Dodo by Adriaan Pietersz. van de Venne

The dodos of Clusius and Van de Venne: true to life or not?

Afbeelding dodo, p. 100 Caroli Clusii Atrebatis Exoticorum libri decem, 1605

In the Utrecht copy of Exoticorum libri decem (1605) they are presented next to each other: two illustrations of a dodo, the famous bird animal which became extinct in the 17th century. The left one is printed and belongs to the book, an anthology by the herbalist and biologist Carolus Clusius (1526-1609). The right one, in manuscript form, is drawn by Adriaen van de Venne (1589-1662) and affixed to the book. The dodos in both illustrations are quite different. Which illustration is the most true to life: the one by Clusius or the one by Van de Venne? Or maybe neither of them?


The extinct dodo, an animal found only on the island of Mauritius, has always appealed to people’s imagination. The inevitability of its extinction is expressed in the English language in the saying 'as dead as a dodo'. In addition we have the illustrations of John Tenniel who depicted the dodo as the pedantic organiser of the Caucus race in the immortal children's book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, published in 1865. Only recently the flightless bird made a performance in the Ice Age films and Harry Potter (as ‘Diricawls’).

Clumsily waddling bird

Originally, the dodo was incorrectly classified among the flightless birds. Its misleading appearance in this regard (the loss of the ability to fly and its growth to a bulky size) came about, however, through the absence of natural enemies on the island. DNA research has since established that the bird belonged to the pigeon family. Europeans first made acquaintance with the clumsily waddling bird when Mauritius was discovered in 1598 during the voyage of Jacob van Neck and Wijbrandt van Warwijck. However, as early as 1505 Mauritius had been visited by the Portuguese and they were the first Europeans to observe the dodo. Regrettably, the bird became extinct in the 17th century, because it was easy prey for European seafarers who hunted the bird during their stay on the island for its meat. The last living specimen was observed in 1681.

Subject for discussion

Toegevoegde afbeelding dodo, Caroli Clusii Atrebatis Exoticorum libri decem

In addition to the continuous interest of the general public the Raphus cucullatus, measuring one metre in height and weighing fifteen to twenty kilos is still subject for research, expeditions and discussion among scholars. This was no different in the time that Clusius published his botanical works. The botanist, originally from the northern French city of Arras (Atrecht), and also known by his non-Latinised name of Charles de l’E(s)cluse, earned a prominent position among 16th-century biologists mainly due to the Spanish and Austrian flora he compiled from his own observations and to his Latin translations of a number of important Spanish, Portuguese and French botanical works.

Import of exotic plants

Clusius studied medicine in Montpellier and Paris and from 1573 to 1576 had connections to the Court of the Austrian Emperor Maximilian II, on whose request he created the Imperial Botanical Gardens in Vienna. In 1593, he was appointed honorary professor of botany at Leiden. There, too, he strove for re-establishment of the Hortus Botanicus. He brought a large number of exotic plants to the Netherlands, of which the most well-known are the horse chestnut, jasmine and tulip, which he was the first to describe.

Descriptions of exotic flora and fauna

The first part of his collected works appeared in 1601, consisting mainly of descriptions and illustrations of a wide variety of European plants. The second part shown here was published in 1605 by Frans van Ravelingen, the Leiden-based son-in-law of the famous Antwerp printer Christoffel Plantijn. It comprises ten books, the last four containing the Latin translations published earlier of works by Garcia da Orta, José de Acosta, Nicolás Monardes and Pierre Bellon. In the first six books, Clusius describes all kinds of exotic animals, plants and fruits brought to the Low Countries from overseas.


Beschrijving 'walch-vogel' Van de Venne, in: Caroli Clusii Atrebatis Exoticorum

In the fifth book, which deals with birds, there is also a description of the 'walch-vogel' (literally 'disgusting bird'), also called dodo or dodaers, as said before found only on the island of Mauritius, to the east of Madagascar. The author calls it Gallinaceus Gallus peregrinus. The Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), who designed a comprehensive classification of the plant and animal kingdoms, called it Didus ineptus. Today, the official name is Raphus cucullatus.

Unique pen drawing

In addition to a brief description of the dodo, the book mentioned above contains a wood engraving of a rather lean flightless bird: according to Clusius, this was a copy of an illustration he had seen in a work published by Cornelis Claesz. in Amsterdam in 1601, entitled Journael [...] vande [...] reyse [...] in [...] 1598 [...] onder [...] Admirael Jacob Cornelisz. van Neck ('Journal of the 1598 voyage under Admiral Jacob Cornelisz. van Neck'). In the Utrecht copy, opposite this page there is a unique pen drawing of the dodo made by painter, illustrator and poet Adriaan Pietersz. van de Venne, which was affixed to the book. Given the date, it can have been added to the book at the earliest twenty years after its publication. It is not known who added it. The drawing was not discovered until around 1860 by the Utrecht professor of Eastern languages H.C. Millies. He assumes that the book containing the drawing was purchased from the bequeathed library of the Utrecht professor of medicine and chemistry E.J. van Wachendorff, who died in 1758.

Saw and drew it himself?

The text in Latin above the drawing tells us that we are looking at an accurate illustration of a 'walch-vogel', that seafarers called dodaers on account of its fat and ugly rump, and that a living specimen, originating from the island of Mauritius, could be seen in Amsterdam in 1626. Is it possible that Van de Venne saw and drew this specimen himself because he wanted to replace the original inaccurate wood engraving with this illustration?

Doubts about Van de Venne’s dodo

Since the discovery of the pen drawing by Van de Venne it had been assumed for quite some time that he had given a realistic picture of the dodo. However, early in the 20th century doubts arose. One assumed at the time that the dodo’s fat and crumpled appearance was due to the long trip and the strange food aboard the Dutch ship. Nowadays it is assumed that Van de Venne didn't see the dodo in real life at all. Possibly he has made this note to give his picture more credibility. The fact is that the drawing shows a strong resemblance to the contemporary painted dodos by the artists Roelant Savery and Gilles Claesz. de Hondecoeter. With certainty, only about ten images of the dodo were drawn after actual living or dead specimens; the remaining illustrations were copied from these original sources, or were adapted in a sometimes fanciful way.

Lean dodo?

Pagina 7, Caroli Clusii Atrebatis Exoticorum libri decem, 1605

Nowadays modern reconstructions lead to a lean dodo that could run fast as well. The skeleton of the dodo in the Natural Museum in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, was scanned in 3D with the help of new technologies. The research showed that the skeleton must have been of one and the same dodo. It was also shown that the skeleton is complete, to the finger bones of the wing. With the help of the digital three dimensional image the biology and the physiology of the dodo is uncovered. It looks like the secrets of the dodo are finally being unraveled. It also becomes increasingly apparent that the depiction of the dodo by Clusius as well as by Van de Venne is based on a combination of fact and fiction…