadrupeds, birds, and fish and marine animals; a fifth volume, on serpents, was published posthumously in 1587). Comprising nearly 4,000 pages in the four volumes, the Historiae animalium drew from more than 250 Greek and Latin sources (all carefully listed in the paratexts) and from the dozens of other scientists with whom Gesner exchanged letters, including the Frenchmen Pierre Belon and Guillaume Rondelet, and the Englishman John Caius. The lengthy (for instance, the account of the “caprica” or goat is 60 pages) entries for each animal generally follow a pattern: after the woodcut illustration, Gesner lists the names of the creature in various languages; its geographical range; its food, physiology, and habits; its character; and its uses to man, which include medicine, food, and clothing. Much of this information was new, and what was not original had never been gathered together and compared on such a scale. As Ogilvie says, the work (originally in Latin, translated in full into German, and in abbreviated forms into other European languages) remained a reference for the next two centuries, because it offered so much new information, gathered, arranged, and presented according to the principals of empirical science and humanistic understanding that Gesner so