I hadn’t paid much attention to Italian medieval animal manuscripts, and knew little about them, until Carlo Calloni, an Italian medieval scholar, pointed me to the manuscript Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana plut.40.52, a 14th century copy of L’Acerba Etas (which translates more or less to The Bitter Life) by Cecco d’Ascoli, the common name of Francesco degli Stabili (sometimes given as Francesco degli Stabili Cichus), an Italian encyclopaedist, physician and poet (1257 – September 26, 1327). The animal section is loosely based on the Physiologus (with some differences), and includes an Aviary (book of birds) and a Lapidary (book of stones) along with sections on other things of interest in the natural world. While the animal stories are moralized as in the Physiologus and the Bestiaries, Cecco d’Ascoli was also interested in the science of things, as understood in his time. His writing and free thinking got him in trouble with the church, and in 1327 got him burned at the stake.

Some of the animals in L’Acerba are not found in other medieval animal books, and Cecco’s allegories are sometimes different from the norm. He also is skeptical about some of the animal descriptions, though he includes them in his book all the same.

There are several editions of the L’Acerba available online, mostly in Italian, though there is one English translation. You can find links to some of the on the Medieval Bestiary site.

One bird I (and others) have failed to identify is the stellino, a bird that Cecco describes as the beauty of the sky and a star wanderer. It might be some kind of hawk.

It carries its one egg with it when it flies, and sometimes drops it and it cracks, but the chick emerges unharmed. I don’t know what to relate this to in the Bestiary tradition; do you?

The images in the manuscript are surprisingly realistic – surprising because the illustrations of animals in western Bestiary manuscripts are often wildly inaccurate, because the artist had never seen the beast (or was just a bad artist). This artist knew what he was doing.

Anyway, thanks to Carlo Calloni I spent a couple of days wandering through the Italian side of the medieval animal genre, and now I know more about than I did before. Which isn’t saying much, since I knew next to nothing before.