From a suite of twelve birds
Italian, 16th century?
Published in 1594 by Nicolaus van Aelst
By the time he was a young teenager, Brussels-born Nicolaus van Aelst was living in Rome, ostensibly working in some capacity within the printmaking industry. Virtually nothing is known about his career until the late 1580s, when his name began to appear as the publisher of diverse sets of engravings. Even less has come down to us about the artist Aelst engaged to produce the suite of birds, one of which is represented here, whose monogram, seemingly conjoining the letters AbF, has yet to emerge in the printmaking literature.
While direct observation may have aided the realization of some of the birds in this series—the crowned eagle, for example, is particularly well drawn—others were clearly based on earlier reportage of questionable veracity. This pelican, with its truncated beak, bulging gular skin, and unwebbed feet, has more in common anatomically with the frigate bird, which, on the other hand, does not posses a pouch that connects, as here, to the lower bill. The artist may very well have derived the image from an illustration in Conrad Gessner’s Historia animalium (Histories of the Animals), a massive encyclopedia, published between 1551 and 1558, which became the most widely read natural history of the Renaissance. Although Gessner claimed that all of the book’s illustrations were made ad vivam, which is to say, “from life,” he did allow that one of the three pictures depicting the pelican in his study—and one remarkably similar to the engraving on view here—was made after a drawing sent to him by “a certain painter.”
Object inscriptions: top left: Sacco Marino; bottom right: Nicolo van Aelst, formis Roma, monogram