Today’s paleo-art—the paintings of creatures no living human has ever seen—has its roots in the Middle Ages. Bestiaries were filled with images of mythical beasts and woefully distorted pictures of real creatures. Renaissance artists transformed the visualization of nature by putting more care into making their pictures accurate. The finest example of this new kind of art, a 4,500-page tome called “The Histories of Animals,” was published by the Swiss physician Conrad Gessner in the mid-1500s.
Gessner hired masters of woodcutting to make lavish illustrations for his book. Whenever possible, Gessner had them work from actual specimens. But Gessner’s artists couldn’t go to the Arctic or to Africa, so they still had to rely on second-hand information for exotic species. Gessner’s masterpiece is a transitional mix of the modern and the mythical.
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