Florike Egmond

The Webs of Clusius and Gessner: Correspondence, Images, and Collecting in Sixteenth-Century Natural History

2012 Seminar Series / Thursday 3 May, 2012


Dr Florike Egmond (Leiden University) describes her recent discovery of two albums of original watercolour drawings created for the sixteenth-century Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1551-1558) within the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Crafted in Basel by the anatomist and natural historian (and Gessner’s friend) Felix Platter (1536-1614), the images – of a menagerie of marine life, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians – formed the basis of many of the illustrations within Gessner’s zoological masterwork, the Historiae Animalium (1551-1558). Renaissance correspondence networks, argue Egmond, played a key role in sharing and disseminating (although not, curiously, in facilitating discussion of) manuscript images, as both Gessner, Clusius, and other naturalists solicited hand-drawn illustrations of animals to serve as the basis of woodcuts in their publications from colleagues and agents around the world. These exchanges, in turn, formed the basis of what Florike termed (with caveats) a kind of visual ‘canon formation’ within natural history, as elements of various portrayals were adapted, reworked, and reappropriated across different contexts and between media; as representational norms stabilized; and as the repertoire of animals deemed suitable for inclusion in zoological texts (whose wide remit originally encompassed familiar creatures such as cats and goats) was narrowed and standardized.

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