L'histoire de la nature des oyseaux, avec leurs descriptions, & naïfs portraicts retirez du naturel : escrite en sept livres
Benoît Prévost se vend chez Gilles Corrozet, Paris 1555, in-folio (21,5x32cm), (28) 381pp. Sig.: ã6 ~e4 ~i4 a-f6 g4 h-m6 n4 o-t6 v4 x-z6 A6 (A6 blanc) B-E6 F4 G-I6 K4 L3, relié.
BELON Pierre L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux, avec leurs descriptions, & naïfs portraicts retirez du naturel: escrite en sept livres
Benoît Prévost se vend chez Gilles Corrozet, Paris 1555, in-folio (21,5 x 32 cm), (28) 381 pp Sig.: ã6 ~e4 ~i4 a-f6 g4 h-m6 n4 o-t6 v4 x-z6 A6 (A6 blanc) B-E6 F4 G-I6 K4 L3, 18th-century half binding
The first edition, rare and attractive. Six separate title pages: Anatomie et De la physiologie des oiseaux [Of the Anatomy and Physiology of Birds], Oiseaux de proie [Birds of Prey], Oiseaux nageurs [Aquatic Birds], Oiseaux de rivages [Birds of the Shore], Gallinacés [Galliforms], Corbeaux (et espèces semblables) [Ravens and similar species], Petits oiseaux chanteurs [Small songbirds].
This edition is illustrated with a magnificent printer’s device to title, a portrait of the author at the age of 36 to verso, two plates of human and bird skeletons and 158 large cuts within the text (of various formats). The cuts were executed after drawings by the Parisian painter Pierre Goudet (but really Gourdelle) and other, anonymous, artists. The portrait and seven figures of birds were attributed to Geoffroy Tory by Auguste Bernard (in Geoffroy Tory Peintre et graveur, premier imprimeur royal
, Paris, 1865). Numerous historiated initials and attractive borders. An enormous table of all the birds.
Later, 18th century, binding in half brown sheep over paper boards, the spine in seven compartments with gilt dentelle to head and filets and tools in gilt, as well as a red morocco title label.
Very skilful, discreet restorations to spine. Lacking the last blank (L4). One very skilful restoration to upper margin of title. Light dampstain, growing fainter, to the lower margins of the first two quires. Two other, heavier, dampstains to inside margin and upper left corner affecting final pages.
Contemporary manuscript ex-dono to title.The first description and classification of birds in French, which laid the foundations of the comparative methodology two hundred years before Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier. Pierre Belon (1517-1564) was one of the first ornithologists of the Renaissance.
He had evidently carried out a great number of dissections, comparing beaks and claws and trying to find common anatomical forms. For the first time, he places the human skeleton in parallel with that of birds, but without however making the most of his observations and drawing practical conclusions as the naturalists of the 19th century did.
Taking the same rigorous approach as for his description of fish in 1551, which he systematizes here, his descriptions of birds are based on Aristotelean principles. He classifies them, on the basis of his own observations, by their behavior and anatomy: birds of prey, aquatic birds (birds that swim, or birds with webbed feet), omnivores (principally hunting birds) and smaller birds (subdivided in turn into insectivores and granivores).
There are a few entries that may at first seem surprising, but should be highlighted among Belon’s descriptions, for instance his putting bats among the birds of prey, all the while acknowledging that he’s perfectly well aware that they aren’t birds:
“For a long time there has been uncertainty over whether bats should be included with the birds or put in the ranks of terrestrial animals...Seeing them fly, and seeing that they have wings, people judged them birds...both Pliny and Aristotle pointed out that they were aware that bats feed their young from two teats on their chests, the same as for man. The Latins called the bat Vespertilio; but because of the similarity we can see to mice, we call them ‘bald-mice’...” (L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux, livre II).
As well as bats, he mentions several fantastical creatures in the last chapter of the first book, dedicated to “divers incongruous birds”:
“Many things have been written about various birds that strike us as fantastical: therefore we have separated out those we esteem to be true: adding that others were also formerly known, only the names of which have come down to us.”
In this chapter, Belon names imaginary breeds, of which he gives very precise descriptions, both in terms of physical appearance and behavior. He also mentions several mythological figures described by Classical authors or brought down to us through legend: Pegasus, a “bird having the body of a horse”, the Sirens, who had “human faces and voices” and “the feathers and feet of birds”. The Cercio
, according to him, is “even more chatty than the Parrot & is more talented in learning to speak like men.” Certain specimens, no less anthropomorphic but described as being hostile to man, are depicted in a frightening way: Mennonudes
feed on human flesh and Stymphalides
are “less cruel to men than Lions & Panthers & [only] attack if they want to hunt them & strike them with their beaks, harrying them to death.” Belon also describes cases of fantastical birds whose physiological properties are useful to man, notably the Hercynia
, “whose feathers give light like a flame...which has often served country folk travelling by night,” or the Scylla
which, according to magicians contains within its breast a jewel called Chloriten
which, when united with iron bears magical properties.
At the end of the sixth book, he devotes an entire chapter to the Phoenix, of which he gives an even more detailed description:
“They say it is the size of an Eagle. The feathers around its neck are of a resplendent golden color. The rest of its body is purple in hue. Its tail is bluish & has occasional pink feathers. The rear part of its body is embellished with a crescent shape of raised feathers.”
Despite the fact that he includes these imaginary creatures in his classification, he does not provide illustrations of them, the illustrations in the work having been done after life.
Philippe Glardon, author of the preface of a new edition of L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux
, (Droz, Geneva, 1997) believes that these surprising examples, apparently relegated to the ends of chapters, are in fact designed to tie together Belon’s classification and balance out the work. He also notes, on the subject of Jean Céard, that:
“The monstrous is omnipresent on the horizon of the 16th century...Apart from the fairly large role of the fantastical in the creation of effects of wonder and in satisfying the need for a culture of the mythological without which one could hardly call oneself educated at the time, the monstrous...was a demonstration of the creative force of nature...and its inclusion is justified in Belon’s work due to its organizational function within the discourse of classification.”
Nonetheless, Belon distinguishes between the plainly fantastical descriptions of “unknown birds taken from divers authors,” and his rigorous study of observable specimens “of which we have better knowledge,” which give the real originality of his work, “as we shall see through the discourse of the following books.”
This work, followed by another in 1557 entitled Pourtraicts d’oyseaux [Portraits of Birds]
became a seminal work in ornithological literature from the 17th century on. It was, however, given less attention when it appeared because of Conrad Gessner’s Historia animalium
, which was published at the same time, Gessner being a more popular naturalist at the time than Belon.An exceptional copy, superbly illustrated, of this first French book of ornithological descriptions, among the great scientific works of the Renaissance.