The Pliny of Switzerland

I vaguely knew of Conrad Gessner (often spelled Gesner) as a botanist, but it wasn’t until I was tracing the taxonomy of the bluetit a few days ago that I became aware of his wide-ranging work across the fields of natural history, medicine, bibliography and philology. Reading more about him has made me realise what a polymath he was, but also how much the development of his talents depended on the good will of a remarkable number of people.

Conrad Gessner in 1562, with his Imperial coat-of arms (see below).

Gessner was born  in 1516 in the Swiss city of Zürich to an impoverished furrier, Ursus (nominative determinism), and his wife Agathe. His intelligence was recognised by his father, who sent him to stay with a great-uncle, Canon Johannes Frick, who both collected and grew herbs and medicinal plants, exposing him at an earlier age to the rudiments of botany. The boy later attended the Carolinum school in Zürich and then the Grossmünster church, which had been transformed into a centre of training for Protestant theologians and pastors by the reformer Huldrych Zwingli in 1525. (Interestingly, the last abbess of the Fraumünster in the city, the noblewoman Katharina von Zimmern, became a support of Zwingli, and handed her Benedictine abbey and its rights and possessions over to the city council on 8 December 1524.)

The Grossmünster in 1835, by Emil Schulthess.

At the Grossmünster, the curriculum consisted mostly of the classical languages (Gessner played the role of Poverty in a school production of Aristophanes’ Plutus in 1531 – both appropriate and ironic, given that throughout his life he was short of money). Two years later, his teachers donated money so that he could go abroad to continue to study theology in Bourges and Paris, but in 1533 he was forced to leave France because of the increasing persecution of Huguenots.

The battle of Kappell, 1531.

His father had been killed (alongside Zwingli) in the disastrous battle of Kappell, at which 2,000 men from Zürich had been ranged against 7,000 from the Catholic cantons, but Conrad was adopted by one of his teachers, who provided him with a home for three further years of study, during which time another paid for him to go to Strasbourg, where his study of Hebrew was frustrated again by French religious intolerance.

On his return to Zürich, at the age of nineteen, he married (‘on whose advice, I know not’, said his friend and biographer (in Latin) Josias Simmler), a girl without a dowry, and so needed a job.

The title page of Simmler’s biography of Gessner.

(A side-note on Simmler (1530–76), whose father had been prior of a Cistercian monastery at Kappel (the place of the battle), and, after conversion, its Protestant pastor. Young Josias studied under his godfather, Heinrich Bullinger, at Zürich, and became a professor of New Testament exegesis, and then of theology, at the Carolinum, where he also taught mathematics and astronomy.)

Josias Simmler, an engraving after Heinrich Pfenninger.

He wrote De Alpibus commentarius, the first treatise on the Alps, and a constitutional history of the Swiss cantons, De Helvetiorum republica. He produced new editions of Gessner’s bibliographyical works, as well as writing biographies of Gessner and Bullinger, and all this before his death (from gout?) at the age of 45.)

Anyway, Gessner’s friends rallied round again, and got him a low-level teaching job, from which he took a leave of absence to study medicine at the university of Basel in 1536. The next year, he was appointed as professor of Greek at the newly founded school of theology at Lausanne, and after three years there went to Montpellier to finish his medical studies. On his return to Zürich as a practising physician, and as a lecturer in Aristotelean physics at the Carolinum, his career as a polymath took off, though he remained in financial difficulties for the rest of his short life.

In his 1975 bio-bibliography of Gessner, Hans Wellisch, notes that ‘there exists as yet no comprehensive biography that would do justice to the vast output of this remarkable man’, and that situation seems not to have changed. Wellisch’s bibliography of Gessner’s works (including the works of others which he edited and/or completed), totals 63 items published during his lifetime, and 13 after his death, plus various unpublished manuscripts. (Some of them can be found in the BHL.)

His writings ranged from a pamphlet on the benefits of milk, to a Greek and Latin dictionary, to an edition of Galen translated into Latin, and from a four-volume history of animals to a letter to a French fellow botanist, begging him not to return to the Catholic faith of that ‘anti-Christ’ the Pope. Gessner’s most famous botanical work, the Opera Botanica was not published until long after his death, the manuscript and his illustrations having eventually come into the hands of Christoph Jacob Trew (1659–1769), professor of botany at Nuremberg, who, as well as working with Georg Dionysius Ehret, also wrote a preface to the German edition of Elizabeth Blackwell’s work.

The dedication page of the Opera Botanica gives rather more prominence to Trew than to Gessner.

With his colleague Casimir Christoph Schmiedel, Trew published the first volume in 1754 and the second in two parts, 1759 and 1770, both illustrated with woodblocks (originally engraved from Gessner’s own drawings) and copper plates.

Table XXII of the wood-engravings in the Opera Botanica. The blobby item at centre bottom is named as Alcyonii species, presumably the soft coral later designated Alcyonium by Linnaeus.

Table 2 of the copper plates. At top right is Erythronium dens-canis, the dog-tooth violet.

1754 is of course one year after the first edition of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum, which sadly meant that the volumes were less useful to naturalists that they might have been, but the illustrations are wonderful (NB these pictures are not very good), as indeed are those of the Historia Animalium: here is my namesake (in a coloured version of the book).

In fact, the animal illustrations were so popular that they were reissued by Gessner’s publisher, Christoph Froschauer, in 1560 as Icones animalium quadrupedum uiuiparorum et ouiparorum: quae in Historiae animalium Conradi Gesneri libro I. et II. describuntur, cum nomenclaturis singulorum latinis, graecis, italicis, gallicis, et germanicis plerunque, et aliarum quoque linguarum, certis ordinibus digestae, which provided the woodcuts and the names in Latin, Greek, Italian, French and German (and occasionally other languages), and was dedicated to the learned and Protestant Elizabeth, Queen of England.

The dedication of the Icones.

The hedgehog again, with his various names, from the Icones.

The camel, with his keeper.

This beast, which Gessner names the ‘cetacean wild boar’ (Aper cetaceus) was described in Olaus Magnus’ History of the Northern Peoples, published in 1555, shortly before this volume of the Historia appeared. Other animals Gessner includes are the unicorn, the leviathan, the basilisk and the harpy. He also occasionally copied well known images such as Dürer’s rhinoceros.

To focus on Gessner’s works on medicine and natural history is to ignore his massive, influential Bibliotheca Universalis, sive Catalogus omnium Scriptoum locupletissimus, in tribus linguis, Latina, Græca, & Hebraica; extantium & non extantium, veterum et recentiorum in hunc usque diem … publicatorum et in Bibliothecis latentium, etc., published in 1545, which attempted to describe all works ever published in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Listing about 3,000 authors and 12,000 works, it had the distinction of being placed on the Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum – in 1593 the Vatican published its own version, the Bibliotheca selecta de ratione studiorum in Historia, In Disciplinis, in salute omnium procuranda.

In his later life, he was still desperately poor, though he did receive help from the Zürich city council and was given an Imperial coat-of-arms (see the image above), which brought with it certain privileges, by the Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand I. Just as he had been supported by friends throughout his life, so he seems never to have refused to edit, complete and publish the works of deceased colleagues and correspondents, from botanists to physicians, in most cases without any monetary reward.

Tulipa gesneriana, named in tribute by Linnaeus, is one of the ancestors of almost all modern garden tulips. (It also comes in yellow, T. gesneriana lutea.) Linnaeus also gave the name Gesneria to a genus of about 50 species, mostly found in the Caribbean.

Flowers of Gesneria venticosa.

In August 1564, Zürich was struck with a ‘plague’ on which Gessner the physician took notes before succumbing himself: from his detailed account it has been assumed that it was a form of influenza, though the references to ‘fever and chills’ and a ‘dry, sometimes painful cough’ sound all too familiar at the moment. He recovered slowly, but was back to work by the summer of 1565; then real (bubonic) plague struck, and he was too weak to recover. On his last day, he asked to be taken to his study, where he could die surrounded by the specimens, books and manuscripts which had been his life’s work. He was 49 years old.

The inscription reads: Dr Conrad Gessner,  Chief Doctor of Zürich, professor, physician. He died in 1565, on 13 December, aged 49. ‘I was the second Pliny: though me the whole force of Nature now becomes clear, overcome by the force of my genius.’

In the caption to this engraving, made in 1662, Gessner is  referred to as a second Pliny, and  he was apparently known as the Pliny of Switzerland, or the German [sic] Pliny. The comparison to the great natural historian of the first century CE is well deserved – both were innately curious, very highly educated and hard-working men, with the major difference that one was a prosperous high-class Roman with the ear of the emperor, and that the other had often to depend on the generosity of his friends for survival. I really hope that somebody will take up Wellisch’s challenge and write a proper biography (in English, for preference …).

By the way, nice Mr WordPress has just sent me an email suggesting I become a Thought Leader. Tempting, but on the whole, I think I’ll stick to just rambling along as usual.


This entry was posted in Art, Bibliography, Biography, Botany, History, Natural history, Printing and Publishing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Pliny of Switzerland

  1. I liked the nominative determinism of Herr Ursus. The drawing of the hedgehog is spot on. Stay safe. Reggie


  2. Thanks! You too!


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