17 Excellent Animal Illustrations from a 16th Century Book
Between 1551 and 1558, Swiss doctor and naturalist Conrad Gessner published his magnum opus, the five-volume, 4500-page Historiae animalium, which became the period's most widely read natural history collection. Combining the work of those who came before him, like Aristotle, Pliny, and the unknown author of Physiologus, and making use of both verbal descriptions and illustrations of animals from explorers and other naturalists, Gessner attempted to catalogue all known beasts—even ones we know today to be mythological. "He often assured his readers ... that his friends' testimony was reliable, as they had personally eyeballed even the most ferocious beasts, including lions and crocodiles," writes Michon Scott at Strange Science. "When [Gessner] doubted the accuracy of the opinions he relayed in his own writings, or the validity of the illustrations he included, he prudently said so. Of the multi-headed hydra, for instance, he observed, 'ears, tongues, noses, and faces are inconsistent with the nature of serpents.'"
Historiae animalium was a standout because of the sheer number of its illustrations, which were created using woodcuts; Gessner and the artists he worked with got some animals very close to right, while others are entirely off the mark. “A visual game of telephone is, to some degree, what the artists were dealing with in the 16th century,” Tom Baione, Director of the Department of Library Services at the American Museum of Natural History, told us when we first looked at some illustrations from Historiae animalium last year. Here are a few more illustrations for you to admire.
Beavers do have pretty gnarly incisors—they're harder on the front than on the back, which is what creates the sharp edge that allows these semi-aquatic animals to chisel away at wood—but somehow, they don't look as terrifying on the actual animal.
Every species in the porcupine family—approximately two dozen of them—has a coat of quills to use as a defense mechanism. In real life, though, they don't look quite so sinister.
The first written description of a unicorn—which, unfortunately, is not real—appeared in the writings of Greek physician Ctesius, and it doesn't resemble the animal we've come to think of at all:
There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The base of this horn, for some two hands'-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black. Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons…
This is the only way to capture them: when they take their young to pasture, you must surround them with many men and horses. They will not desert their offspring and fights with horns, teeth and heels; and they kill many horses and men. They are themselves brought down by arrows and spears. They cannot be caught alive.
In the fascinating book A Natural History of Unicorns, Chris Lavers examines all the animals that could have possibly been unicorns, and how the creature went from that first description to the beautiful, one-horned horse we think of now.
The drawing is a little more wolf- or coyote-like than an actual red fox, but cute in its own way.
This illustration seems to show a Bactrian camel. These two-humped ungulates are much rarer than their single-humped dromedary cousin—in fact, they're critically endangered. This illustration would be more accurate if the beast had more fur and higher humps.
Sure, tigers are cute, but they're not this cute. While the stripes are kind of close, the happy smile, high and slender build, and fur at the end of the tail are anything but.
Fact: No illustration could ever be as adorable as the real thing, and this drawing definitely isn't. It makes hedgehogs look shocked and a little curmudgeonly.
We should all be thankful that elephants aren't this terrifying in real life. Look at that trunk!
There are 20 species of armadillo; according to National Geographic, and all of them but one live in Latin America. It's unclear which kind of armadillo this is, but it looks like it just played a wicked joke on one of its brethren.
One word sums this illustration up, and that word is "Ahh!"
11. Sea Turtle
I wouldn't want to swim next to one of these guys—look at those teeth! In real life, sea turtles don't have teeth; instead, they use their beaks to eat, and stiff, gnarly-looking papillae help direct the food to the stomach.
If you'd never seen a giraffe before, and someone described it to you, you might draw its ossicones—which are actually cartilage covered in skin—as more typical horns, too. Fun fact: People once called giraffes "camel-leopards" because, thanks to the small hump on the back and the spotted coat, people thought they were a combination of camels and leopards!
This croc looks more like a red-eyed crocodile skink—at least around the eyes.
The color's not right—those feathers should be darker!—and the beak is a little too thick, but otherwise, this is a pretty good portrait of the world's largest (and heaviest!) bird.
Hippos are much stouter than this illustration shows, and they prefer to spend most of their time in the water, not walk on it. Hippos and crocs do sometimes face off in the wild, though it probably doesn't go quite like this illustration shows.
Adventures on the high seas must have been terrifying if you thought this was what awaited you.
Lion manes are definitely beautiful, but they're not this well groomed.
All images courtesy of NLM.gov unless otherwise noted.