By Costanza Beltrami

Italian naturalist and antiquarian Ulisse Aldrovandi was born in Bologna on 11 September 1522. His family, prominent in Bolognese civic life since at least the 12th century, numbered great patrons of the arts. According to Vasari, Michelangelo was a guest of the family in 1494-5; later on, Filippo aldrovandi commissioned several paintings from the baroque artist Guercino. Though primarily known as a scientist, Ulisse Aldrovandi had a similar familiarity with artists and a keen sense of the importance of art to science.

Aldrovandi led an adventurous life. At 12, he ran away from home, spending a short period in Rome before returning to Bologna. In 1538, he left his apprenticeship as book-keeper to travel around Europe. Back in Italy, he studied law at the University of Bologna and natural history at Padua. In 1549 he was charged of heresy, tried in Bologna and Rome, and forced to abjure. Although the reasons of the trial are unknown, his deep interest for the natural world was problematic in the restrictive climate of the Counter-Reformation.

Awaiting trial in Rome, Aldrovandi collected material for his first published work, Delle statue romane antiche, che per tutta Roma, in diversi luoghi, et case si veggono, printed in Venice in 1556. The text contains detailed descriptions of sculptures visible in the sites and palaces of Rome. Despite an explicit reference to antiquity in the work’s title, Aldrovandi also included Renaissance artworks with ancient or biblical subject, for example Michelangelo’s Moses. Such interest for an artwork’s subject matter over its historical origin was mirrored in Aldrovandi’s efforts to describe and classify the natural world.

After returning to Bologna in the 1540s, Aldrovandi focused his attention on natural history, collecting naturalia and dried plant specimens for a cabinet of curiosities and an herbarium, and establishing one of Europe’s first botanical gardens. He published on birds, fish, metals, and even on real and imaginary monsters.

Despite the variety of subjects, Aldrovandi’s scientific books were all widely illustrated with woodcuts and engravings produced in Androvandi’s own artistic workshop. The workshop employed several full-time artists such as Jacopo Ligozzi, and Cristoforo Coriolano. Their work was strictly regulated: first, painters portrayed natural specimens in watercolor; secondly, draftsmen adapted the paintings to black-and-white reproduction and copied them onto wooden tablets; finally, engravers carved the tablets and printed the finished illustrations.

The artists working with aldrovandi were exhorted to copy nature as precisely as possible. The naturalist was deeply convinced that a specimen was not accurately described if not illustrated in the minutest detail. Truth-to-nature should also be a guiding principle for art, as Aldrovandi expressed in his letters to Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, an important art theorist of the Counter-Reformation, who greatly valued the naturalist’s opinions.

At his death on 4 May 1605, Aldrovandi bequeathed his museum, library and manuscripts to the Bolognese government. Initially displayed in the city’s Palazzo Publico, his cabinet of curiosities was later unified with the similar collection of Ferdinando Cospi. Today, it is partially visible in a the Palazzo Poggi museum.

References: Olivier Bonfait and François Quiviger. “Aldrovandi.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.; Giuseppe Olmi, “Ulisse Aldrovandi and the Bolognese painters in the second half of the 16th century.” Emilian Painting of the 16th and 17th centuries (Bologna, 1987); Daniela Gallo. “Ulisse Aldrovandi, le statue di Roma e i marmi romani” Mélanges de l’École française de Rome, 104:2 (1992).                 

Portrait of Ulisse aldovrandi, coloured engraving from Ornithologiae hoc est De auibus historiae libri 12. Cum indice septendecim linguarum copiosissimo(Bologna, 1599).

Specimens of nature from the collection of Ulisse Aldrovandi, watercolor, 46,5 x 36,0 cm. Bologna: University Library. Photo Credit: Web Gallery of Art.

Giovanni Battista Corolano, Monstrous Sea-pig, engraving from Ulisse Aldrovandi, Monstrorum historia cum Paralipomenis historiae omnium animalium (Bologna, 1642).

Giovanni Battista Corolano, Monster with wings and horns similar to a demon, engraving from Ulisse Aldrovandi, Monstrorum historia cum Paralipomenis historiae omnium animalium (Bologna, 1642).

Bartolommeo Passarotti, An open mouthed devil based on a shark in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s collection, ca. 1575, pen and brown ink, 34, 6 x 18,1 cm. London: British Museum.

Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, Ferdinando Cospi’s collection, etching from Museo Cospiano annesso a quello del famoso Ulisse Aldrovandi e donato alla sua patria dall’Ill. Sig. Ferdinando Cospi … descrizione di Lorenzo Legati, Cremonese (Bologna, 1667).

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