Cabinet d’Aldrovandi, Ulisse

Cabinet cité par Pierre Borel (1649).

Roole des principaux cabinets curieux, et autres choses remarquables qui se voyent ez principales Villes de l’Europe.
Pierre Borel mentionne un nom pour la ville de Bologne :
« Bologne.
Le cabinet de feu Ulysses Aldrovandus, Medecin. »


The Ulisse Aldrovandi Museum

Cette présentation du musée nous a été fournie par le Musée Aldrovandi. Nous remercions vivement Anna Addis, qui a rédigé ce texte, et Fulvio Simoni, conservateur des collections, pour leur accueil chaleureux et leur collaboration.

Both Linnaeus (1707-78) and Buffon (1707-88) considered Bologna native Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) the founder of modern natural history.

In 1554 Aldrovandi began to teach at the university as a lector of logic and then philosophy. For the two-year period of 1560-61 he was appointed lectura philosophiae naturalis ordinaria de fossilibus, plantis et animalibus or, in other words, the first professor of natural sciences at the Università di Bologna. In 1568 he set up the botanical garden, which was initially situated in the courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico, and served as its director until his death. With his prodigious studies and work, he legitimized this new discipline at the university and helped make Bologna one of the leading centres for natural science research in Europe. Convinced that the advancement of knowledge could not stem solely from individual studies, he began to collaborate with Italian and foreign scholars: famous scientists such as Pier Andrea Mattioli (1500-77), Konrad von Gesner (1516-65) and Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), as well as local physicians and pharmacists, small collectors and those who were interested in “natural things”. The scope of Storia Naturale is also attributable to these relationships. A work composed of thirteen volumes (only the three volumes of Ornithologia and the volume titled De animalibus insectis were published during the author’s lifetime), it was the broadest and most detailed description of the three natural kingdoms – mineral, plant and animal – ever written until then.

The exchange of information and materials, as well as a network of contacts connecting Aldrovandi’s home in Bologna to the Old and New Worlds, also contributed to the establishment of the museum also known as “theatre”, or “microcosm of nature”. The enormous task of cataloguing nature, coupled with the ongoing and painstaking verification of nature’s descriptions by ancient authors, implied first-hand observation – “with one’s own eyes” – of “the things of nature”. However, the world that opened up to a scholar of the second half of the 16th century was decidedly broader and more varied than that of the ancients. Geographical discoveries were gradually revealing new natural settings which were obviously beyond comprehensive first-hand knowledge. Since he was unable “to go to all places”, Aldrovandi attempted to reconstruct the natural settings of all lands, near and far, inside his own home. Towards the end of his life, he proudly declared that he possessed 18,000 “varieties of natural things” and 7,000 “dried plants in 15 volumes”. This was an extraordinarily rich collection that, like those of other scholars such as Francesco Calzolari (1522-1609) and Ferrante Imperato (1550-1631), differed from the encyclopaedic model typical of the Kunst und Wunderkammern because of its clearly specialized focus on natural science.

The 17 volumes with thousands of illustrations of animals, plants, minerals and monsters (now at the Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna) were a key component of the museum, as were the 14 cabinets, the Pinachoteche, containing carved wooden blocks used as woodcuts to illustrate printed volumes (some are exhibited in this room and the rest are at the Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna).

Aldrovandi was convinced that a complete and well-organized collection of animals, plants and minerals, composed of real specimens or pictures, was indispensable for his research and teaching activities at the university. Using a research method based mainly on the use of “one’s bodily eyes” in order to correct the “thousands of errors” that, until then, had marred knowledge of plants, animals and minerals, Aldrovandi gave illustrations and specimens a central role in studies in this field. Their purpose was to show “the things of nature” in their entirety and in optimum condition, thus lending full scientific validity to the artefacts exhibited at the museum. These figures, executed in tempera or watercolour by a number of artists, including Jacopo Ligozzi, Giovanni Neri and Cornelio Schwindt, enabled Aldrovandi to see nature in its entirety. Reproduced as woodcuts in the volumes of Storia Naturale (thanks primarily to the work of the engraver Cristoforo Coriolano), these images made it possible “to show” the specimens to all readers and thus illustrate in a complete manner what was described in the text.

In his will, Aldrovandi bequeathed the museum and the entire scientific collection that he had accumulated throughout his life to the Bologna Senate, so that after his death all his work would be “useful and honourable to the city”. His bequest bears further witness to the public dimension that he had constantly given to his scientific activity. This public character was inherent in the collection’s mission “to aid and benefit man” and in the approach Aldrovandi used to build and develop it with the support and collaboration of numerous scholars all over Europe.

In 1617 the museum was thus set up in six rooms at the Palazzo Pubblico (now City Hall), where it remained until 1742, when it was moved to the Instituto delle Scienze in Palazzo Poggi. Most of the collection was dismantled in the 19th century and distributed both to local and far away museums and libraries; part of the collection was reassembled at its current venue in 1907.


Pour voir les photos des vitrines du musée Aldrovandi, dont certaines sont publiées avec l’aimable autorisation du musée, on peut visiter notre galerie .

Site de référence :
Walter Tega (ed.), Guide to the Museo di Palazzo Poggi. Science and art,Bologna, Editrice Compositori, 2001.

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