Conrad Gesner (1516 – 1565) was a physician and a professor at the Carolinum in Zurich later to become the University of Zurich. His famous lexicon, Historiae Animalium, was ‘an inventory of renaissance zoology’. It was published in five volumes between 1551 and 1558 and was the first bibliography of natural history writings compiled of both known and mythological creatures. He was a tireless researcher sifting through all known texts including those of the ancient naturalists Aristotle and Pliny and mediaeval natural histories. He gathered and correlated thousands of pieces of specific information to complete the 4,500 pages of text and illustrations. He became known as the ‘Swiss Pliny’.
The Historiae Animalium, included not only the familiar animals of Europe, Asia and Africa but also those from the East Indies and beyond. He was living in the ‘Age of Discovery’ and of the era of the great trading companies of Europe and Britain known as the East India Companies. Renderings of animals from the exotic ‘New World’ began to circulate in Europe and Gesner gathered them to illustrate his texts. He also included information and pictures of mythical creatures and imaginary beasts mainly taken from the pages of the Physiologus an early Greek text of allegorical descriptions of both fantastic and real animals and birds.
Gesner’s Historiae included extensive information on mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. It described in detail their daily habits and movements including illustrations of animals depicted in their natural surroundings. Gesner acknowledged one of his main illustrators as Lucas Schan, an artist from Strasbourg who was probably assisted by a number of others. He gathered illustrations from many sources including Durer’s famous woodblock print of the rhinoceros.
At the time of his death in 1565, he was researching, On Fossil Objects, recognising their importance and attempting to classify them, sometimes unsuccessfully. His scientific work on plants and their uses was published centuries after his death. In his lifetime Gesner published 72 books, and wrote 18 more unpublished manuscripts.