The Book of Animals

by Pier Candido Decembrio

Pier Candido Decembrio, author of the text contained in the Vatican Library’s Urbinas Latinus 276 manuscript, was born in the northern Italian city of Pavia in 1399.
He was the son of the humanist Uberto Decembrio, and a famed scholar himself.

In 1460 he sent a copy of his treatise De animantium naturis to Ludovico Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua: the Gonzagas’ interest in nature was legendary.

Ludovico wrote to Decembrio, commissioning a new copy of his very interesting work. He also requested that blank spaces be left on the pages so that pictures of the animals described therein could be added to enable him to better understand the text.

In reality, however, the illustrations were added more than a century later, in the 1590s.

This time gap makes this manuscript still more noteworthy, for it embodies the passage of zoological studies from over-reliance on earlier sources (albeit supplemented by first-hand knowledge) to analytical study based as much as possible on direct observation.

Though some uncertainty persists about the identity of the illustrator, the name of Teodoro Ghisi, a Mantuan painter, has been persuasively suggested.


Each copy is numbered and certified by the Vatican Apostolic Library
Copies available | Price subject to private negotiation

The wonderful world of animals

Decembrio’s text was transcribed in Vatican manuscript Urb. Lat. 276 after 1460; the animal pictures were added at the end of the sixteenth century.

These magnificent illustrations exemplify the descriptive method that developed during the Renaissance in the field of natural history. They are particularly significant, because depictions based on direct observation by the artist go hand in hand with pictures of imaginary and mythological animals.

They were carefully painted in tempera (some have gold highlights) and are in good condition. All the pictures are astounding for their minute rendering of details, such as fur, plumage, fish-scales, even the muscles of half-human, half-animal mythological creatures like centaurs, sirens and tritons.
The illustrations have documentary as well as artistic value, in part because they show us species that have since gone extinct.

Reality and imagination

Myth and observation coexist in Decembrio’s book.

This is especially evident when he follows tradition in describing two types of monoceros: the rhinoceros and the unicorn. Hence, on the eve of the modern age, the symbolism attributed to one or another species was still considered by Decembrio on a par with direct observation. The artist who painted the illustrations, on the other hand, was much closer to our own way of thinking what science should be like.

Mythical animals aside, this manuscript is very important because its pictures show the level that the zoology and natural-science illustration had reached by the end of the sixteenth century.

Technical characteristics

Replica of the whole 472-page manuscript in its original format (26.5x19cm)

  • 469 pictures of animals.
  • The pages are the same size as in the original manuscript and have gilded edges.
  • Hand-bound in marbled goatskin leather.
  • The 23-carat gold-leaf decoration is identical to that on the manuscript’s binding.

The facsimile manuscript is accompanied by a scientific commentary written by Dr. Cynthia M. Pyle (26.5x19 cm; 216 pages).

Limited worldwide edition: 2400 numbered copies, of which 600 for circulation in German-speaking countries.

Reference: Urb. Lat. 276

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