“The earliest American natural history” (Cole)

Early Modern Scientific Illustration through a Baroque Lens

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469. NIEREMBERG [Y OLÍN], Juan Eusebio. Historia naturae, maxime peregrinae, libris XVI. Distincta. In quibus rarissima Naturæ arcana, etiam astronomica, & ignota Indiaurum animalia, quadrupedes, aues, pisces, reptilia, insecta, zoophyta, plantæ, metalla, lapides, & alia mineralia, fluuiorumque & elementorum conditiones, etiam cum proprietatibus medicinalibus, describuntur; nouae & curiosissimae quaestiones dispuntantur, ac plura sacræ Scripturæ loca eruditè enodantur. Accedunt de miris & miraculosis Naturis in Europâ Libri duo: item de iisdem in Terrâ Hebræis promissâ Liber vnus. Antwerp: Ex Officina Plantiniana Balthasaris Moreti, 1635. [8], 1-502, [104, index], [2, blank] pp. (text printed in double columns), title in red and black, title with copper-engraved printer’s device that Moretus inherited from Plantin Press, another printer’s device (woodcut) at end, 69 wood-engraved text illustrations (15 botanical specimens, 17 exotic birds, and 37 zoological species of the New World) by Christoffel Jegher, woodcut ornaments and initials in text. Front pastedown with engraved bookplate of Wm. Wollascott Esq. with armorial arms in a ribbon (Ellis, British and American Book-Plates 6690). Folio (36.5 x 23.2 cm), eighteenth-century full brown speckled calf, rolled borders on both covers, spine with raised bands and old paper label with title in ink, edges tinted red. Spine slightly chipped at top, joints weak, light shelfwear, corners slightly bumped. Other than uniform light age-toning, title with slight finger soiling, interior generally very fine. A superb, tall, complete copy. This book is not a great rarity, but it is difficult to find complete and in fine condition.

     First edition of the first printed comprehensive natural history of the Spanish colonies in America, including extensive material on pre-conquest New Spain. Arents 3278: “Provides a botanical account of tobacco and the numerous uses to which it can be put in therapeutic practice.” Backer-Sommervogel V:1736. BMC (Nat. Hist.) III, p. 1434. JCB I (2:1600-1658), p. 258. Brunet IV, col. 76. Cole Library of Early Medicine and Zoology I:418: “The earliest American Natural History, with accounts of many American animals and plants.” European Americana 1635/94. Glass, p. 661. Johnson, The Book in the Americas, 17n, p. 134 & Figures 21-24. Krivatsy, Catalogue of 17th Century Printed Books in the National Library of Medicine 8313.Leclerc, Bibliotheca Americana (1878) 409. Lesky, Die Wiener Medizinische Schule im 19. Jahrhundert 474. Mary L. Myers, “Rubens and the Woodcuts of Christoffel Jegher” in Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New series, Vol. 25, No. 1, Part 1 (Summer, 1966), p. 7 (describing the woodcuts made by Jegher for Rubens): “Among the very finest of all the prints that were produced by the northern baroque.” Nissen, Die illustrierten Vogelbücher 676. Nissen, Die zoologische Buchillustration 2974. Palau 190738. Price, Medical Americana I:4546. Pritzel 6701. Sabin 55268. San Diego Natural History Museum, “Chocolate in Rare Books” (Exhibit, October 12, 2012-March 10, 2013, illustrating the page showing the cacao tree): “The first general natural history book of America.... The somewhat crude illustration is not a realistic version of what the chocolate tree looks like.... Although it is not clear exactly how the word ‘chocolate’ evolved over the centuries, we can see something of the origin of the word on the following page of this book in the word ‘chocollatl.’” Thorndike VII, pp. 330-33 & VIII, pp. 33-34. Trabulse, Arte y ciencia en la historia de Mexico, pp. 66-67 (illustrated). Wood, Vertebrate Zoology, p. 493: “A classic work of some value describing a medley of animals, plants, and minerals—some of them new to the zoological science of the day. This volume is becoming quite rare.”

     This is a beautifully illustrated work on the natural history of America and the East and West Indies, with a particular emphasis on Mexico and Peru with many names in Nahuatl or Quechua, and some illustrations being the first depiction of certain species. Among the animals are the Vaccas Sibolenses (the buffalo), which the author says are hunted for their meat and hides by the Apache Indians. Other illustrations and descriptions include the jaguar (or ocelot), raccoon, three-toed sloth, porcupine, opossum with young in her pouch (first ever illustration), beaver, vicuna, armadillo (tail recommended for medicinal use for disorders of the ear), monkeys, rattlesnake (second printed illustration of the species, according to Laurence M. Klauber in Rattlesnakes, University of California, 1984, p. 28, fig. 49), iguana, emu, bird of paradise (this image contributed to the early mythology surrounding the species), emerald toucan, whale, manatee (first printed depiction), crocodile, tobacco (large- and narrow-leaf species), guiacum (lignum-vitae tree), passion flower (the latter with heavy-laden emblematic iconography showing the instruments of Christ’s Passion, literally depicted: the wounds, spears, crown of thorns, and chalice), etc. In addition to the woodcut illustrations, Nieremberg’s book contains about 160 descriptions of plants, animals, and minerals. There are accounts of ceremonies, preparations of medicines, and Native uses of plant, animal, and mineral products. Also found are discussions of natural phenomena of other sorts, such as Amazons and pygmies. Added at the end are two books on marvelous and miraculous natural phenomena in Europe and one on those in the Promised Land of the Hebrews.

     Nieremberg compiled in encyclopedic form all knowledge about nature in the New World that had survived in various manuscripts and printed works. Among his sources were Jesuit missionaries, sixteenth-century Spanish chroniclers, and other writers, including Acosta, Herrera, Clusius, Martyr, Thevet, Monardes, López de Gómara, and several others. Some of the text and illustrations are derived from the then-unpublished work of Francisco Hernández (1517?-1587); Nieremberg had access to Hernández’ voluminous draft and finished manuscripts (see Hernández herein). The wide dissemination of Hernández’ work was due to the publications of Nieremberg and DeLaet. On the fate of Hernandez’s manuscripts, see Nettie Lee Benson, “The Ill-Fated Manuscripts of Francisco Hernández,” Library Chronicle of the University of Texas 5 (Winter 1954), pp. 17-27. J. Benedict Warren, “An Introductory Survey of Secular Writings in the European Tradition on Colonial Middle America, 1503-1818” in Handbook of Middle American Indians (UT Press, 1973), Vol. 13, Part 2, p. 77:

The bibliography of Hernández’ works is quite complicated, largely because the writings were all published posthumously. The first pieces published were included by Juan Eusebio Nieremberg in his Historia Naturae Maximae Peregrinae (Antwerp, 1635). One of these was a description of the structure and offices of the temple of Mexico (bk. 8, chaps. 22-27) which Hernández had excerpted from a manuscript copy of Sahagún’s General History (bk. 1, app. 2). It gives the Nahuatl names, Latin translations, and descriptions of the 78 parts of the temple complex as well as of its various ministers. Nieremberg also drew heavily on Hernández for his natural history and utilized some of his drawings to illustrate his text.

     Nieremberg (1595-1658) was among the most prolific writers of his time. By day he prayed and took confessions, and at night he wrote and incessantly compiled research. Contrary to customary Jesuit cerebral pursuits, he ardently practiced extreme punishment on his own body, to his great personal detriment. He was a man of fascinating dichotomies, such as found in the present work, which on the one hand embodies older, near mediaeval ideas, yet the author was a liminal figure with a somewhat modern scientific outlook. The illustrations in this work are considered by some to herald modern scientific illustration. Wilgus, p. 130:

An historian chiefly concerned with the lives of Jesuit missionaries, martyrs and saints was Juan Eusebio Nieremberg y Olín [who] was born in Madrid about 1595 of [noble Tyrolian and Bavarian] parents who came to Spain in the retinue of Doña María of Austria, daughter of Carlos V. He studied the classics at the court, then sciences at Alcalá and canon law at Salamanca. In 1614 he entered the Jesuit Order against his father’s wishes, and he continued his studies in Madrid and elsewhere, specializing in Greek, Hebrew, the arts, and theology. He was ordained in 1623 and made his profession in 1633, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia. He taught humanities and natural history at the Imperial College in Madrid for sixteen years and sacred scriptures for three years.... Between the years 1621 and 1653 Nieremberg was engaged in writing. His literary production numbered some seventy-three printed works and about eleven unpublished manuscripts.... His writing was not always critical, his Latin was often bad, but his Spanish was good. Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo (1856-1912) said he was “verbose and exuberant,” but his style was elegant. He wrote with religious feeling and sometimes with prejudice, and his austere life style is apparent.... Nieremberg died at Madrid in 1658 after a long and painful illness.

     Nieremberg introduces into his discussions a mystical component absent from his original sources. Miguel de Asúa and Robert French point out in A New World of Animals: Early Modern Europeans on the Creatures of Iberian America (Ashgate Publishing, 2005, p. 170): “The variety, strangeness and utility of New World animals were seen by Nieremberg as an expression of God’s light and, on that account, a way to contemplation. His was a mystical zoology” (p. 170). Or, as Nieremberg scholar Domingo Ledesma observes: “A piece of literature difficult to categorize, Historia Naturae is a hybrid encompassing novelties, rarities, and shocking natural occurrence, and it can be situated half way between the symbolic and allegoric natural history of Renaissance humanism and the morphological and taxonomical discipline that will impose itself during the Enlightenment.... Historia Naturæ has been labeled fantastic and unscientific, criticisms that miss the purpose and meaning of the book. It is above all else an exegesis of nature within the traditions of biblical commentaries and emblematic interpretation, similar in purpose to Nieremberg’s works on biblical exegesis. Considering this fact helps to understand the work without the scientific prejudice of our times, and opens up the possibility of reading it for its imaginative and symbolic aspect” (“Interpreting New World Nature: Nieremberg’s Historia Naturæ as a Palimpsest of Fantastic Literature,” International Society for Applied Ethnology, Proceedings, RUHR Conference, Latin American Forum: Variantologia Latina. Dortmund, Germany, August 26, 2010).

     This work and its author have evoked a veritable outpouring of modern scholarship, e.g. Daniela Bleichmer, et al, Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empire 1500-1800 (Stanford University Press, 2009, pp. 102-103 & 109):

[Nieremberg’s] point is clear: sacred history contains and directs moral history (human history, chronology), and the latter provides a model for natural history.... The book is a combination of bookish learning, encyclopedic knowledge, and erudition, made up of compilations of diverse and heterogeneous reports, intended to assist in the task of understanding the divine. Depending on the subject, Nieremberg quotes the peripatetics or the Neoplatonists; the philosophers, doctors, and naturalists of his day; and even classical and recondite figures. This sort of tactic, common to much other contemporary scholarship, is particularly striking in the work of an author who lacked firsthand knowledge of the phenomena he discussed and was, moreover, a Jesuit.... [Nieremberg’s] main concern was to provide the New World with meaning, to readjust correspondence between the American temporal and divine.

     The vigorous woodcuts by Flemish woodcutter Jan Christoffel Jegher (1569-1653), are primarily after two sources: the original Aztec drawings in Hernández’ manuscript, and Clusius’ botanical work. From 1625 to 1643 Jegher worked for the Plantin-Moretus publishing house, producing ornamental initials, book illustrations, vignettes, and similar book decorations. Like many Spanish books of the period, Nieremberg’s hefty tome benefited from the superior editorial acumen and excellent typography of the Low Countries. Jegher worked with artist Peter Paul Rubens, official designer of frontispieces for Balthasar Moretus’ Plantin Press. “A Historia Naturæ, by Nierembergius, a book for which [Jegher] made nearly fifty woodcuts of animals and plants plus many decorated initials and vignettes, published in 1635, is an example of what constituted the largest part of his work. The animals as he represents them have a charm not often found in such scientific books” (Myers, p. 10). For more on the association of Jegher and Nieremberg’s book, see Germán Somolinos d’Ardois, “Sobre la iconografía botánica original de las obras de Hernández y su sustitución en las ediciones europeas” in Revista de la Sociedad Mexicana de Historia Natural Vol. 15 (1954), pp. 73-86.

    Glass, in his survey and bibliography of material on Native Middle American pictorial manuscripts, acknowledges Nieremberg’s preservation of Hernández’ assemblage of natural history texts and illustrations. Glass, p. 661 (bibliography): “Illustrations include copies, which preserve the traits of Native style and iconography of the originals, of some of the drawings of plants and animals from Hernández, Historia natural de Nueva España, a work described in pictorial census”; pp. 131-132 (census): “Hundreds of drawings, many by Indian artists (whose names he gives), illustrated the work. The original manuscripts and all the drawings were almost certainly destroyed by the Escorial fire of 1671. The text is known through various publications [including] Nierembergii (1635) who described the character of the drawings and published some copies which together indicate their traditional Native origin (such as the use of glyphs for water and stone in conjunction with the drawings of plants).”  


Sold. Hammer: $2,500.00; Price Realized: $3,062.50.

Auction 23 Abstracts

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