Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

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The three great authors, it has been remarked, who really laid the foundation of modern ichthyology, appeared in the middle of the sixteenth century, and, what is remarkable, almost at the same time: Belon, in 1553; Rondelet, in 1554 and 1555; Salviani, from 1554 to 1558. Unlike the compilers who, after Aristotle and Theophrastus, swell our list of writers, they saw and examined for themselves the fishes of which they speak, and had drawings of them taken under their immediate inspection with considerable accuracy. Too faithful, however, to the spirit of their time, they took more pains to find out the names which these fishes bore among the ancients, and in selecting fragments for their history, than in describing them in a distinct manner; so that, were it not for the figures, it would in many instances be almost impossible to determine their species.[G]

Scarcely any of the older naturalists, however, confined their attention to one department of their favourite science. Belon was a physician, a zoologist, and a botanist. He was born at Souletière, in the parish of Oisé, in Le Maine, about the year[Pg 109] 1518. It is supposed that his parents were poor; and we accordingly find that he was indebted for his education to René du Bellay, bishop of Mans, William Duprat, bishop of Clermont, and the Cardinals of Tournon and Lorraine. At an early age, he commenced the study of medicine and botany, and having distinguished himself among the pupils of Valerius Cordus, professor of natural history at Wirtemberg, was allowed to accompany his master on the excursions which he was wont to make into Germany and Bohemia, for the purpose of obtaining specimens. On finishing his education he travelled through Greece, Egypt, Palestine, and Asia Minor, whence he returned to Paris in 1550, with a valuable collection, after an absence of three years. He now arranged the materials which he had thus procured, and published several interesting works; notwithstanding the merit of which, he experienced great difficulty in obtaining admission into the medical faculty of Paris. In 1557, he undertook another journey into Italy, Savoy, Dauphiny, and Auvergne. On his return, he engaged in a translation of Dioscorides and Theophrastus, and was preparing an important work on agriculture, when he was murdered in the wood of Boulogne, as he was proceeding from Paris to his place of residence at the Chateau de Madrid. This happened in 1564, when he was about forty-five years of age.

His first great performance was the Natural History of Sea Fishes, with wood engravings, containing a figure and description of the dolphin, and several other species of the same family. It was published at Paris in 1551, in quarto. In 1553, he gave to the world another work on fishes, entitled De Aquatitibus[Pg 110] Libri Duo, cum Eiconibus ad Vivam ipsorum Effigiem, which he afterwards translated into French, and with certain additions printed in three different forms in 1555. A work on pines and other evergreen trees, De Arboribus Coniferis, also appeared in 1553, as well as a dissertation on Egyptian antiquities. Soon after he presented to the public his Observations de plusieurs Singularités et Choses memorables, trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres Pays étranges, redigées en trois livres, in which are many curious details on the subject of geography, and on the manners of Eastern nations. A treatise on birds was published at Paris in 1555; another, containing representations of animals and plants observed in Arabia and Egypt, was put forth in 1557; which in 1558 was succeeded by an essay on the cultivation of plants. As a botanist, Belon ranks not less highly than as a zoologist; and, to do honour to him in the former capacity, Plumier has dedicated to his memory an American genus, to which he has given the name of Belonia.


The Aquatilium Animalium Historia of Salviani is chiefly remarkable for the beauty of its engravings, some of which have scarcely been surpassed by the efforts of modern art. The titlepage bears the date of 1554, but the work was not completed till 1558. It contains descriptions of ninety-nine species of fishes, each including the synonymy, the external appearance of the animal, the places in which it occurs, its habits, the manner in which it is caught and prepared, and its medical properties. He also points[Pg 111] out the passages in Aristotle, Pliny, and other ancient writers, who have spoken of them, and to the observations of these authors adds many excellent ones of his own; so that the work, on account of the general accuracy of the plates and descriptions, is one that may be considered indispensable to the modern ichthyologist.

Salviani was born in 1514, at Citta di Castello in Umbria. His family was noble. After finishing his studies, he settled at Rome, where he practised medicine, and delivered public lectures. The friendship of Cardinal Cervini obtained for him the appointment of physician to the pope, Julius III. The death of this personage, and that of Cervini, who had been elevated to the apostolic chair, which, however, he occupied only three weeks, were not productive of any serious disadvantage to him, for he was continued in his offices by Paul IV., to whom he dedicated his work. He died at Rome, in 1572, at the age of fifty-eight.


Rondelet greatly surpassed Gesner, Belon, and Salviani, in the extent of his knowledge as an ichthyologist; and although his figures, being only wood-cuts, are inferior in beauty to the copperplate-engravings of the last of these authors, they are yet more correct in the characteristic details. His work is entitled De Piscibus Marinis Libri XVIII., in quibus vivæ piscium imagines expositæ sunt, and was published at Lyons in 1554. A second part appeared in 1555, under the name of Universæ Aquatilium Historiæ Pars Altera, cum veris ipsorum Imaginibus. The first part treats of marine animals,[Pg 112] including the cetacea, turtles and seals, the mollusca, and the crustacea. In the second part, shells, insects, zoophytes, and fresh-water fishes, are described. These objects, although not methodically arranged, are often placed in such a manner as to indicate that the author had some idea of generic affinity. The anatomical details which he presents are pronounced by Cuvier to be frequently correct; but his descriptions, it must be granted, are inferior to the figures, which are truly surprising for the period at which he lived. In reference to the fishes of the Mediterranean this work is indispensable, and, indeed, to the ichthyologist generally it is one of the most important that exists. The descriptions and figures have been copied by Gesner, in his work De Aquatilibus; while Ray, Artedi, and Linnæus, have obviously profited by them.

Rondelet, the son of an apothecary, was born at Montpellier on the 27th September 1507. Being originally of a very infirm constitution, he was judged incapable of performing a part in active life, and, accordingly, when his father's fortune was distributed, he received a sum merely sufficient to procure his admittance into a convent. As he grew up, however, he improved in strength, and having no affection for a monastic life, he commenced his studies at the age of eighteen, and finished his general education at Paris, where he was supported by his elder brother. Having resolved to embrace the medical profession, he returned in 1529 to his native city, and afterwards settling at Pertuis, a small village in Provence, he began to practise; but not meeting with success in the healing art, he endeavoured to procure subsistence by setting up a grammar-school. This[Pg 113] expedient also failing, he went again to Paris in order to improve his knowledge of the Greek language, and, being unwilling to burden his brother any longer, became tutor to a young nobleman. Some time after, he removed to Maringues, in Auvergne, where he again entered upon practice, and in 1537 received a medical degree at Montpellier. The following year he married a young lady endowed with many estimable qualities, but destitute of fortune; and, as his brother was dead, this alliance increased his difficulties. However, he settled finally at the place of his birth; and, being assisted by his wife's sister, began to extend his acquaintance, and succeeded so well in his profession, that, in 1545, he was appointed professor of medicine in the university.

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