Pierre Belon's Early Natural History of Birds

Pierre Belon (1517-1564), L’histoire de la natvre des oyseavx, avec levrs descriptions, & naÏfs portraicts retirez du naturel: escrite en sept livres (Paris: Gilles Corrozet, 1555). Seven parts in one volume with 161 woodcuts, including a portrait of Belon, two skeletons used as diagrams to compare the structure of man and bird (seen below), and 158 large cuts of birds. It has a contemporary calf binding with fillets and decorative roll tools, and a fore-margin with contemporary manuscript title “P. BE / LON / L.HIS / TOIRE / DES / OISEA / UX. Graphic Arts GAX 2010- in process. Purchased with funds from the Henry Matthews Zeiss Memorial Book Fund.

Pierre Belon studied medicine in Paris and became the pupil of the botanist Valerius Cordus at Wittenberg. When Cordus died in 1544, Belon returned to Paris and came under the patronage of François de Tournon, who subsidized his study and extensive travel. With this support, Belon prepared a book on fish in 1551, trees in 1553, and this bird study in 1555.

According to Ruth Mortimer, “Belon’s text, as one of the first of its time to be based on direct observation and original drawings, is a major work in the field of natural history…” A pioneer in comparative anatomy, Belon attempted to match the names of birds used by Aristotle and Pliny with the species then in France (hence the captions in Greek). The book is one of the first ornithological compendiums to be based, in part, on field observations and many of the woodcut bird portraits were taken from actual specimens.

There were two issues of this book in 1555, divided between publishers Gilles Corrozet, who held the privilege, and Guillaume Cavellat. Belon, in his address to the reader, states that various artists contributed to the illustrations, although he names only Pierre Goudet (i.e. Pierre Gourdel). Blocks from this work were used again in 1557 for the first part of Belon’s Portraits d’oyseavx, animavx, serpens, …, also published by Cavellat.