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500 years of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605)

Tue, 13/09/2022 - 16:32

The famed collector Ulisses Aldrovandi did not start his academic life with the intention to study natural sciences. His early education included mathematics, law, Latin and philosophy, with the intention to continue into medicine – which he eventually obtained a degree in in 1553 [1]. The pivotal point of his career occurred before he gained his degree, around 1549. Having returned to Bologna, he met botanist Luca Ghini, but was shortly after arrested and taken to Rome on charges of heresy, before being fortunately acquitted in 1550.

After his release, Aldrovandi continued his foray into botany, starting one of the very earliest remaining herbariums around 1551. By his death, the herbarium would contain over 5000 plant samples, all visible on the University of Bologna’s website dedicated to it [2].

A gourd from STORE 79:2

After obtaining his degree, he started teaching philosophy at the University of Bologna in 1554, and became its first professor of natural sciences in 1561. Over the following 40 years, he travelled extensively to gather more specimens for his collection, eventually gathering thousands of items for research purposes, before passing away in 1605.

Aldrovandi’s story, and the history of his collections, did not end with his death. In fact, the vast majority of his works were published posthumously – including the Musaeum Metallicum (STORE 79:2) below, which contains (among other things) much of his research on fossils and antiquities.

Upon his passing, the entirety of his specimens, manuscripts, drawings and woodcuts were left to the Senate of Bologna. The books and manuscript were – and are still to this day – held at the University Library of Bologna, while the specimens and other naturalistic collections went to the Palazzo Pubblico, which also received in 1672 the collection of Ferdinando Cospi. Consequently, this publication on the ‘Museo Cospiano’ by Lorenzo Legati (1605-1675), professor at the University of Bologna, includes items from Aldrovandi’s collection.

Title page of STORE 53:16. Portrait of Ferdinando Cospi, STORE 53:16.

Aldrovandi’s collection had the particularity of being gathered with the specific purpose of studying its contents rather than simply displaying them – making it very different from contemporary cabinets of curiosities. [3] On top of his museum, he also accumulated a library alongside the specimens, to be used as a more private study space. Traces of his classification system and organisation survive, indicating that he intended to separate volumes by format to maximise the use of space – a technique also in use at the Cambridge University Library – which would have allowed him to accumulate up to 6000 volumes according to his own calculations. Four catalogues also survive, offering current scholars in the history of libraries a wealth of information on early modern libraries organisation [4].

Ancient artefact represented in STORE 79:2. Marble icon represented in STORE 79:2.

It is somewhat fitting for this blog post to release around the same time as our exhibition on Banned Books and the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – the “Index of Prohibited Books” created by the Catholic Church to list heretical publications. Aldrovandi himself lived through the creation of the first Indexes between 1554 and 1560, and is mentioned by Hannah Marcus [5] as an example of early modern readers whose correspondence attest to the use of licenses to access banned books. These licenses allowed scholars and physicians to retain items banned by the Index – an important document to have if, as Aldrovandi, you already owned books that were expected to be placed on the Index. He was granted at least three separate licenses: in 1566, 1595-96, and 1603, just a couple of years before his passing.

Ownership inscription inside STORE 53:16, dated 1764, showing us that the publication remained relevant nearly a century after its publication. The donor, Giuseppe Benvenuti (1723-after 1764), was likely a mid-18th century doctor practicing in Sarzana and Lucca. The receiver may have been Tommaso Bernardi (1719-1794), artist from Lucca.

Aldrovandi’s role in the early affirmation of natural sciences continued to be studied and acknowledged throughout the centuries that followed. His impact on natural sciences was such that Linnaeus and de Buffon allegedly called him “the father of natural history” [6]. The final volume of Aldrovandi’s works was not published until 1668, more than 60 years after his death. The consequent merging of his collection with Cospi’s created yet another opportunity to study the specimens, and he was honoured in the naming of the Aldrovanda vesiculosa in 1747. Less than a century later, between 1829 and 1832, French anatomist George Cuvier dedicated one of his lectures to Gessner and Aldrovandi’s collections [7]. The anniversary of his passing was celebrated with an exhibition in 2005, and more recent celebrations (including a conference [8]) have taken place to celebrate his birth anniversary.  

Blog post by Raphaëlle Goyeau, Library Assistant.


STORE 79:2. Ulisse Aldrovandi ; Bartolommeo Ambrosini. Ulyssis Aldrovandi .. mvsaevm metallicvm in libros IIII distribvtvm. [Bononiae : Typis Jo. Baptistae Ferronii, 1648]. Made available online by the Wellcome Collection.

STORE 53:16. Lorenzo Legati. Mvseo Cospiano annesso a qvello del famoso Ulisse Aldrovandi e donato alla sua patria dall’illustrissimo signor Ferdinando Cospi. In Bologna : per Giacomo Monti, 1677.


[1] Tikkanen, Amy. “Ulisse Aldrovandi: Italian naturalist”, Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available from

[2] Alma Mater Studiorum. L’Erbario di Ulisse Aldrovandi. Available online:

[3] Aaron M. Bauer et al. “The Oldest Herpetological Collection in the World: the Surviving Amphibian and Reptile Specimens of the Museum of Ulisse Aldrovandi.” Amphibia-Reptilia, vol. 34, no. 3, 2013, pp. 305–321.

[4] Caroline Duroselle-Melish & David A. Lines. “The Library of Ulisse Aldrovandi (†1605): Acquiring and Organizing Books in Sixteenth-Century Bologna.” Library, 16(2), 2015, pp. 133–161.

[5] Hannah Marcus. Forbidden Knowledge: medicine, science, and censorship in Early Modern Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2020.

[6] Smithsonian Libraries. “Vlissis Aldrovandi”. Available online at

[7] Cuvier, Georges, & Pietsch, Theodore Wells. Cuvier’s History of the Natural Sciences : Nineteen lessons from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.

[8] The Newberry. “Global Aldrovandi: Exchanging Nature in the Early Modern World”. Available at: