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Explore “The history of aquatic animals” this summer

by Erin Rushing

As you head to the seashore or lakeside this summer, take a moment to consider the contributions of Ippolito Salviani to natural history. Salviani’s book on aquatic animals, Aquatilium animalium historiae (The history of aquatic animals), is one of a handful of 16th-century works that helped established ichthyology as a modern science. A professor of medicine at the University of Rome and physician to several Popes, Salviani collected fishes in the markets of Rome for anatomical examination to support his systematic studies, correcting and expanding the works of ancient authors (Aristotle, Pliny, et al.). The Smithsonian Libraries holds a copy of Aquatilium animalium historiae in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History.



“Serpent marina” from Salviani’s Aquatilium animalium historiae.


Ninety-three species of fishes and cephalopods are depicted in the full-page illustrations, with 18 of them new to the science of the time. The work is the earliest zoological book illustrated with copper-engraved plates, far more suitable than the woodcuts typical of the period for reproducing in fine, silvery lines the visual effect of fish scales and the delicate fins. The book has been scanned and is available online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library for readers to peruse.



“Draco marinus” from Salviani’s Aquatilium animalium historiae.


The first part of the book is composed of double-page synoptic tables of fish species, giving their names in Greek, Latin, and Italian (sometimes distinguishing between the different regional variants, for example names used in Rome, Veneto, or Liguria), the most distinctive properties of each species, and references to the works of classical authors in which the animals are described. The main part of the volume contains the illustrations and in-depth descriptions of aquatic animals (mostly fishes, plus a few cephalopods). Each chapter begins with an illustration of a fish, and a description of its physical appearance and habitat, as well as its nutritional value and culinary preparation, frequently referring to Aristotle, Pliny and Galen, and, in the gastronomic parts, to Athenaeus, Oppianus, and Giovio. Salviani deals with cephalopods at length and distinguishes among five species of octopus. He also describes cuttlefish, the way they procreate, and how to catch them.

It being Shark Week, however, we can’t overlook some of the toothier species included in Salviani’s work:



“L. libella” from Salviani’s Aquatilium animalium historiae.


“Canis galeus” and “L. vulpercula” from Salviani’s Aquatilium animalium historiae.


Salviani’s work is currently available for adoption through the Smithsonian Libraries’ Adopt-A-Book program. The program provides essential funding to support the conservation, acquisition, and digitization of books and manuscripts held by the world’s largest museum complex and research institution.

Text for this post was contributed by Leslie K. Overstreet, Curator of Natural-History Rare Books in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, and S. Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger.









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