Ulisse Aldrovandi and the origin of geology and science
Published:January 01, 2006
The Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605)—often reductively considered as a mere encyclopedist and avid collector of natural history curiosities—lived an adventurous youth and a long maturity rich of manuscripts, books, and outstanding achievements. He assembled the largest collections of animals, plants, minerals, and fossil remains of his time, which in 1547 became the basis of the first natural history museum open to the public. Shortly after that, he established the first public scientific library. He also proposed a complete single classification scheme for minerals and for living and fossil organisms, and he defined the modern meaning of the word “geology” in 1603.
Aldrovandi tried to bridge the gap between simple collection and modern scientific taxonomy by theorizing a “new science” based on observation, collection, description, careful reproduction, and ordered classification of all natural objects. In an effort to gain an integrated knowledge of all processes occurring on Earth and to derive tangible benefits for humankind, he was a strenuous supporter of team effort, collaboration, and international networking. He anticipated and influenced Galileo Galilei's experimental method and Francis Bacon's utilitarianism, providing also the first attempt to establish the binomial nomenclature for both living and fossil species and introducing the concept of a standard reference or type for each species.
His books and manuscripts are outstanding contributions to the classification of geological objects, and to the understanding of natural processes such as lithification and fossilization, thereby also influencing Steno's stratigraphic principles. The importance given to careful observation induced Aldrovandi to implement a uniformitarian approach in geology for both the classification of objects and the interpretation of processes.
Aldrovandi influenced a school in natural history that reached its climax with the Istituto delle Scienze of Bologna in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with scientists such as Cospi, Marsili, Scheuchzer, Vallisneri, Beccari, and Monti in geology, and Malpighi, Cassini, Guglielmini, Montanari, Algarotti in other fields.