L’histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins, avec la vraie peincture & description du Daulphin, & de plusieurs autres de son espece.

Paris: Regnaud Chaudiere, 1551.

First edition, very rare, of Belon’s first biological work. “In his Histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins (1551), Belon presented an orderly classification of ‘fish’ that included the sturgeon, the tuna, the malarmat (peristedion), the dolphin, and the hippopotamus … Belon can be considered the originator of comparative anatomy. By the same token, he depicted a porpoise embryo and set forth the first notions of embryology” (DSB). “The revival of research into animal structure dates from the publication of Belon’s work on the anatomy and classification of selective marine ‘fishes,’ a term under which Belon included the dolphin, the porpoise, and even the hippopotamus. Belon recorded several valuable observations on the anatomy of fish: he discussed comparative anatomy of the fish gut, liver and biliary apparatus, and was the first after Aristotle to describe the pyloric caeca. Belon also dissected three cetacean types – common dolphin, bottle-nosed dolphin, and porpoise, describing their viscera in detail, citing their possession of air-breathing lungs, and noting that their skeletons, hearts, and brains were on a plan similar to that in humans. He also described their mammalian-like genitalia and milk glands, and noted that the relationship between cetacean fetus and parent was different from that of other viviparous fish; one of his illustrations is of a fetal porpoise in utero, with the characteristic diffuse placenta” (Norman). “Pierre Belon belongs to the second stage of development in the study of fishes, following on from the observational work of Aristotle and Pliny; indeed he may be said to be the founder of early modern ichthyology, which was itself the first branch of natural history to be studied scientifically. To some extent disregarding the work of the ancients, Belon and his 16th century contemporaries Guillaume Rondelet and Hippolyto Salviani studied, drew and described the water-dwelling species, laying the anatomical foundations for the early classification of fishes that would be continued by the encylopaedists Conrad Gesner and Ulisse Aldrovandi. Belon’s first published work on aquatic animals was L’histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins (Paris, 1551), which is the first printed book devoted to fish – although at the time, the term included any water-dwelling animal, including the dolphin and the hippopotamus” (ccc.ox.ac.uk/sea-creatures-depths-college). “Belon’s book gives a very accurate description of the dolphin, also called Delphinus by the Ancients, a species of Cetacean whose head, largely extended, terminates with a goose-like beak. The dolphin’s appeal was related to heraldry, because at that time the dolphin was very often featured on coats of arms and crests” (books.openedition.org/mnhn/2809?lang=en). Belon’s Histoire naturelle was enlarged two years later as De aquatibus libri duo, which was translated into French in 1555 as La Nature & diversité des poisons. ABPC/RBH record only the sale (twice) of the Norman copy (in an 18th-century binding), and of another seriously defective copy, since 1956.

Provenance: Jean Blondelet, the greatest collector of medical books in the 20th century (his characteristic initial ‘B’ on rear endpaper).

“In the mid-16th century, the French king Francis I was locked in a bitter rivalry with Charles I of Spain, who was head of the Holy Roman Empire. Francis, seeking allies wherever he could find them, made overtures to the Ottoman Turks, whose growing empire covered most of the Eastern Mediterranean. In 1546, Francis sent a diplomatic mission to Constantinople; among the party was the 29-year-old Pierre Belon.

“Born in 1517, Belon grew up in a small village near Le Mans, in northern France, and was trained as an apothecary. With the help of a wealthy patron, he studied in Germany with the botanist Valerius Cordus. Cordus was an inspiring and unorthodox teacher, encouraging his students to trust their own eyes and make observations of nature, rather than rely on the usual authoritative texts. When Belon embarked on his journey to the mysterious East, he was well prepared to put these lessons to good use. Belon’s travels lasted three years and took him through Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, Palestine, Arabia and Egypt. On his return he published a hugely successful book, Les observations de plusieurs singularités et choses memorables: Trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie, et autres pays estranges. His eye-witness accounts of the plants, animals, people and places of this part of the world captured the imagination of European readers, who up to now knew about them only through the writings of ancient Classical authors …

“After Belon returned to France in 1549 he began the series of zoological studies for which he is most famous today. At the time, most writing on the subject of animals took a literary, religious, or ‘emblematic’ approach – that is, animals as symbols or metaphors rather than as living, flesh-and-blood creatures. These books tended to be long on moralizing and literary allusion, and short on what we today would consider rigorous scientific description. Belon was one of the first naturalists to break with this tradition” (Huxley, pp. 67-68).

Shortly after returning to France Belon went to Rome to visit Cardinal de Tournon, one of the greatest benefactors of the sciences and humanities of the period, who was at that time in Rome for the Conclave that followed the death of Paul III. There he met Rondelet and saw his prodigious collection of fish illustrations. He also met Salviani who had also commissioned a large number of fish illustrations. Unfortunately the communication these three ichthyologists shared about their respective work on the same topic led to jealousy and accusations of plagiarism. In the following year 1550, Belon went to England where he met Daniel Barbaro, a noble from Venice, Ambassador of the Republic of Venice in England, and Patriarch of Aquilea. Barbaro had commissioned the painting of three hundred fishes and he authorized Belon to reproduce them, thus giving Belon access to a major collection of drawings.

“In 1551 [Belon] published Histoire naturelle des estranges poisons, in which he left out the poetry and focused on the facts as he found them. It was the first printed work devoted to fish, though to Belon a ‘fish’ was any creature that lived in the water. In fact, most of the book was devoted to animals not classified as fish by modern biologists, such as cetaceans (whales and dolphins), hippopotami and the chambered nautilus … The real strength of Poissons was not in Belon’s taxonomy, however, but in his anatomical descriptions, which were largely based on his own dissections. Despite lumping them with the fish, Belon recognized that dolphins shared with land mammals air-breathing lungs, mammary glands, a four-chambered heart, and a placenta, as illustrated in a woodcut of a dolphin fetus. Belon’s description of the fetal dolphin is often cited as the beginning of the science of embryology” (ibid., p. 68).

“In the course of what he calls his ‘lointaines peregrinations’ through the Mediterranean basin, Belon discovered two fundamental things which disrupted the textually-based humanist practice of natural science. One, many exotic animals – the hippopotamus, the giraffe, the chameleon, even the dolphin – which were thought to be properly represented visually following ancient textual sources, when encountered and identified by locals abroad, actually appeared completely different. And two, even plants and animals endemic to France could be misidentified … The most astonishing example he gives is the centerpiece of his first book, L’Histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins, published in 1551. Rather than an exhaustive natural history on marine life however, the Histoire naturelle is dedicated to a discovery, or rediscovery, of the dolphin. The dolphin, Belon laments, has been extravagantly misrepresented by mapmakers in their fanciful ornamentations, and under the aegis of princes” (Korta, pp. 279-280).

It is not difficult to see why the dolphin was a suitable subject for Belon’s investigations. In Antiquity the dolphin stood as a symbol for benign wisdom and rectitude. Since Aristotle and Pliny, moreover, the dolphin earned a reputation for being philanthropic, and Plutarch writes in De sollertia animalium that ‘its affection for men renders’ the dolphin ‘dear to the gods; for it is the only creature who loves man for his own sake.’ Belon’s readers would have been familiar with the well-known Ovidian story of Arion who was saved from murderous pirates by a dolphin (or a school of dolphins), as well as with Athenaeus’ tale of the bond between a dolphin and a young boy.

“Upon opening the Histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins, the reader is first struck by the largest Roman font of the book in which is announced Belon’s implicit debt to Pliny’s great Historia Naturalis. With the same gesture, however, the title also distances itself from its predecessor, as it proudly announces the book’s unique contribution to the French language. For, if one discounts translated excerpts of Pliny, Belon’s Histoire naturelle is in fact the first natural history to have been published in French, and indeed the first original Histoire naturelle. The long title, signaling to us the book’s presentation of exotic sea-going ‘fish’ (estranges poissons marins), pointedly looks forward to the description and illustration of one particular species: the dolphin … The title page is illustrated not by the printer Regnaud Chaudière’s colophon as one might expect, but by the coat of arms of the Cardinal Odet de Coligny-Chastillon, to whom the book is dedicated.

“Part one of L’Histoire naturelle is dedicated to a ‘narration de la nature du dauphin’ (f. 26r). Through a combination of fables, anecdotal hearsay, and physical and behavioural features of the dolphin which the author claims to have observed for himself and confirmed with his authoritative predecessors, we are treated to a varied and prismatic picture of the dolphin drawing as much from literary, scientific and local mythologies as from the author’s own first-hand experiences. In the first part, Belon dwells on both the literary and natural history of the dolphin, weaving them into a story in which his reader is compelled to hunt or chase and ultimately uncover the dolphin’s true identity.

“Then follows the shorter part two, treating the dolphin’s ‘parties interieures’ (that is to say, its internal anatomy) as compared to its closest relatives. Significantly, Belon focuses much of his attention on the animal’s generative organs, and in particular the womb, as though his natural history were working from his and his reader’s prior knowledge of it, through a natural historical first part progressively zeroing in on its object through myth, behavior, external appearance and finally image and identification, to an ultimate exploration of its generation. In conclusion, he characterizes the contents of this second part as what was learned by a live audience attending one of his dissections of the dolphin.

“The distribution of illustrations in L’Histoire naturelle is surprisingly lopsided. It is in the first part of the book, concerned with the (re)identification of the dolphin, that we encounter the majority of its illustrations, not, as one might expect, in the second part focused on the ‘spectacle’ of dissection. These illustrations in the first part represent, apart from the dolphin itself, various fish often mistaken for the dolphin, as well as two cetaceans that are said to resemble it in form as well as character: the orca (l’ourde) and the porpoise (le marsouin). Also included, and preceding the images ‘retirées du naturel,’ are two Greek figurative renditions of the dolphin. Included in the second part of the book are an image of the uterus of a porpoise and its embryo, the skull of a dolphin, and … two woodcuts pertaining to the hippopotamus and one of the chambered nautilus, an animal considered to be worthy of wonder in Belon’s time for its ability to rig and run with its own sails” (ibid., pp. 173-178).

“In comparative anatomy the revival of research into animal structure may be dated from the important work by Belon published in 1551 on the dissection of Cetacea and other marine animals … He dissected and compared three Cetacean types – Delphinus, Phocaena and Tursiops, but there are no anatomical figures. He notes that the milk glands are two in number and mammalian in character, and mentions the occurrence of bristles in the upper lip of a foetal porpoise. The gut and its appendages are well described, and he saw the divided spleen, but could not find a caecum. The liver, he says, is split into lobes in young animals but undivided in the adult, as in man. There is no gall bladder. He failed to recognize the compound nature of the stomach, but his ‘pylorus’ is the long tubular pyloric chamber of that viscus. The respiratory organs attracted his close attention. He discovered and understood the function of the intranarial epiglottis, and realized that these animals, although aquatic, have lungs of the human type and are air breathers, but that the intake and exit are through the nostril and not the mouth. The heart, he says, has two auricles and two ventricles, and ‘in every respect is similar to that of man.’ He does not distinguish arteries from veins, but the main blood vessels are described, especially the portal, azygos and postcaval veins. The skeleton as a whole, apart from the absence of the hind limbs, is stated to conform to the human plan, which, he says, can plainly be recognized in the sutures of the skull and in the condition of the tympano-periotic elements. The sternum is more human than in quadrupeds, and the fore limbs, though short, have the same bones as in man. There are five digits. The brain has all the parts and the ventricles of the human brain, and he noted the retrogressive behaviour of the olfactory organ of the dolphin during development. The genitalia belong to the mammalian type, and he observed the difference, as regards the relation of foetus to parent, between the viviparous mammal and the viviparous fish, both, however, agreeing in being formed from eggs in the uterus. He gives a crude figure of the female genitalia and diffuse placenta of the porpoise. Having established all this, and demonstrated that the Cetacea were essentially mammalian in all their characteristics, it says much for the native perversity of the human mind that Belon should still have assigned the Cetacea to the fishes.

“Belon also records a number of valuable observations on the anatomy of fish. He saw the highly muscular stomach of the mullet, and says this is the only fish which has a gizzard like a bird. He was the first after Aristotle to describe the pyloric caeca, and he refers to their variable development in many fishes. He discusses further the comparative anatomy of the fish gut, liver and biliary apparatus, and made extensive enquiries into the structure of the different types of poison apparatus found in fishes” (Cole, pp. 60-62).

BM/STC French p. 46; Garrison-Morton 278; Nissen ZBI 301; Norman 179. Cole, A History of Comparative Anatomy, 1949. Huxley, The Great Naturalists, 2019. Korta, The Aesthetics of Discovery: Text, Image, and the Performance of Knowledge in the Early-Modern Book. Doctoral Dissertation, Harvard University, 2015.

Two parts in one vol., 4to (215 x 150 mm), ff. [1], 2-55, [3], woodcut arms of Cardinal de Chastillon, the dedicatee, full-page printer’s woodcut device of Time on last leaf, 22 woodcut text illustrations, two fine woodcut criblé initials. Seventeenth-century red morocco, spine and covers multiply ruled in gilt, gilt lettering along spine (joints starting, minor wear to extremities). A beautiful, large and clean copy.

Item #5859

Price: $75,000.00