Ulisse Aldrovandi: an expert’s journey around the world
His destiny was in his name: Ulisse Aldrovandi (Bologna, 1522-1605) was an untiring explorer like Homer’s Ulysses, a botanist and an entomologist with natural curiosity fuelling his “zeal […] / To explore the world”, who “Forth sail’d / Into the deep illimitable main” from a young age (to quote the legendary king of Ithaca, as he told his story to Dante in the “Divine Comedy”, Inferno XXVI, 98-100).
Aldrovandi ran away from home at the age of twelve, arrived in Rome, but soon returned to Bologna after realizing he needed to build up some equipment before he could really take off. He completed his studies.
Once he was truly ready, he set off on a long journey full of incredible surprises.
Aldrovandi gathered and collected thousands of naturalistic finds, composing an endowment of wonders for his personal “museum of the world”, which he left to his hometown’s Senate after his death.
His treasures include herbaria, zoological and botanical samples, manuscripts, block prints, and almost three thousand watercolors depicting animals, minerals, plants, flowers, and fossils, which the naturalist commissioned to artists who worked with him.
“Ye were not form’d to live the life of brutes, / But virtue to pursue and knowledge high”: Aldrovandi certainly knew what Ulysses meant when he incited his men to go beyond what they already knew. But while Dante’s hero uses animals (“brutes”) as a negative term of comparison, Aldrovandi loved fauna in all of its variety – as we can see in the many drawings his friends painted for him.