‘On the sixteenth of October of this year , news was brought from Rome of a Flying Serpent that had been killed by a hunter after a severe and dangerous struggle. This story, which appeared more like some fable than real truth, was a subject of discussion among the learned’.
Georg Caspar Kirchmaier, De basilisco, unicornu, phœnice, behemoth, leviathan, dracone, araneo, tarantula et ave paradisi, dissertationes aliquot (Wittenberg, 1669), p. 104.
Pierre Belon, Les obseruations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorable (Paris, 1588), p. 296.
Pierre Belon (1517?-1564), was a French natural historian who travelled widely in Europe and the Middle East and, on his return to France, published his findings. Worth evidently favoured him for he collected a number of his works, including his Les obseruations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorable (Paris, 1588). In this work, originally printed in 1553, Belon included one of the first printed images of a winged dragon, an iconic image which would prove to be the basis of subsequent pictorial representations of winged dragons in the works of both Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) and Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605).
Belon tells us that in Egypt he had seen ‘bodies, embalmed and all complete, of certain winged serpents, which had feet, that they say fly from the part of Arabia in Egypt’. As Senter and Klein note, Belon was referencing ancient authors such as Herodotus who had reported flying snakes in Egypt, but Belon was going one step further by actually reproducing an image of one he claimed to have witnessed with his own eyes.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1640), p. 422.
Aldrovandi also claimed to be a direct eyewitness of a winged dragon, for he recounted that:
In the year of our Lord 1600, a true mummified African dragon was given as gift by Francisco Centensis to the most illustrious Ulisse Aldrovandi … it had, moreover, five prominent and conspicuous protuberances on its back, which were lacking in the dragon of Belon: it also had two feet armed with claws, and was depicted with small ears. The entire body was decorated with green and blackish scales. It bore two wings suitable for flying, and a long and flexible tail, straight with dull yellow scales, such as were visible on the stomach and throat. The mouth was armed with sharp teeth. The lower part of the head was flat next to the small ears. The pupils of the eyes were black with a pale yellow circle. Finally, the two nostrils were visible and open.
Image of a winged dragon in Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1640), p. 423.
Some have argued that Ulisse’s dragon was one of the last of the pterosaurs, flying dinosaurs which existed from the late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous period. However, as this image from the American Museum of Natural History demonstrates, Aldrovandi’s dragon and a pterosaur had little in common. Senter and Klein’s examination of the Belon-Gesner-Aldrovandi image of a winged dragon not only rejects any designation of it as a pterosaur but the authors also suggest the actual make-up of the dragon.
It is clear that Gesner’s image was, if not completely similar to that of Belon’s woodcut, strikingly like it. Aldrovandi’s images also showed a strong degree of similarity even if its pose was slightly different and the wings constructed differently. As Senter and Klein note, these differences probably reflect Aldrovandi’s decision to illustrate the Centensis specimen rather than rely solely on Belon’s illustration.
Senter and Klein conclude that both the Belon-Gesner-Aldrovandi dragon type was a composite construct, as was the case with the ‘Dragon of Bologna’. In much the same way different animal parts were used. The primary part was made up of snake (to give the scale-like effect), with an extended body (probably created by inserting material to give it a rounded effect). They point out that the rather dog-like head resembles that of an Egyptian fruit-bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus), and note that Belon says that he saw his specimen in Egypt, while that of Aldrovandi’s specimen was said to come from Ethiopia. They suggest that the wings were those of flying gurnards. In essence, the Belon-Gesner-Aldrovandi dragon was a beautifully drawn example of a composite fraud.
Francisco Hernandez, Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651), p. 816.
An even more obvious example of a fake winged dragon was that belonging to Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), a nephew of Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644). Rather surprisingly, a picture of the ‘Barberini Dragon’ was initially included in Worth’s copy of Francisco Hernandez’s Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651), and the same image may be found in another book in the Worth Library, Thomas Bartholin’s De unicornu observationes novae (Amsterdam, 1678), which notes that the dragon was a gift from the King of France, Louis XIII (1601-1643). It was thus a high profile prestigious gift, one to which Barberini was keen to draw attention, and as a patron of the scientific society of the Academy of the Lynx, he was in a position to do so. This explains its odd inclusion in Francisco Hernandez’ magnum opus for the latter book had become, in effect, a team project for the Academy – a fact that gave Barberini his opportunity. As Senter and Klein note, the addition of the image and note on it by Giovanni Faber (1574-1629), was a result of political pressure being placed on him by Barberini who was prepared to use any means to flaunt his acquisition. Barberini’s strategy was successful for Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), subsequently included it in later editions of his Mundus Subterraneus and, as we have see, Bartholin too included it in his 1678 work.
Faber provides a detailed anatomical description of the object which Senter and Klein include in their article. The information provided by Faber, coupled with the illustration of the ‘Barberini Dragon’ leads them to conclude that the object could not possibly be the remains of a pterosaur because of the difference in the anatomy between a known pterosaur and the images and description provided by the early modern commentators. Not only were the wings quite different – other parts of its anatomy simply did not correspond with known pterosaur skeleton: the size of the head, the difference in the tails, the unusual legs not to mention the skin. As we have seen the same may be said of the Belon-Gesner-Aldrovandi dragon.
Aldrovandi, Ulisse, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1640).
Bartholin, Thomas, De unicornu observationes novae (Amsterdam, 1678).
Belon, Pierre, Les obseruations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorable (Paris, 1588).
Goldsmid, Edmund, Un-Natural History or Myths of Ancient Science (Edinburgh, 1886).
Hernandez, Francisco, Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651).
Senter, Phil and Darius M. Klein, ‘Investigation of claims of late-surviving pterosaurs: the cases of Belon’s, Aldrovandi’s, and Cardinal Barberini’s winged dragons’, Palaeontologia Electronica, 17, no 3: 41A (2014), 1-19.
Text: Dr. Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library.
 English translation from Edmund Goldsmid, Un-Natural History or Myths of Ancient Science (Edinburgh, 1886), iii, p. 17.
 Phil Senter, and Darius M. Klein, ‘Investigation of claims of late-surviving pterosaurs: the cases of Belon’s, Aldrovandi’s, and Cardinal Barberini’s winged dragons’, Palaeontologia Electronica, 17, no. 3: 41A (2014), 2.
 Aldrovandi, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1640), p. 421. English translation from Phil Senter, and Darius M. Klein, ‘Investigation of claims of late-surviving pterosaurs’, 3.
 Senter and Klein, ibid.
 Ibid., 7 and 5 respectively.
 See Senter, and Klein, ‘Investigation of claims of late-surviving pterosaurs’ for a full discussion.
 Thomas Bartholin De unicornu observationes novae (Amsterdam, 1678), pp 50-51.