Early in the 1500s, tales of a baby born with bat-like wings, an eye located in its knee and an eagle’s claw for a foot quickly spread throughout Europe.
With each telling of the story, the creature became more exaggerated.
Scientists now speculate that The Monster of Ravenna suffered from an autosomal birth defect known as Roberts syndrome. Because little was known about genetics and mutation during this period of early modern history, many people viewed such physical abnormalities as ominous indications of divine wrath.
Italian philosopher and scientist Fortunio Liceti (1577-1657) argued that abnormalities were examples of nature’s pliability and that they should be viewed with wonder instead of horror.
Liceti wrote De Monstrorum Natura, Caussis, et Differentiis Libri Duo (On the Nature, Causes and Differences of Monsters), which details physical aberrations – both real and imaginary – and attempts to explain the causes for the conditions.
Published in 1616, the book includes descriptions and images of conjoined humans, animals – particularly dogs, wolves and elephants -with human heads and humans with antlers, trunks and hooves.
Liceti wrote the book in an attempt to get people to see that physical abnormalities should be on display because of their rarity.
The book offered one of the first classification systems for genetic abnormalities and mutation. It remained a well-regarded reference source on matters pertaining to sexuality and embryology into the 19th century.
A rare 1634 second edition of Liceti’s book was presented to the USC Libraries in memory of J. W. and Eva Frey. The book is housed on the second floor of Doheny Memorial Library. For more information on the book or USC’s other special collections, call (213) 740-5900.