Monday, 9 September 2013

A Cabinet of Curiosities - Jonston's Encyclopedia of the Nature

In the 16th and 17th centuries, with the expansion of trade, important geographical discoveries, the exploration of new regions and the importation of strange and exotic animals, the growing popularity and people's taste for natural history made printing an increasingly powerful weapon of disseminating knowledge.
When John Jonston's work was published for the first time in Frankfurt am Main between 1649 and 1653, the study of zoology had already gone a long way since Pliny the Elder wrote in 77 AD his Historia Naturalis, a compendium of zoological folklore, superstitions and some good observations.
Jonston's own version of the Historia Naturalis represents an archetypal example of Encyclopedic compilation of naturalist knowledge. He takes inspiration from both modern world authors like Belo, Gessner, Aldrovandi, Rondelet and other classical naturalists like Aristotle, the above mentioned Pliny, Galen, Dioscorides.

Historiae Naturalis. De Quadrupedibus

Jonston was born in Poland in 1603, from a Scottish father and a German mother. In 1622 Jonston had already studied at several centers in Prussia and he visited England and Scotland (collecting already in 1623 valuable information about some British species). After traveling around Germany, France, Italy and Holland, he came back to Britain, to study in Cambridge and London. Afterwards, he graduated in Medicine in Leyden, Dutch city in which he was offered the Medicine chair at University and where he published his first works. Several years later, he was offer the same chair at the electorate of Brandenburg, preferring, however, to continue studying in private and develop his masterpiece: the Historia Naturalis, which would be published for the first time in Frankfurt am Main between 1649 and 1653. 
In 1655 he came back to Silesia, where, due to his well-earned reputation, he was invited by the Duque of Liegnitz and Brieg. He would die there ten years later, on 8th June 1675.

Historiae Naturalis. De Quadrupedibus

Jonston’s Natural History is one of the most influential works during a great part of the Modern period and the last great work of zoological encyclopedias which emerged during the Renaissance. In this piece of work he intends to list, get to know and make known the world of natural things, which was the significance and scope given to these matters in the Renaissance, with a clearly pragmatic use. Jonston, however, goes further than that; he searches for the similarities between new things and things previously known, and he intends this knowledge to be an instrument of education to train the honorable and free man into the construction of a fair and happy world. Hence, he becomes a classic in the field of Natural Science. 

Historiae Naturalis. De Avibus

The reception of the Historia Naturalis by the educated reader of the time was extraordinary. Written in Latin, language commonly used by science at the time, it gives illustrations a prominent role. It is hardly surprising that such a proposal became a great publishing success with the printing of several editions during the 17th and 18th centuries and its translation into different languages.
A great part of its fame and success is due to the wonderful copper-carved plates which superbly enrich the text and were brilliantly used overall by the great Matthaeus Merian junior.
The artistic lexicon is in the hands of the Merian, a lineage of printers and superb engravers. Matthaeus Merian senior (1593 – 1650) was the printer and father of the Matthaeus Merian brothers junior (1621 - 1687), Kaspar Merian (1627) and their sister MarĂ­a Sibylla Merian (1647 - 1717), the latter from his second marriage to a Dutch woman. Sibylla was firstly an entomologist and a great draftswoman, painter and engraver of plants and insects. However, the most conspicuous artist of the lineage was Matthaeus Merian junior, to whom the Jonston’s most famous copper engravings have been attributed, for in more than one plate of this encyclopaedia we find the legend Matthaeus Merian Junior Fecit (see, for instance, the illustration of the lion in De Quadrupedibus). The composing set design, with some classifying affinity composes a proposal which is even aesthetic, livening up the reading, making the work more attractive and the texts more understandable.

Historiae Naturalis. De Piscibus et Cetis.

The book
JONSTON, JOHN. HISTORIAE NATURALIS DE QUADRUPEDIBUS. [bound with] DE PISCIBUS ET CETIS. [bound with] DE EXANGUIBUS AQUATICIS. [bound with] DE AVIBUS. [bound with] DE INSECTIS. [bound with] DE SERPENTIBUS. (Amsterdam: Johann Jacob Schipper, 1657, 1655). 375 x 241 mm (14 3/4 x 9 1/2"). 6, [2], 163, [1], 160, 158, [12], 160, [8], 147, [1] pp. Six separately published works bound in two volumes. Second Edition. 

First issued in Frankfort in 1650-57, this famous compendium of the animal kingdom was considered the standard zoological encyclopedia of its era, combining works on quadrupeds, birds, insects, aquatic life, and reptiles, bound here in two volumes containing 250 fine hand colored folio-sized plates, most of them with several figures each. Finely engraved, carefully detailed, and often featuring a touch of whimsy, these are among the most pleasing zoological plates produced in the 17th century. Mythical animals such as the griffin, the phoenix, and a variety of unicorns are pictured alongside real creatures, some of which no doubt seemed equally improbable to 17th century Europeans. Our copy contains one plate not recorded in Nissen: Plate XLVIII in the section on fish, with pictures of a narwhal, containing details of its skull and horn. 

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Historiae Naturalis. De Exanguibus Aquaticis.

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