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PhD project

Tradition and Innovation: Conrad Gessner and Sixteenth-Century Ichthyology (1551-1602)

This PhD subproject concentrates on 16th-century ichthyology and takes Gessner’s Historia piscium (1558) (further HP) as its point of departure and focus.

2015 - 2020
Sophia Hendrikx

Within the context of the larger project ‘A New History of Fishes. A long-term approach to fishes in science and culture, 1550-1880’ this PhD project concentrates on 16th-century ichthyology and takes Gessner’s Historia piscium (1558) as its point of focus. On it is considered how Gessner’s ichthyological work relates to his own work on other types of animals, and on the other how Gessner’s work relates to that of other sixteenth century ichthyologists. This includes well-known authors such as Pierre Belon, Hippolito Salviani, and Guillaume Rondelet, as well as lesser-known authors and scholars such as Gregor Mangolt and Johann Kentmann. The focus lies specifically on Gessner’s discussion of a number of types of fishes, including Clupeidae (clupeids); Salmonidae (salmonids); Percidae (percids); Raia (rays, skates); Carcharhiniformes and Squaliformes (sharks); as well as Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises). In this context Gessner’s discussion of habitat and morphology, the use of fish as medicine and food, his organisation of species, methods of information gathering and sources of information, and to a lesser extent the lists of names in different languages he includes for each species, his observations on the behaviour of species, and his descriptions of the symbolism attached to fishes are considered.

The reasons for the choice for Gessner’s Historia piscium are as follows. With its 1,300 folio pages HP is by far the largest single volume of Gessner’s encyclopaedic work on the animal world, Historia Animalium (5 vols, 1551-1567), and the most important and richly illustrated zoological publication of early-modern history. Like the other volumes of Gessner’s Historia Animalium, HP presents literally everything –fact, fiction, text and image– that was known, said or thought about a particular animal from classical Antiquity down to the 16th century. HP is also the ideal starting point for the investigation of 16th-century ichthyology because Gessner incorporated contemporary publications on fish by Belon, Salviani and Rondelet, which he discusses critically besides adding a major amount of new information. Indeed, after Gessner’s HP (1558) and until the work of Ray and Willughby (1686), no important innovative ichthyological works appeared in Europe. Gessner’s HP remained influential in fish studies until the Enlightenment. And finally, HP is remarkably under-researched by modern historians of science in comparison with the other volumes of Gessner’s Historia Animalium, while much attention has also been paid recently to the complex relationship between Belon and Rondelet (Glardon•2011). There is no monograph, volume or even major article about HP. 

This PhD subproject aims to produce such a study, concentrating on two main questions. 

1) How does HP fit into and differ from Gessner’s further publications on animals? Investigation of this topic concentrates on some important differences between Gessner’s treatment of fish and that of other animals in the Historia Animalium. Making use, in so far as possible, of information based on autopsy (including dissection), Gessner pays decisively more attention in HP to the topics ‘habitat and morphology’ and ‘use as medicine and as food’ than in the other volumes of the Historia Animalium – all of which follow the same structure of topics discussed per animal.9 In contrast, the topics ‘names in different languages’, and ‘place and symbolism in literature, the arts, and religion’ are less extensively discussed for fish than for other animal categories in Gessner’s work, possibly because less information from Antiquity and the Middle Ages was transmitted concerning fish. Gessner was a practising physician who followed a Hippocratic-Galenic approach. His treatment of fish as food and medicine and his emphasis on dissection of fish will be studied in the context of his medical publications (Gessner•1541, 1561, 1577). 

Preliminary research for this subproject (Hendrikx•2014) furthermore indicates that analysis of HA and in particular its textual organization and rhetorics can throw light on Gessner’s overall organization of nature, and suggests that his alphabetic organization is mainly a presentational form that assists the readers, and behind which a sophisticated classification based on morphology is hidden. Evidence for this morphological approach can be found in both the textual descriptions and the woodcut illustrations. Gessner refined his morphology-based classification in his subsequent ichthyological studies Nomenclator (1560), Fischbuch (1563), and the posthumous edition of HP (1602). 

2) How does HP relate to the other main printed works of 16th-century ichthyology? 
This part of the subproject confronts Gessner’s autopsy (as concept and practice) and illustration policy (cf. Kusukawa•2010; Egmond•2013; Egmond/Kusukawa•in press) with the best-known published fish books of his age (Belon, Salviani, Rondelet), and with two little-known works on fish consulted by Gessner: Kentmann, Animalium aquatilium (1549); and Mangoldt, Fischbuoch (1557). To what extent was illustration for Gessner part of description, and what can his reuse of illustrations from other ichthyologists tell us? And why did Gessner borrow so few illustrations from Belon and Salviani as compared to his massive borrowing from Rondelet? This part of the subproject consists of six case studies: clupeidae (herrings); salmonidae (salmons); percidae (bass); raia (rays); carcharhiniformes and squaliformes (sharks); cetaceans (whales). Together they cover the whole range of fish from cartilaginous fish to whales (recognized as sea mammals at the time, but nonetheless classified as fish), as well as some of the major topics discussed by Gessner, such as habitat, distribution, sources of information and autopsy

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