Setting an Example: the Bibliography of Conrad Gessner

By Hanna de Lange |

In 1545 Zürich printer Christoph Froschauer published the Bibliotheca Universalis (USTC 616753) by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565). Like our own universal catalogue, the USTC, Gessner meticulously compiled a list of authors and their books, an undertaking that earned him the title ‘the father of bibliography’.

Conrad Gessner was a Swiss polymath, physician and botanist. On the title page of Bibliotheca Universalis Gessner explains what he had set out to accomplish: to describe all Hebrew, Greek and Latin books ever written, both existing and lost. Gessner was very aware of the poor survival rate of ancient texts and he searched German and Italian libraries to unearth as many copies as he could. He proceeded to describe the books and add the locations of where they could be found. Tracking down the whereabouts of a book was not always an easy task and Gessner was often compelled to turn to vague descriptions, like ‘some Italian library’. Still, his attempt to list repositories was a novelty and, more often than not, he mentioned both the place and the name of the library a book was held.

title page of 005169935
Title page of Conrad Gessner’s personal copy of Bibliotheca Universalis. Zentralbibliothek Zurich, shelfmark 005169935.

Sitting on a bookshelf in the remarkable boekzaal (book room) on the first floor of Museum Meermanno, The House of the Book in The Hague, a copy of Gessner’s Bibliotheca Universalis finds itself in good company. It stands shoulder to shoulder alongside books that contain works of Classic scholars. These books are often later translations, but Gessner would no doubt have approved of their existence as they bear witness to the ancient works he set out to rescue from oblivion. We can identify Manuale by Epictetus (shelfmark: 006 C 035 [02]), Aristoteles’ Poetica (shelfmark: 006 C 039) and works by Lucretius Carus (shelfmark: 006 C 041) and Church Father Joannis Chrysostomus (shelfmark: 006 D 024 [01]).

Gessner’s list was, and still is, a valuable source for collectors. It is very likely the reason why the man who started the Museum Meermanno’s foundational collection, Baron W.H.J. van Weestrenen van Tiellandt, was eager to obtain a copy of this book. After all, he and Gessner had their love for books and their wish to preserve them in common.

The Bibliotheca Universalis is a massive work, but not the only one Gessner undertook. Like a true homo universalis, in addition to this bibliography he attempted to list all the known knowledge on plants: Catalogus plantarum Latinè, Graecè, Germanicè, & Gallicè (1542), USTC 619851; on languages: Mithridates. De differentiis linguarum tum veterum, tum quae hodie apud diversas in toto orbe in usu sunt (1555), USTC 305141 and on animals: Historiae animalium (1551), USTC 624827.

frog tree device
A version of Christoph Froschauer‘s printer’s device, which looks very similar to the woodcut of a frog in the second volume of Gessner’s Historiae Animalium. Zentralbibliothek Zurich, shelfmark 004652981.

All of Gessner’s works were widely distributed and translated. Nevertheless, they were invariably placed upon the Papal Index of Forbidden Books. After all, Gessner and his publisher Froschauer were Protestants, which was reason enough for their books to end up on the Index. A Counter-Reformation bibliography, the Bibliotheca Selecta, by Antonio Possevino (USTC 851076), followed some five decades later in 1593. But this could not prevent the legacy Gessner left us with: an early example of a systematic bibliography.


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Hanna de Lange is a Universal Short Title Catalogue PhD student at the University of St Andrews. She graduated from the University of Amsterdam with a degree in Early Modern History. Her doctoral research is a study of the dissemination of English, Scottish and Irish books on the early modern European book market.


References and further reading:

Blair, Ann M., Too much to know. Managing scholarly information before the Modern Age (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

Leu, Urs B., Raffael Keller and Sandra Weidmann (eds.), Conrad Gessner’s Private Library (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2008).

Nelles, Paul, ‘Conrad Gessner and the Mobility of the Book: Zurich, Frankfurt, Venice (1543)’, in: Daniel Bellingradt, Paul Nelles and Jeroen Salman (eds.), Books in Motion in Early Modern Europe. Beyond Production, Circulation and Consumption (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


Images available from the Zentralbibliothek Zurich under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. Copyright of Zentralbibliothek Zurich.


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