The Prodigy Book: The 17th Century

The end of the 16th century was marked by profound cultural changes, stimulated principally by the end of the Wars of Religion. Wonders, and monsters in particular, began to be interpreted less frequently as bad omens: they therefore inspired less horror. Curiosity and admiration of Nature’s products became predominant, resulting in a more diverse group of scholars writing books about prodigies and wonders. As one historian has noted, the seventeenth century was a time when the study of wonders “became a reflection not of ignorance but of virtuosity and connoirsseurship: the product not only of great experience and erudition, but also of impeccable taste”.

Likewise, illustrations of monsters began to change too. Often represented in a naturalistic environment, the artist strove for increasing realism, reflective of the trend toward increasing detailed observation. The shift was not total: the same book could contain the older style of representing monstrous beings, as well as more modern, anatomical drawings of abnormalities.


Johannes Schenck von Grafenberg (1530-1598). Observationum medicarum rariorum, libri VII. In quibus nova, abdita ... monstrosaque exempla, circa anatomen, aegritudinum causas ... Lyon: Sumptibus Joannis-Antonii Huguetan, 1643.

The Observations of the eminent physician Johannes Schenck was intended to be an encyclopedia of all the monstrosities recorded since Antiquity. The originality of his work lay in the fact that he classified monstrosities in five different categories corresponding into the five parts of the body, and that he separated birth defects from entirely imaginary monsters.


Johannes-Georg Schenck von Grafenberg. Monstrorum historia memorabilis, monstrosa humanorum partuum miracula vivis exemplis, observationibus, & picturis, referens. Accessit analogicum argumentum De monstris brutis... Frankfurt: Matthiae Beckeri, 1609.

Johann-Georg Schenck, the son of Johann Schenck, took a more traditional approach to monstrosity than had his father.

Besides listing the most famous occurrences of monsters, he marveled at examples of the creativity of Nature.

For example, Schenck dwelt on the case of Thomas Schweicker, who was born without arms, but who became so agile with his feet that he was able to paint and write.


Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605?). Monstrorum historia. Cum Paralipomenis historiae omnium animalium ... Bologna: Typis Nicolai Tebaldini, 1642.

Aldrovandi, professor of natural history at the University of Bologna, was referred to both as the "second Pliny" and the "Bolognese Aristotle." His History of Monsters, published posthumously by his students, conveyed his amazement at the wealth of marvels in nature and aimed to be an encyclopedia of real and imaginary monsters.


Fortunio Liceti (1577-1657). De monstrorum caussis, natura, & differentiis libri duo ... Padua: Apud Casparem Crivellarium, 161

For the Italian physician Fortunio Liceti, true monstrosity inspired wonder and not horror. He criticized the association of monsters with divine wrath, and pointed out that the word 'monster' came from the Latin verb 'monstrare,' meaning 'to show.' Hence, Liceti argued, monsters were not signs of God's punishment, but rather, they were creatures to be displayed because of their rarity.

The little creatures on this title page were probably well known by readers since they represented famous cases of monstrosity, including the monster of Ravenna (shown at the top). The Paduan artist Giovanni Battista Bissoni is responsible for the engravings included on this title page.


Fortunio Liceti (1577-1657). De monstrorum caussis, natura, et differentiis libri duo ... Padua: Apud Paulum Frambottum, 1634 [1633].

It is interesting to compare the title page of the first edition of De Monstrorum causis with this frontispiece, which appeared in the second edition of Liceti’s book. The present plate grouped both real and imagined creatures together (instead of only imaginary ones), but maintained a whimsical atmosphere.

It emphasized the theatricality of monstrosity by including drapes, and presenting a woman with five breasts (probably an allegory for the wealth of nature) on a pedestal.

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