As historian Ann Blair notes in her 2016 Bennett Lecture before the Renaissance Society of America, although Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) was both prolific and varied in his publishing interests, he is perhaps best known today as the author of natural histories, particularly his four volume Historia Animalium (1551-1558).
Gessner’s Historia Animalium was originally published in Latin, but in 1557 the first of several German editions of the work appeared. Recently, Watkinson Library was fortunate to acquire a handsome 1582 edition of the third volume, containing more than 200 original woodcuts of various species of birds. The purchase of this splendid copy of Gessner’s Vogelbuch was made possible by generous funds given to the Watkinson by Ostrom and Alice Enders.
When the first volume appeared in 1551, it was clear that Gessner’s encyclopedic Historia Animalium aimed not just to supplant Aristotle’s pioneering work of that name but to appeal to an elite audience of readers and buyers. Written in Latin and printed in a lavishly illustrated large folio edition, the Historia Animalium—which ran to more than 3500 pages over its four volumes—was clearly targeted at the very upper end of the book-buying public.
The decision to issue it in a vernacular edition thus marks an important moment in the book’s life; by doing so, Gessner’s encyclopedic work increased its reach and found new audiences. Now, readers of German could satisfy their scientific curiosity and perhaps even contribute to its growth in ways that had previously only been open to Latin-literate elites. The very existence of vernacular works such as Gessner’s Vogelbuch are a testament to the influence that these readers exerted on the early modern print trade. They are also a recognition of their growing importance to the development of early modern natural science.
Whatever concessions Gessner and his publisher, Christoph Froschauer, may or may not have felt they made by making the book more accessible linguistically, they made none to the quality of its presentation, publishing each volume in the same spacious large folio format and complete with all of the same woodcuts used in the Latin edition.
While the German readers of Gessner’s Vogelbuch may have lacked an elite education, they possessed considerable wealth, and Gessner and Froschauer were keen to reap the rewards of their interest in natural science by presenting them with an edition every bit as attractive as the one they made available to Latin readers.
With its expensive, blind-tooled alum-tawed pigskin binding done by the Augsburg bookbinder Matthias Gartner, the Watkinson’s copy of Gessner’s Vogelbuch attests not only to the intellectual curiosity but also to the wealth and taste of many of these amateur scientists.
Special Collections Librarian