Unicorns, Frogs & the Sausage Supper Affair

Recently on Twitter, I’ve been posting some photos of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century books. Some have been retweeted and commented on even more times than my cat pics, which is encouraging. That got me to thinking about a new feature for ILT, Remarkable Renaissance Books: brief posts dedicated to single books from the period 1450–1600. A little about the literary content, authors, typography, illustrations and perhaps even something about the book’s provenance, or history.

My first book in this series is Historia animalium, a wonderful encyclopedia or inventory of animals, written and compiled by the Swiss physician and naturalist, Conrad Gessner (1516–65). Published in four volumes between 1551 and 1558, they follow Aristotle’s classification: volume one for viviparous quadrupeds (four-legged animals bearing living offspring); vol. 2, oviparous quadrupeds (four-legged, egg-laying animals); vol. 3, birds; and the fourth volume, aquatic animals.

The four-volume series comprised over 3,500 pages and the whole set was rather expensive (with hand-colored copies available at close to a 40% premium). To appeal to a wider (and less wealthy) audience, Gessner produced an abridged series of the woodcuts alone. The volume we’re looking at today is the first in that series, Icones animalium* (‘Animal Pictures’).

The book opens with the wonderful printer’s mark of Zurich printer, Christoph Froschauer (c. 1490–1564). The child riding a frog is a play on his name (Frosch is German for frog).

Detail of Christoph Froschauer’s printer’s mark, from Conrad Gessner’s Icones animalium, 1553.

This first volume contains 96 images. Most will be familiar with the Rhinoceros woodcut that appears on page 30. It is a very faithful copy of Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros print of 1515. And, as this is the mid-sixteenth century, no inventory of all-known animals would be complete without a unicorn (p. 28). Gessner had hoped to buy a unicorn horn for reference but reports that they were prohibitively expensive.

Rhinoceros woodcut (copied from Dürer’s 1515 broadside print) for Conrad Gessner’s Icones animalium. Printed by Christoph Froschauer in 1553.
From Conrad Gessner’s Icones animalium. Printed by Christoph Froschauer in 1553.

And from the looks of that cat on page 19, I’m happy my own are from the 21st rather than the 16th century.

From Conrad Gessner’s Icones animalium. Printed by Christoph Froschauer in 1553.

Throughout the book, roman type is used for the definitions in Latin, Italian and French (Gallice); while blackletter is used for those in German. This continues through to an index that is divided into four sections, one for each language – again, with all but German presented in roman type.

Details of roman (one of several styles and sizes), italic (with upright capitals) and blackletter. In addition to being used for German definitions throughout, the blackletter type is also used for the French dedication on page four.

Italic appears in the preface and in two lines at the end of the index (introducing subsequent volumes). The italic type follows the original Aldine italics, in that it has upright capitals. Inclined or sloping capitals were only universally adopted in the last decades of the sixteenth century.

During the Counter-Reformation, Gessner’s encyclopedia found its way onto the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic Church’s list of banned books and authors (1559 edition) – not for its contents but because Gessner was a Protestant. And it probably didn’t help that Froschauer had been at the center of the scandalous Affair of the Sausages (1522) when he was arrested for eating sausages on Friday, during Lent. Ulrich Zwingli, who was present (but reportedly did not partake of the sausages) nonetheless came to Froschauer’s defense. This was one of the events that sparked the Swiss Reformation.


* USTC: 664935; VD16: G1726

The digitized copy I consulted is hosted by Zentralbibliothek Zürich

R. Bochsler, How a couple of sausages triggered the Swiss Reformation

F.J. Cole, ‘The History of Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros in Zoological Literature’, in Science, Medicine and History: Essays of the Evolution of Scientific Thought and Medical Practice, Written in Honour of Charles Singer, E. A. Underwood (ed.), Oxford University Press, 1953, pp. 337􏰀–56

S. Kusukawa, ‘The sources of Gessner’s pictures for the Historia animalium’, Annals of Science, vol. 67, No. 3, July 2010, pp. 303􏰀–28

A. Pettegree, Brand Luther [highly recommended]

This page set in Ideal sans, Operator and Tungsten Rounded.

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