Ulisse Aldrovandi

Dario Carere, our guestblogger who already penned the article about monstrous pedagogy, continues his exploration of the monster figure with this piece on the great naturalist Aldrovandi.

Why are monsters born? The ordering an archiving instinct, which always accompanied scientific analysis, never stopped going along with the interest for the odd, the unclassifiable. What is a monster to us?  It would be interesting to understand when exactly the word monstrum lost its purely marvelous meaning to become more hideous and dangerous. Today what scares us is “monstrous”; and yet monstra have always been the object of curiosity, so much so that they became a scientific category.  The horror movie is a synthesis of our need to be scared, because we do not believe in monsters anymore, or almost.

Bestiaries, wunderkammern and legends about fabulous beasts all have in common a desire to understand nature’s mysteries: this desire never went away, but the difference is that while long ago false things were believed to be true, nowadays the unknown is often exaggerated in order to forcedly obtain an attractive monstrosity, as in the case of aliens, lights in the sky, or Big Foot.

Maybe the wunderkammern, those collections of oddities assembled by rich and cultured men of the past, are the most interesting testimony of the aforementioned instinct.  One of the most famous cabinet of wonders was in Innsbruck, and belonged to Ferdinand II of Austria (1529 – 1595).  Here, beside a splendid woodcarved Image of death, which certainly would have appealed to romantic writers two centuries later, there is a vast array of paintings depicting unique subjects, as well as persons showing strange diseases. The interest for the bizarre becomes here a desire for possession, almost a prestige: what for us would be a news story, at the time was a trophy, a miraculous object; it’s a circus in embryo, where repulsion is the attraction.

Image of death, by Hans Leinberger, XVI Century.

Disabled man, anonimous, XVI Century.

This last fascinating painting, depicting a man who probably made a living out of his deformity, calls to mind another extraordinary collector of oddities: Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 – 1605), born in Bologna, who dedicated his life to study Henry presentation of living creatures and nature.  His studies on deformity are particularly interesting. This ingenious man wrote several scientific books on common and less common phenomena, commissioning several wonderful illustrations to different artists; these boks were mainly destined to universities, and could be considered as the first “virtual” museum of natural science. After his death, his notes and images of monstrous creatures were collected in a huge posthumous work, the Monstruorum historia, together with various considerations by the scholar who curated the edition.  The one I refer to (1642) can be easily consulted, as many other works by Aldrovandi, in the digital archive of historic works of the University of Bologna.

It was a juicy evolution of the concept of bestiary: the monster was not functional to a moralizing allegory anymore, but became a real case of scientific study, and oddities or deformities were illustrated as an aspect of reality (even if some mythical and literary suggestions remain in the text; the 16th century still had not parted from classical sources, quite fantastic but deemed reliable at the time).

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The book mainly examines anthropomorphic monsters; these were often malformed cases, and even if they did not qualify as a new species, for Aldrovandi they were interesting enough for a scientific account. The anatomical malformation began to find place in a medical context, and Aldrovandi anticipated Linnaeus for nomenclatures and precision, even if he wasn’t a systematic classifier: he was preoccupied with presenting the various anomalies to future scholars, but in his work there is still a certain confusion between observation and legend.

Faceless men, armless men, but also men with a surplus of arms or heads were presented along centaurs, satyrs, winged creatures and the Sciapods (legendary men with one gigantic foot which protected them from the sun, as described by Plinius). There were also images of exotic people, wild tribes living in remote places, wearing strange hats or jewelry; although not deformed, they were nonetheless wonderous, strange. All monstra.

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A great introduction to Aldrovandi’s “mythology” is Animali e creature mostruose di Ulisse Aldrovandi, curated by Biancastella Antonino. Beside richly presenting wonderful color illustrations of animals, seashells and monsters from Aldrovandi’s work, this book also features some interesting essays; among the contributors, patologist Paolo Scarani speculates that Aldrovandi’s gaze upon his subjects was not always one of curiosity, but also of compassion. If this naturalist saw and met first-hand come “monsters”, how did he feel about them? Maybe the purpose of his studies was to provide the scientific community  with a new approach to the monstrosities of nature − a more humane approach; to prove his point Scarani examines the image of an unlikely bird-man pierced by several arrows. Moreover Scarani examines the illustrations of Aldrovandi’s monsters in the light of now well-known malformations: anencephaly, sirenomelia, parasitic twins, etc., and concludes that Aldrovandi may be considered an innovator in the medical field too, on the account of his peculiar attention to deformity in humans and animals (an example is the seven-legged veal, illustrated from a real specimen).

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Given the eccentricity of some of these monsters, it is not always easy to determine exactly when fantasy is mixed to the scientific account. Aldrovandi is an interesting meeting point between ancient beliefs (supported by respected sources that could not be contradicted) and the rising scientific revolution. The appearance of some monsters can be attributed to “familiar” pathologies (two-headed persons, legless persons, people with their face entirely covered with hair are now commonly seen on controversial TV shows), but others look like they came from a fantasy saga or some medieval bas relief. As Scarani puts it:

[Aldrovandi’s care for details], together with the clarity with which the malformations are represented, contributes to the feeling of embarassment before the figures of clearly invented malformations. Later interpolations? I don’t think so. The fact that some illustrations are hybrid, showing known malformations besides fantastic creatures (as a child with a frog’s face), makes me think that Aldrovandi included them, maybe from popular etchings, because it’s the weorld he lived in! They were so widely discussed, even in respected publications, […] that he had to conform to the sources. Of course, respect fo the authority principle and ancient traditions does not help progress. Everyone does what he can.

Aldrovandi’s work can be considered a great wunderkammer, an uneven collection of notable findings, devoid of a rigid and aristotelic classification but inspired by an endless curiosity which pairs the observation with an enthsaism for the wonderous and the unexplainable. Two other scholars from Bologna, B. Sabelli and S. Tommasini, write:

All this [the exposition of miscellaneous objects in the cabinets of curiosities] was inherited from the past, but also followed the spirit of the time which saw natural products as a proof and symbol for the legendary tradition – metamorphosis is a constant element in myths – and considered the work of nature and the work of the artist homogeneous, or even anthagonist, as the artist tried to reach and exceed nature.

From this idea of “exceeding” Nature come those illustrations in which animals we could easily identify (rhinos, lizards, turtles) are altered because the animal lived in a distant land, a place neither Aldrovandi nor the reader would ever visit; and the weirdest oddity was attributed in ancient times to faraway places, also because “normality” is often just a purely geographic concept.

Today, monsters do not inhabit mysterious and distant lands; yet, have our repulsion and our curiosity changed? There’s no use in denying it: we need monsters, even if only to reassure ourselves of out normality, to gain some degree of control over what we do not understand. Aldrovandi anticipated 19th century teratology: many of his illustrations remained perfectly valid through the following centuries, and those “extraordinary lives” we see on TV had already been studied and presented in his work. Examples span from the irsute lady to the woman born with no legs who had, as chronicles reported, an enchanting face. The circus never left town, it has just become standardized. Scarani writes:

What is striking, in these representations, is their being practically superimposable to the other illustrated teratologic casebooks that followed Aldrovandi. Maybe his plates were copied. I don’t think this is the only explanation, even if plausible given the enormous success of Aldrovandi’s iconography. More recent preparations of malformed specimens, or photographs, are still perfectly superimposable to many of Aldrovandi’s plates.

How weird, for our modern sensibility, to find next to these rare patologies the funny and legendary Sciapods, depicted in their canonic posture!

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Aldrovandi, on the other hand, did not just chase monsters, for teratology was only one of the many areas of study he engaged in. Within this word, “teratology”, lies the greek root for “monster”, “wild beast”: because of men of extraordinary ingenuity, like Aldrovandi, luckily today we do not associate diversity with evil anymore. Yet the monstrous does not cease to attract us, even now that the general tendency is to “flatten” human categories. It is a reminder of how frail our supremacy over reality is, a reality which seems to be equipping us with a certain number of legs or eyes by mere coincidence. The monster symbolizes chaos, and chaos, even if it is not forcedly evil, even if we no longer have mythical-religious excuses to get rid of it, will perhaps always be seen as an enemy.

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One comment to Ulisse Aldrovandi

  1. Livio says:

    Mostruosamente meraviglioso!

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