Conrad Gessner: Thierbuch

Conrad Gessner: Thierbuch

Zurich (Switzerland) — 1563

Legendary mythical creatures together with precise observation of nature: Conrad Gessner's multi-volume magnum opus on the entire known fauna of the Renaissance, here the mammals illustrated with over 145 fascinating woodcuts

  1. Conrad Gessner (1516–1565) was a widely known humanist physician, naturalist and philologist from Zurich

  2. His comprehensive Thierbuch, the first volume of his Historia animalium, was first published in German in 1563

  3. 145 partly full-page, elaborate woodcuts illustrate the quadrupedal, viviparous animal species, one of which is a work by Albrecht Dürer

Conrad Gessner: Thierbuch

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  1. Description
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  4. Facsimile Editions (2)
Conrad Gessner: Thierbuch

The Thierbuch ( i.e. 'Animal Book') is the first volume of the influential opus magnum of the physician, naturalist and philologist Conrad Gessner (1516–1565): the Historia animalium. In this four-volume Latin compendium, published between 1551 and 1558, the humanist scholar brought together the entire zoological knowledge of his time, aided by his extensive contacts with many other European scholars. For both the text and the remarkable illustrations, he drew on existing works, such as Albrecht Dürer's Rhinoceros, which is why quite a few mythical creatures appear in the encyclopedia. At the same time, however, it also contains scientific observations and impressively realistic woodcuts, with which Gessner laid a foundation for modern zoology. The first German edition of the Thierbuch was translated by Conrad Forer and published by Christoph Froschauer in Zurich in 1563. In it, all then known viviparous quadrupedal animals are comprehensively described in alphabetical order and illustrated by 145 elaborate and often full-page woodcuts.

Conrad Gessner: Thierbuch

Conrad Gessner (1516–1565) was a Zurich physician, naturalist and philologist. After studying in Bourges and Paris, he worked as a teacher, professor of Greek language and natural history as well as a physician and continually supplemented his livelihood through scholarly writing. What began pragmatically soon became his passion: Until the end of his life, he pursued studies in natural history and even published a geological treatise in the year of his death – he died of the plague in 1565.

Gessner's Magnum Opus

With the Historia animalium, which was intended to bring together all the zoological knowledge of his time, Gessner not only created his personal magnum opus, but also became the founder of modern zoology, as he gave greater weight to his own observations of nature than to the traditional knowledge of antiquity and the Middle Ages in the four-volume work. However, these still form the basis of the Latin compendium. It is also a reflection of his philological interest: Gessner attached great importance to listing the individual names of the animal species in different languages and mentioning all vernacular variations of their names.

Historia Animalium

Gessner initially published the four extensive volumes on live-bearing quadrupeds (Quadrupedes vivipares), egg-laying quadrupeds (Quadrupedes ovipares), birds (Avium natura) and aquatic creatures (Piscium & aquatilium animantium natura) in Latin. They were published between 1551 and 1558 by Christoph Froschauer in Zurich. In 1587, a further posthumous publication of a fifth volume on snakes was released, which appeared in his estate.

Science and Fantasy

Even the first editions were illustrated with hundreds of woodcuts, which form an important part of the work. While he drew on existing works for most of the illustrations, such as the famous Rhinoceros by Albrecht Dürer or the giraffe from Bernhard von Breydenbach'sPeregrinatio in terram sanctam, he also made some woodcuts himself – 65 in number. Many of the illustrations are purely works of fantasy or were made on the vague basis of verbal descriptions. However, there are also some based on precise observations of nature, which was still an absolute novelty in the 16th century.

The Thierbuch

The entire work quickly became a zoological bestseller, which brought Gessner international fame. Thus Conrad Forer translated the first volume of the series into German a good 10 years after its publication. The translation was first published in 1563, also by Christoph Froschauer in Zurich. Here too, the texts, which comprehensively describe all then known live-bearing quadrupeds in alphabetical order, are supplemented by exquisite woodcuts, some of which are astonishingly naturalistic and come in various sizes.


Alternative Titles
Thierbuch von Conrad Gessner
Thierbuoch: das ist ein kurtze Bschreybung aller vierfüssigen Thieren, so auff der Erden und in Wassern wonend, sampt jrer waren Conterfactur
Thierbuch. Faksimile nach der Ausgabe bei Froschauer, Zürich 1563.
Historia animalium
Quadrupedes vivipares et ovipares
Size / Format
176 pages / 39.0 × 25.0 cm
145 woodcuts, many of them full-page, + 1 title page
Descriptions of 155 quadrupedal, viviparous animal species
Artist / School

Available facsimile editions:
Detail Picture

Conrad Gessner: Thierbuch


Quite different from the wild, this chameleon immediately catches the eye. The large-format woodcut shows an astonishingly adequate version of a chameleon, although the actual species cannot be precisely determined on either a textual or pictorial level. The animal, whose appearance is described as a cross between a crocodile and a rat, clings with its four feet to a vertically arranged branch and appears extremely stiff, not least because of its peculiar set of teeth and its rigidly upturned, wide-open eyes.

Thierbuch. Faksimile nach der Ausgabe bei Froschauer, Zürich 1563.
Single Page

Conrad Gessner: Thierbuch

Dürer's Rhinoceros

For his paragraph on the rhinoceros, Gessner made use of one of the most famous animal depictions of modern times: Albrecht Dürer's Rhinoceros. The Renaissance artist created the breathtakingly detailed and fine woodcut in 1515 based on a description – as he himself had never seen it. At the time, the animal had come to Portugal as a gift from an Indian prince to the royal court. As the first specimen of its kind on the European continent since antiquity, it aroused great wonder and admiration.

In a fantastical manner, Dürer presents the viewer with a severe side view of the massive animal: the body is protected by ornamental armor-like plates, while the legs are covered with scaly skin. The impressive horn on the nose, however, has a questionable structure, and the second, smaller horn has shifted to the back, strongly reminiscent of depictions of unicorns. As in Gessner's corresponding text, reality is mixed with hearsay also on the pictorial level, as was common in medieval and early modern natural history.

Thierbuch. Faksimile nach der Ausgabe bei Froschauer, Zürich 1563.
Facsimile Editions

#1 Thierbuch. Faksimile nach der Ausgabe bei Froschauer, Zürich 1563.

Limited Edition: 35 copies
Binding: Brown blind tooled leather on wooden boards.
Commentary: 1 volume by Vinzent Ziswiler
Language: German

The commentary volume includes a synoptic index of Gessner's Latin and German animal names and their modern scientific synonyms.
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) The luxury edition was printed on a hand press and numbered 1-35. The special paper used was handmade and watermarked.
Facsimile Copy Available!
Price Category: €€€
(3,000€ - 7,000€)

#2 Thierbuch. Faksimile nach der Ausgabe bei Froschauer, Zürich 1563. (Standard Edition)

Limited Edition: 465 copies (total printrun 500 copies)
Binding: Brown blind tooled leather on wooden boards.
The normal edition was printed on Ingress handmade paper
Facsimile Copy Available!
Price Category: €€
(1,000€ - 3,000€)
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