The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is currently hosting an exhibition titled De Monstris: An Exhibition of Monsters and the Wonders of Human Imagination. This exhibit, curated by librarian David Fernandez, began on September 17 and ends on December 21.
De Monstris explores a variety of themes, interpretations and definitions throughout the history of monsters and monstrosity in the West from the middle ages until the end of the 19th century. Themes range from groups of people defined as monsters, monsters during the age of exploration, monsters in nature, ideas of monstrosity inner monstrosity to the definition of monstrosity in literature. The exhibit itself is split into two floors: the main floor of the library showcases artifacts from the middle ages until the 19th century and then downstairs showcases literature and popular culture.
The exhibit contains about 100 items, some of which include manuscripts, printed books, pamphlets, map sheets, and popular books: “The earliest item is from 1493 and the latest one is from 1915. It is basically the history of monsters in 500 years told by the different materials we have,” Fernandez notes. Each theme touches on different depictions and definitions of monsters or monstrosity over the ages and utilizes different items and historically influential texts to highlight these themes.
“We have Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. We have an edition of the book published in Madrid in 1624-1629 and it has some important wood-carved illustrations of all the animals and creatures described in the book including monsters,” says Fernandez. “Another book that is also very important as it is considered the first modern atlas by Abraham Ortelius and we have an edition that contains the map of Iceland and in the outskirts you have a collection of sea-monsters. We also have the second and third editions of Fortunio Liceti’s De Monstris which is a collection of writings on monsters by an early modern Italian physician who applied logic to make sense of monsters and humans and it is also illustrated with engravings.”
On the theme of monstrosity in literature or “monsters as stories,” Fernandez states, “We have on display the first illustrated edition of Frankenstein from 1831 and also the first edition of Dracula from 1897.” This section aims at exploring monstrosity as defined by influential texts at the time and even now that still influence our ways of thinking about monsters in today’s popular culture.
The theme of monsters in encounters is another idea the exhibit explores in terms of monsters during the age of exploration in which “Ideas of monstrosity,” Fernandez states, “are tied to what Europeans encounter during their travels to the Americas and other parts of the world.”
On the theme of groups of people defined as monsters, Fernandez explains, “These are stories about groups of humans describing monsters in medieval encyclopedias like Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History and important early printed books like The Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493 that has two of the most iconic graphic pages in the history of monsters. So, you have visual depictions of some of the legendary tribes or monsters like the dog-headed monsters or the headless creatures.”
The items showcased at the exhibit each work to address significant themes of monstrosity prevalent in the history of mankind and how those themes are influential even to this day. In other words, this is due to the influence of varying depictions and conceptions of monsters that have persisted at different points in our history.
“I think monsters can reveal very significant aspects of our history. I think monsters are expressions of precise moments in history,” Fernandez asserts. “Every culture, every society, has produced their own monsters for different reasons and so if we try to get closer to their origins, which I think is impossible to know for certain, the more you try to dig in, the more you realize that they reflect our own fears, hopes, and lack of knowledge of the world.”