‘The Bolognese Aristotle’
Considered the father of natural history studies, Ulissse Aldrovandi was an ardent student of chickens. Herewith, a sampling of his observations about the uses of chickens in Renaissance society.

Ulisse Aldrovandi was a true Renaissance man, living between the lifetimes of da Vinci and Galileo, and rooted in both classical and religious sensibilities. Considering himself a latter-day Aristotle, Aldrovandi was named after one of the two protagonists of The Iliad and The Odyssey. (His brother was named Achille after the other protagonist.) Aldrovandi was also a cousin of Pope Gregory VIII, and when the new pope assumed his position, a "fearsome" dragon appeared in the countryside in Bologna. Aldrovandi inspected its alleged carcass and (remarkably) called it a good omen for the new pontiff. A lifelong dragon aficionado, he kept in his collections the remains of another, diminutive dragon, only a little larger than a human hand. It is still on display today, in the Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna.

As a young man, Aldrovandi studied law, philosophy, logic and mathematics at the universities of Bologna and Padua. He completed his degree in medicine and philosophy in 1553, and began teaching logic the following year. By then, however, he had developed a strong interest in natural history, and eventually turned to teaching that subject. From a monetary perspective, it was a bad move; he would have commanded a much higher salary by sticking with medicine. The naturalist likely hoped for his cousin's papal patronage, but the pontiff's financial support was sporadic (Aldrovandi was sometimes suspected of heresy), and despite his outstanding reputation, he often had to seek patronage elsewhere. Fortunately, Aldrovandi wasn't motivated by money so much as a desire to establish natural history as a legitimate field of study. In this he was a dazzling success.

Aldrovandi established one of the most acclaimed curiosity cabinets in European history, containing more than 18,000 specimens, according to his written description from 1595. A friend once wrote him, "[Signor Contestabile] told me that he had seen so many and various things in your studio that he remained stupefied. One can believe that there is no studio similar in all of Europe." Ever aware of his own achievements, Aldrovandi once described a young friend's new garden as, "planted with so many exotic plants, which I at one time or another have seen, had, described, and depicted." Even better, he had inscribed beneath his portrait, "This is not you, Aristotle, but an image of Ulysses: though the faces are dissimilar, nonetheless the genius is the same." He vowed to write only about things he had personally witnessed or examined (and chided Aristotle for passing along unverified information), but didn't always live up to his own pledge. Fortunately, many of the geologic specimens he did examine—and depict in his books—are still preserved in modern collections. Some 200 specimens are housed in the Museum Aldrovandi in Palazzo Poggi, although they constitute only a tiny fraction of what he recorded having in his collections during his lifetime.

How fossils formed puzzled naturalists during and long after Aldrovandi's lifetime. Aldrovandi rejected the Noachian flood as an explanation for the formation of fossils, but he believed that fossils formed in situ, making him partially right and partially wrong in understanding fossilization.

Aldrovandi reputedly began his natural history museum on a trip to Rome in 1549, having been summoned there to face trial for heresy. With half a dozen other Bolognese men, he awaited his doom only to be granted amnesty by incoming Pope Julius III. While most of his cellmates immediately headed home to Bologna, Aldrovandi lingered in Rome, ogled antiquities, and befriended fish enthusiast Rondelet, who put him in the habit of collecting and studying his own piscine specimens.

Of the visitors to Aldrovandi's museum, only the cream of the crop were asked to sign his "book of friends," yet over the years he collected more than 1,500 signatures. Relying mostly on objects in his collection, Aldrovandi wrote roughly 400 volumes on natural history. Getting the work published was tougher, though, and only a handful of his books were printed during his lifetime. When he bequeathed his collection to the Senate of Bologna, Aldrovandi stipulated that the senate should continue publishing his work. Fortunately, many of his manuscripts were published more or less how he envisioned. But while Aldrovandi was prolific, he wasn't always accurate, and many of his descriptions and illustrations were improbable at best. Like many of his time, he believed nature capable of creating her own works of art.

Aldrovandi embarked on a botanizing expedition in the Sibylline Mountains of Italy, in 1557, the first such expedition of its kind in Europe. Not surprisingly, he desperately wanted to see the New World, too, but by the time he was offered the opportunity, he was 65. He thought himself too old and frail to survive the trip, but he might have made it after all; he lived nearly 20 more years. When he did travel in later years, he was accompanied by assistants, including an artist to draw the sights and a secretary to record his observations. (Aldrovandi bio courtesy http://www.strangescience.net/aldrovandi.htm)


Often referred to as "The Bolognese Aristotle," Ulisse Aldrovandi (11 September 1522-4 May 1605), a professor at the University of Bologna and one of the first great specimen collectors, led the Renaissance movement that placed renewed emphasis on the study of nature. His epic work, Ornithologia, filled 14 folio volumes (10 published posthumously between 1605 and 1668) and two thousand pages. His successors, such as Linnaeus, considered him the father of natural history studies. In 1963 the University of Oklahoma Press published Aldrovandi on Chickens, a chapter of his massive Ornithologia work, the first English translation of any part of Aldrovandi's writings. In addition to his acute observations and precise drawings of plants and animals, Aldrovandi also reveals much about the gastronomic customs and habits of his time. Herewith, a sampling of some of Aldrovandi's reporting on the uses of chicken and chicken eggs in Renaissance society. If nothing else, we learn that Aldrovandi's contemporaries were every bit as youth-fixated as we are now, the big difference being that chicken dung is not widely seen as being good for the complexion, as it was back then. But who knows?

Aldrovondi On Chickens

'If you want the chicken to jump on the plate...'
Nicolaus Massa advises that in all preparations of chicken for use at table a little salt should be added, since they are tastier thus and descend more quickly into the stomach. I should also mention, by the way, the admonition that a nut included with the hen makes it far swifter to cook, as Cornelius Agrippa reports. If this is true (and anyone may test it without harm), it would often be useful in the event of unexpected arrival of friends. If you want the chicken to jump on the plate, says Albertus Magnus, take quicksilver and powder of calaminth, place them in a glass bottle and seal it up. Place the bottle inside the warm chicken. When the quicksilver is heated, it moves and makes the chicken jump.

‘We read that among Egyptian women the broth of plump black hens fattened by special care was in very common use in bathing in order to make the women fat.'
Platina describes a dish made from the heads and inner parts of capons and hens. Take the livers, lungs, feet, heads, and necks and wash them well. When washed and boiled, transfer them to a wide, shallow dish, without broth. Then add anise, mint, rock parsley, and sprinkle pepper or cinnamon and serve at once. Finally, broth made from these birds is not unpleasing. In fact, we read that among Egyptian women the broth of plump black hens fattened by special care was in very common use in bathing in order to make the women fat. For each woman drinks the entire broth made from a single hen and then eats the entire bird in the bath. They also take a very fat black hen, full of meat, and stuff its stomach with pounded hazelnuts, sweet almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, and peas, three drams of each. They boil the hen prepared in this fashion in water, and each woman eats all of it in the bath in one day. She also drinks the broth, in which a Persian gum has been boiled, and continues this fattening process for a number of days. In almost the same way, they eat another cooked chicken and drink its broth, but before the hen is killed, the give it a pound of clean wheat boiled in water. When the hen has eaten it, they cut off her head, cook her, and eat her in the bath and thereafter all the chicken broth from the hen. Other women prepare the hen in another fashion. They give the hen peas and a pound a half of wheat boiled in water: when the hen has eaten this they kill, cook, and eat her and drink the broth on that day, continuing to do the same for five times. The author of all this is Prosper Alpinus. Antagoras, the poet, so esteemed chicken broth, as Athenaeus writes, that he did not with to go into the bath whenever he had boiled a hen, lest the boys swallow up the broth in his absence.

'It is certain that the rumps of fattened fowl are most pleasing to the glutton...'
People used to eat the intestines, separately cooked, with other foods; according to Hermolaus, these are called gigleria and, by another reading, gigeria. Among other parts of the chicken, the testicles are particularly recommended, especially by Galen and all physicians, most of all if the roosters have been fed on milk, for these are very large and easy to cook. Alexander of Aphrodisia makes mention of this fact. The French regard the rump of roosters, hens, and capons as military food. They call veteran soldiers devourers of fowl rumps. It is certain that the rumps of fattened fowl are most pleasing to the glutton, and they are commonly exhibited to epicures as a joke. Moreoever, hen's blodd is not inferior to pig's blood, but is is much less good than that of a hare. There were people in Galen's time who ate it. When our people kill hens they suspend the birds by their feet, collect the blood, and use it as food.

'...zephyr eggs, according to Aristotle, taste less good, are smaller and more humid.'
But it is time to say something also about eggs, concerning the many ways in which they are useful for food, a fact of which  no one is ignorant. They are good to such a degree that Pliny says elsewhere there is no other food which nourishes in illness without burdening the patient, and at the same time has the power of both food and drink (some read here: "the use of wine"). We prefer hens' eggs for food most readily. Whatever others may say, they are preferred to all the rest, especially if they are eggs which the hen has conceived by a rooster. For zephyr eggs, according to Aristotle, taste less good, are smaller and more humid. Fresh eggs are offered much more than old eggs, since the freshest are the best and the oldest are the worst. Those eggs in between differ among themselves in goodness or badness in proportion as they recede from the extremes on either side. Fresh eggs are very easily distinguished from the old. The fresh eggs are full; old eggs are usually empty in the wider part. In addition it is a most manifest indication of age if, when the eggs are opened or broken, they flow away in different directions, especially the yolk. On the contrary, it is a sign the eggs are good if when the egg is opened, the yolk remains intact and a reddish spot like blood appears in the center of it.

Chicken Dung, 'For the Facial Care'
German soldiers, when they set out for war, make use of roosters as watchmen, a practice followed by other nations also, as I have said. Tarentinus describes a bait for catching big fish and all sea creatures-such as the glaucus (a bluish-colored fish), the gilthead, and others of the sort-made out of rooster testicles and sixteen of pine nuts. He says all this should be ground up into a flour, made into a paste and used for bait; he promises it will be effective. People attirbuate the power of coagulation to the membrane of the chicken gizzard; hence we read in Palladius: "In the month of May we coagulate milk with whole milk or with the membranes of chickens. Other people attribute the power of coagulation to the chicken's throat or windpipe. Some say that beans steeped in chicken blood before they are planted will not be infested with harmful weeds.

The blood of black hens, according to Rhases, removes fetid spots and freckles from the face, especially if crdushed-up stone from a cow is mixed with it, together with red nitre or borax. It cleanses and makes the face beautiful and gives it a good color. Antonio Mizaldus writes, on the basis of some Italian source, that the blood of a white hen, when applied to a freckled face, dried there, and wiped off, removes all spots from it. Chicken dung is also recommended by some for the purpose, especially white dung preserved in oil in an old box made of horn, to use Pliny's words on the subject. Elsewhere he also says that chicken or goose fat helps to care for the skin on the face. It can appear that Pliny borrowed this from Dioscorides; the latter writes: "Goose grease in chicken fat is useful for the care of the complexion," that is, the glow of the countenance, as Marcellus Vegilius translates it, or for adorning the face, as Ruellius puts it, although the Ornithologist, with Pliny, prefers to translate "for the facial care," that is, against wind, heat, and sun. Some people draw water from a hen for the preserving the beauty of the flesh and the flower of youth by chemical means in this manner: they strangle a white hen, pound it up together with feathers and bones, and cook it all in river water with one and a half handfuls of barley chaff. When cooked, they put it in an ample bowl, mix in one-day-old fresh eggs, broken up with their shells, a little pine tree turpentine, and a half-ounce of myrrh powder. They then distill the entire mixture in an alembic and place it for nine days in the sunshine. Later they add a little borax and sugar and use it.

Foghorn Leghorn, ‘Sock a Doodle Do’ (1952), directed by Robert McKimson, music by Carl Stallings, voices by Mel Blanc.

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