Aldrovandi, Ulisse (1522–1605)

views updated May 11 2018


ALDROVANDI, ULISSE (15221605). Bolognese naturalist and collector. Known as the "Bolognese Aristotle," Ulisse Aldrovandi belonged to the generation of Renaissance physicians and apothecaries who rediscovered the importance of empirical study of the natural world. The son of a Bolognese notary, Aldrovandi worked as a notary and studied law before discovering the pleasures of science. He studied philosophy and mathematics at the University of Padua (15481549) and, after a narrow escape from the Inquisition, wrote a guidebook to ancient statuary in Rome. He received a medical degree at the University of Bologna in 1553.

By the late 1540s, Aldrovandi had discovered natural history. During his trip to Rome, he met the French naturalist Guillaume Rondelet, then researching ichythology. He subsequently developed a close relationship with the Italian naturalist Luca Ghini, who held the first professorship in "medicinal simples" at both Bologna and Pisa and who founded the Pisan botanical garden in 1543. Ghini encouraged medical students to take the study of the natural world seriously, inviting them on summer botanical expeditions, demonstrating plants in gardens, collecting natural specimens, and illustrating them with the help of artists. Aldrovandi's image of natural history was especially influenced by the practices of his mentor Ghini. He succeeded Ghini as professor of natural history at the University of Bologna in 1556, inaugurating its botanical garden in 1568.

Aldrovandi increased the significance and scope of natural history over the next few decades. He gave natural history some degree of autonomy from medicine by arguing that it was also an important part of natural philosophy. This approach to natural history was evident, for example, in Aldrovandi's choice of subjects for his publications. Rather than writing a new materia medica, in the tradition of the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides, Aldrovandi chose instead to follow Aristotle and contemporaries such as the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner; he wrote about animals because of his intrinsic interest in their anatomy, physiology, and habits rather than their medicinal uses. Similarly, his work on plants and minerals attempted to describe each specimen comprehensively, in keeping with Aldrovandi's vision of natural history as an encyclopedic project.

Aldrovandi published very little of his research in his lifetime. The first volume of his Natural History, the Ornithology (15991603), did not appear until shortly before his death. The technical difficulties of creating a comprehensive textual and visual portrait of each natural object demanded not simply the skills of a single naturalist but the collaboration of an entire community of collectors, transcribers, and artists devoted to the project of reconstructing nature. Aldrovandi's reputation as a great naturalist was based more on the materials he accumulated in his study than on what he published. His collection of animals, plants, minerals, curiosities, and antiquities was one of the most famous collections of curiosities in western Europe. Visitors described the museum as the eighth wonder of the world. Aldrovandi conceived of his collection not only as the raw ingredients for the writing of natural history but as an experimental laboratory in which to anatomize and archive nature. Princes, popes, and scholars all vied with each other to contribute interesting specimens to his collection.

In 1603 Aldrovandi wrote a will donating his collection to the senate of Bologna in return for their agreement to appoint a custodian who would teach natural history using the materials in the Studio Aldrovandi and to continue to publish his unfinished Natural History (ten more volumes appeared between 1606 and 1668). In 1742 the collection was disbanded and its ingredients incorporated into the new museum of the Institute for Sciences in Bologna.

See also Gessner, Conrad ; Museums ; Natural History ; Renaissance ; Scientific Revolution.


Aldrovandi, Ulisse. Aldrovandi on Chickens. The Ornithology of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1600), vol. II, book XIV. Edited and translated by L. R. Lind. Norman, Okla., 1963.

Findlen, Paula. "The Formation of a Scientific Community: Natural History in Sixteenth-Century Italy." In NaturalParticulars: Renaissance Natural Philosophy and the Disciplines, edited by Anthony Grafton and Nancy Siraisi, pp. 369400. Cambridge, Mass., 1999.

. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1994.

Riedl-Dorn, Christa. Wissenschaft und Fabelwesen: ein kritischer Versuch über Conrad Gessner und Ulisse Aldrovandi. Vienna, 1989.

Olmi, Giuseppe. L'inventario del mondo. Catalogazione della nature e luoghi del sapere nella prima età moderna. Bologna, 1992.

. Ulisse Aldrovandi. Scienza e natura nel secondo Cinquecento. Trent, Italy, 1976.

Simili, Raffaela, ed. Il teatro della natura di Ulisse Aldrovandi. Bologna, 2001.

Tugnoli Pattaro, Sandra. Metodo e sistema delle scienze nel pensiero di Ulisse Aldrovandi. Bologna, 1981.

Paula Findlen

Aldrovandi, Ulisse

views updated May 17 2018

Aldrovandi, Ulisse

(b. Bologna, Italy, 11 September 1522; d. Bologna, May 1605)

natural sciences.

Aldrovandi is a typical representative of those “universal” and multifaceted minds which seem to have been characteristic of the Renaissance. He was the son of a nobleman, Teseo Aldrovandi, a notary who served as secretary of the Senate of Bologna, and of Veronica Marescalchi, also of a noble family. His mother was a first cousin of pope Gregory XIII, a circumstance that was helpful to Aldrovandi later in his life, for Bologna was then a papal state

As a young man, Aldrovandi first studied mathematics under Annibale della Nave, a famous mathematician of the period. Restless by nature and eager to see new things, new countries, and new people, he ran away from home on several occasions. During one of these escapades he went as far as Spain.

After the voyage to Spain, which had been replete with adventures and perils, Aldrovandi returned to Bologna, where he enthusiastically studied Latin under Giovanni Gandolfo, one of the most distinguished humanists of the period.

Aldrovandi’s mother, now a widow, wanted him to become a jurist, and he readily applied himself to studying law. Within seven years he was on the verge of receiving his degree, which would have qualified him to practice law, but instead of completing the work he dedicated himself to philosophy. After having studied under the best philosophers of Bologna, he decided, about 1545, to go to Padua to complete his preparation there. This decision had a major influence on his life, for at Padua he began to study medicine and, with the aid of Pietro Catena, again took up mathematics.

On his return to Bologna, Aldrovandi and some of his friends were charged with heresy probably because at that time the University of Padua was reputed to be one of the main centers for the teaching of Averroës’ doctrines. He was obliged to go to Rome to exonerate himself, and there after proving his innocence, he became interested in the archaeological discoveries in which the city abounded. Later he collected his observations in a book, but perhaps more important, at Rome he met Guillaume Rondelet, who was there as the personal physician of Cardinal Tournon.

Rondelet was then gathering material for his work on fishes. Aldrovandi, who accompanied the French physician to fish markets in order to study the various species, finally decided to study natural history, and began collecting specimens for his own museum.

Upon his return to Bologna, Aldrovandi met LucaGhini, who then held the professorship of pharmaceutical botany at the university. When Ghini moved to Pisa Aldrovandi followed him in order to attend his lectures.

The need to earn his living obliged Aldrovandi to take his medical degree, which he received on 23 November 1553. On 14 December, at a solemn ceremony, he was admitted to the Collegio dei Dottori of Bologna, a membership that entitled him not only to practice medicine but also to teach in the university. Thanks to the support given him by an uncle who was a senator, he was also appointed a teacher of “logic” in the University of Bologna. Teaching, however, was merely an easy way of earning an income that would enable him to devote himself entirely to the study of the natural sciences. During vacation periods, Aldrovandi went on long trips, to study nature firsthand and to enrich his knowledge and collections. In 1551 he went as far as Monte Baldo, which he climbed with Luigi dell’ Anguillara and Luigi Alpago, who were well-known botanists of the period. In later years he was frequently accompanied on these expeditions by his pupils, who went with him to study botany and to collect samples of fossils and minerals to enrich his “museum” with specimens from every the part of Italy.

As a direct result of his intense scientific activity, the Senate appointed Aldrovandi professor of the history of “simples” (which study Aldrovandi had extended to embrace what would now be called natural sciences, including animals and minerals, as well as plants, whether they were of medicinal value or not). His appointment to this professorship was important for the development of natural history, for until then, lectures had been confined to the concise illustration of some single specimen of medicinal value. He was so successful in arousing a lively interest in the more systematic study of natural science, however that his lectures were attended by an increasing number of students. At the request of the students themselves, the chair was finally declared a full professorship on 11 February 1561.

In the wake of his first success, Aldrovandi, after long and bitter battles, also established at Bologna a botanical garden, of which he was named curator. This new appointment aroused further opposition and envy, and shortly afterward new quarrels arose when he was assigned the task of preparing an Antidotario, an official pharmacopoeia. It was to be authoritative in the state of Bologna and would fix the exact characteristics of the drugs and medicinal substances that druggists would be required to use in filling prescriptions.

The variety of tasks, the public and semipublic positions he held, and the conflicts and disputes (which his somewhat obstinate character served only to embitter) were responsible for Aldrovandi’s recurrent disagreements with his colleagues on the medical faculty of Bologna. They did not, however, seriously interfere with his truly prodigious studies in natural history. Aldrovandi also had the support of Pope Gregory XIII, who granted him, as a token of his benevolence and esteem, a large sum of money to aid him in the publication of his works.

At his death Aldrovandi bequeathed to the city of Bologna his museum, his library, and the manuscripts of his unpublished works. During his life he had been able to publish only four folio volumes, illustrated with beautiful copperplates; other volumes were published after his death. His manuscripts are preserved in the libraries of Bologna.

Aldrovandi carried out studies in several fields of natural history: botany, teratology, embryology, icthyology, and ornithology. He has been criticized for having included in his works information and legends devoid of any scientific basis–material that he derived largely from the works of Pliny and that would have been better confined to a medieval bestiary that included in Scholarly works.

The period in which Aldrovandi lived and studied was one of transition, however. Science was then being born through the labors of men who, like Aldrovandi, wrote of distant lands but were still obliged to base their accounts almost entirely on secondhand information, gleaned from texts and accounts of travelers. Very often the authors of these accounts were not men of science, but merchants and adventurers whose chief interests had nothing in common with science.

On the other hand, science assumes the existence of a critical, experimental mind, which the men of the Renaissance (Aldrovandi among them)were striving to achieve; it also assumes the inheritance of knowledge, already critically evaluated and classified, with which to compare and test new knowledge as it is acquired. It would therefore be mistaken to ridicule the minute descriptions that Aldrovandi gives us of the sirens, or of other fabulous animals and things.

In embryology, Aldrovandi was able to carry out, within certain limitations, studies in which he excelled and which influenced the work of Voucher Coiter, the Flemish scientist considered one of the founders of embryology. He and Coiter were the first to examine, as Aristotle had suggested, the development of the chick in the egg day by day, opening the eggs successively on each day of the incubation period, in order to describe minutely the changes that take place in the embryo. By this method it became possible for him to show that the heart of the embryo is formed in the “sacco vitellino” and not in the albumen, as other writers had maintained. He also showed that, just as Aristotle had correctly stated, the formation of the heart in the embryo precedes that of the liver, which Galen had incorrectly stated as taking place at the start of the embryonic development.

Aldrovandi also deserves credit for having carried out, in this area of studies, keen observations of a teratological nature, tracing the cause of the morphological changes of the chick to corresponding chemicophysical changes in the substance of the egg yolk.

Even if, from a practical viewpoint, his work and his observations did not contribute greatly to the progress of embryology, they unquestionably had the merit of recalling to the attention of scholars the method of direct observation of natural phenomena. Aldrovandi’s studies in this field paved the way for work along the same lines by Fabrizio (Fabricius ab Aquapendente), Malpighi, and Harvey.

Although he did not practice medicine, Aldrovandi’s efforts to place botany and pharmacology on a scientific plane and the lucidness and modernity of the legislation he suggested for public health and the civic sanitation of Bologna (found in his unpublished works) suggest that he was a pioneer in hygiene and pharmacology.

Although Aldrovandi is not identified with any revolutionary discoveries, his work as a teacher and as the author of volumes that constitute an irreplaceable cultural patrimony earns him a place among the fathers of modern science. Perhaps most importantly, he was among the first to attempt to free the natural sciences from the stifling influence of the authority of textbooks, for which he substituted, as far as possible, direct study and observation of the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds.


I. Original Works. Works by Aldrovandi, all published at Bologna and all in folio, are Ornithologiae, hoc est, de avibus historiae libri XII. Agent de avibus rapacibus (1600); Ornithologiae tomus alter de avibus terrestribus, mensae inservientibus et canoris (1600); De aninialibus insectis libri VII (1602); Ornithologiae tomus tertius ei ultimus de avibus aquaticis et circa quas degentibus (1603); De reliquis animalibus exanguibus, utpote de mollibus, crustaceis, testaceis et zoophytis, libri IV (1606); Quadrupedum omnium bisulcorum historia (1613); De piscibus libri V et de cetis liber unus (1613); De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri III, et de quadrupedibus oviparis libri II (1637); Historiae serpentum et draconum libri duo (1640); Monstruorum historia (1642); Museum metallicum (1648); and Dendrologiae naturalis, scilicet arborum historiae libri duo (1668).

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Aldrovandi are H. B. Adelmann, Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology (Ithaca, N.Y., 1966), for Aldrovandi’s contributions to the advancement of embryology; G. Fantuzzi, Memorie sulla vita e sulle opere di U. Aldrovandi (Bologna, 1774); L. Frati, Catalogo dei manoscritti di Ulisse Aldrovandi (Bologna, 1907); “La vita di U. Aldrovandi,” in Intorno alla vita e alle opere di U. Aldrovandi (bologna, 1907); and La vita di U. Aldrovandi scritta da lui medesimo (Imola, 1907); L. Samoggia, Ulisse Aldrovandi medico e igienista (bologna, 1962), containing an extensive and up-to-date bibliography of Aldrovandi’s manuscripts; and A. Sorbelli, “Contributi alla bibliografia delle opere di Ulisse Aldrovandi,” in Intorno alla vita e alle opere di Ulisse Aldrovandi (Bologna, 1907), which lits the published works of Aldrovandi and gives information on the various editions.

Carlo Castellani