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Natural history in the Renaissance

Click here to download the powerpoint for this weeks' lecture

Natural history, in the sense of the description of plants, animals and minerals, is an ancient practice. However it was only in the sixteenth century that a community of naturalists emerged in Europe who were dedicated to description for its own sake.

These naturalists described many more species than their predecessors, described them in more detail, and emphasised the form and growth of natural bodies rather than their useful (and especially medical) properties. In doing so they drew on new, or newly elaborate, methods, including botanical excursions, gardens, herbaria (collections of dried plants), and printed illustrations.

The renascence of natural history was tied to several wider aspects of Renaissance Europe, including humanist scholarship, voyages of discovery, cabinets of curiosity, and naturalistic drawing and painting.

The essential readings include a broad survey of sixteenth century natural history, two secondary texts that focus on botanical illustrations, and some examples of such illustrations.


Why were botanical illustrations controversial among humanists in the first half of the sixteenth century?

How did botanical illustrations change over the course of the sixteenth century?

What effect did pictures have on the written descriptions that naturalists gave of plants?

Essential readings - secondary

Chapter 4, 'A Science of Describing' [start reading at the heading 'Illustrations in Renaissance Natural History'], in ibid.

Chapter 5, 'Accidents and Arguments: Fuchs' De Historia Stirpium,' in Sachiko Kusukawa, Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany (University of Chicago Press, 2011)

Essential readings - primary

Browse the following online botanical texts in chronological order. Have a close look at two or three images from each text. Note their size on the page, their position with respect to the text, and the level of detail and stylization in the illustrations themselves. The images in all of these texts are woodcuts, except the Besler text, where they are engravings.

Arnaldo da Villanova, Tractatus de virtutibus herbarum (1st edition 1499) - click here to view the 1509 edition

Otto Brunfels, Herbarum Vivae Eicones (1532)

Leonart Fuchs, De Historia Stirpium (1542)

Carolus Clusius, Rariorum aliquot Stirpium, per Pannoniam, Austriam... (1583)

Basilius Besler, Hortus Eystettensis (first published 1613) - click here to view the 1640 edition

Further reading

A. Natural history illustrations

Kusukawa, Sachiko. Picturing the Book of Nature, esp. chapters 1, 6, 7 and 8 - chapter 6 is available for download here

Blunt, Wilfrid. 1950. The Art of Botanical Illustration. London: Collins.

Ford, Brian J. 1992. Images of Science: A History of Scientific Illustration. London: British Library.

B. Renaissance natural history in general

Remaining chapters in Ogilvie, The Science of Describing, including chapter 2 (especially this excerpt - a good general introduction to botany in this period), chapter 3 (on the humanist invention of natural history), and chapter 5 (on classification schemes, standards of evidence, and exotic species)

Ashworth, William B. 1996. “Emblematic Natural History of the Renaissance.” In Cultures of Natural History, edited by Nicholas Jardine, James Secord, and Emma Spary, 17–37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Findlen, Paula. 1994. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Univ of California Press

Findlen, Paula. 2003a. “Anatomy Theatres, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Collections,” CHS3

Findlen, Paula. “Natural History," CHS 3

Findlen, Paula. 1999. “The Formation of a Scientific Community: Natural History in Sixteenth-Century Italy.” In Natural Particulars: Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe, edited by Anthony Grafton and Nancy G. Siraisi, 369–400. Dibner Institute Studies in the History of Science and Technology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Rudwick, Martin J. S. 1985. The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology. 2nd ed. University Of Chicago Press, chapter 1.

C. Ancient natural history

DSB entries on Aristotle, Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Pliny the Elder

French, R. K. 1994. Ancient Natural History: Histories of Nature. London ; New York: Routledge

Lloyd, Geoffrey. 1968. Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, chap 4

Lloyd, Geoffrey. 1987. “Empirical Research in Aristotle’s Biology.” In Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology. Cambridge University Press.

D. Medieval natural history

Ogilvie, The Science of Describing, chapter 3

Reeds, Karen Meier, and Tomomi Kinukawa. “Medieval Natural History.” In CHS v2.

Stannard, Jerry. 1978. “Natural History.” In Science in the Middle Ages, edited by David C. Lindberg, 429–60. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

E. Natural history and the New World in the Renaissance

Barrera-Osorio, Antonio. 2006. Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and The Early Scientific Revolution. University of Texas Press, esp. chapters 2 and 5

Gerbi, Antonello. Nature in the New World: From Christopher Columbus to Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Grafton, Anthony, April Shelford, and Nancy G. Siraisi. 1992. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: the Wonder of the New World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Ryan, Michael T. 1981. “Assimilating New Worlds in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23 (04): 519–38.

Vogel, Klaus A. 2006. “European Expansion and Self-Definition," CHS3.

F. Humanism and natural history

Blair, Ann, and Anthony Grafton. 1992. “Reassessing Humanism and Science.” Journal of the History of Ideas 53 (4): 535–40 - an introduction to a journal special edition which includes a number of relevant articles

Grafton, A. 1991. Defenders of the Text. Harvard University Press.

Grafton, Anthony, and Nancy G. Siraisi, eds. 1999. Natural Particulars: Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Pomata, Gianna, and Nancy G. Siraisi, eds. 2005. Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Nauert Jr., Charles G. 1979. “Humanists, Scientists, and Pliny: Changing Approaches to a Classical Author.” American Historical Review 84 (1): 72.

Reeds, Karen Meier. 1976. “Renaissance Humanism and Botany.” Annals of Science 33 (6): 519–42.

G. Collecting and collectors

Kenseth, Joy. 1991. The Age of the Marvelous. Hanover, N.H.: Hood Museum of Art.

MacGregor, Arthur. 1985. The Origins of Museums : the Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe. Oxford: Clarendon press

MacGregor, Arthur. 2007. Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Smith, Pamela, and Paula Findlen, eds. 2001. Merchants and Marvels: Commerce and the Representation of Nature in Early Modern Europe. Routledge.

Fuchs pepper

Pepper plant, from Leonhart Fuchs, De Historia Stirpium (1542)