A Bestiary 

'Nature has given such power of understanding to animals that in addition to the perception of what is to their own advantage they know what is to the disadvantage of the enemy.' 


The lark is a bird of which it is told that if it is taken into the presence of anyone who is ill, then if the sick person is going to die the bird turns away its head and does not look at him. But if the sick person is going to recover, the bird never takes its eyes off him, and is the cause of all his sickness leaving him. Similarly the love of virtue never regards a mean or bad thing, but always rather dwells among things honest and virtuous, and repatriates itself in noble hearts like birds in green forests upon flowery branches. And this love reveals itself more in adversity than in prosperity, acting as does light which shines most where it finds the darkest spot. 1 h 5 r. 


Of the kite one reads that when it sees that its children in the nest are too fat it pecks their sides out of envy and keeps them without food. 


Cheerfulness is characteristic of the cock, for it rejoices over every little thing and sings with varied and joyous movements. 

1 The allegories about animals in this Manuscript are derived from early bestiaries. The extent of Leonardo's debt to his sources is set forth by Gerolamo Calvi in // Manoscritto H di L da V. Il 'Fiore di Virtu' e L'Acerba di Cecco d'Ascoli. Archivio Storico Lombardo Anno XXV Fasc. XIX 1898. 



Sadness may be compared to the raven, which on seeing its newborn children white, departs with great grief and abandons them with sad lamentations, and does not give them any food until it discerns a few black feathers. h 5 v. 


Of the beaver one reads that when it is pursued, knowing this to be on account of the virtue of its testicles for medicinal uses, not being able to flee any farther it stops, and in order to be at peace with its pursuers bites off its testicles with its sharp teeth and leaves them to its enemies. 


It is said of the bear that when he goes to the beehives to take the 
honey from them, the bees commence to sting him, so that he leaves 
the honey and rushes to avenge himself; and wishing to take venge- 
ance upon all those who are biting him he fails to take vengeance 
on any, with result that his course becomes changed to frenzy, and in 
his exasperation he throws himself upon the ground, vainly trying to 
defend himself with his hands and feet. h 6 r. 



The virtue of gratitude is said to be found especially in the birds 
called hoopoes, which being conscious of the benefits they have re- 
ceived from father and mother in life and nourishment, when they 
see these becoming old make a nest for them and cherish them and 
feed them, plucking out their old and shabby feathers with their beaks, 
and by means of certain herbs restoring their sight, so that they return 
to a state of prosperity. 


The toad feeds on earth and always remains lean because it never satisfies itself, so great is its fear lest the supply of earth should fail. h 6 v. 



The pigeons serve as a symbol of ingratitude; for when they are of 
an age no longer to have need of being fed, they commence to fight 
with their father, and the combat does not end until the young one 
has driven his father out and taken his wife and made her his own. 



The basilisk is so exceedingly cruel that when it cannot kill animals 
with the venom of its gaze it turns towards the herbs and plants, and 
looking fixedly upon them makes them wither up. h 7 r. 


Of the eagle it is said that it never has so great a hunger that it does 
not leave of its prey to those birds which are round about; and as these 
are not able to forage for themselves it is necessary that they pay court 
to the eagle, since by this means they are fed. 


If the wolf while prowling warily round some cattle-stall should 
chance to set his foot in a trap so that he makes a noise, he bites his 
foot ofif in order to punish himself for his mistake. h 7 v. 


The siren sings so sweetly as to lull the mariners to sleep, and then 
she climbs upon the ships and kills the sleeping mariners. 


The ant from its natural sagacity provides in the summer for the 
winter, killing the seeds after having gathered them, in order that they 
may not germinate, and then in time it eats them. 




As the wild bull hates the colour red the hunters drape in red the 
trunk of a tree, and the bull charges it furiously and gets his horns 
fixed in it, and then the huntsmen kill him. h 8 r. 



We may compare the virtue of justice to the king of the bees, who 
orders and arranges everything on a system, because some bees are 
ordered to go among the flowers, others are ordered to work, others to 
fight with the wasps, others to take away the dirt, others to accompany 
and attend the king. And when he becomes old and has no wings 
they carry him, and if any one of them fail in his duty he is punished 
without any forgiveness. 


Although partridges steal each other's eggs nevertheless the children 
born from these eggs always return to their true mother. h 8 v. 



The cranes are so faithful and loyal to their king that at night when 
he is asleep some pace up and down the meadow to keep guard over 
him from a distance; others stand near at hand, and each holds a stone 
in his foot, so that if sleep should overcome them the stone would fall 
and make such a noise that they would be wakened up. There are 
others who sleep together around the king, and they do this every 
night taking it in turn so that their king may not come to find them 


The fox when he sees a flock of magpies or jackdaws or birds of this 
kind, instantly throws himself on the ground with mouth open in such 
a way as to seem dead: the birds think to peck at his tongue and he 
bites off their heads. h 9 r. 




The mole has very small eyes and always remains underground; it 
lives as long as it stays in concealment, and as soon as ever it comes to 
the light it instantly dies, because it becomes known — So it is with 
a lie. 


The lion never feels fear; on the contrary it fights with a stout heart 
in fierce combat against the crowd of hunters, always seeking to injure 
the first who has injured him. 


The hare is always timid, and the leaves that fall from the trees in 
autumn keep it always in fear and often cause it to flee. h 9 v. 


The falcon only preys on large birds, and it would let itself die before 
it would feed on the young or eat putrid flesh. 


As regards this vice we read of the peacock being more subject to it 
than any other creature, because it is always contemplating the beauty 
of its tail, spreading it out in the form of a wheel and attracting to 
itself by its cries the attention of the surrounding animals. 

And this is the last vice that can be conquered. h 10 r. 


For constancy the phoenix serves as a type; for understanding by 
nature its renewal it is steadfast to endure the burning flames which 
consume it, and then it is reborn anew. 


The swift is put for inconstancy, for it is always in movement, since 
it cannot endure the slightest discomfort. 




The camel is the most lustful animal that there is, and it will follow 
the female a thousand miles, but if it lived continually with its mother 
or sister it would never touch them, so well does it know how to 
control itself. hiov. 


The unicorn through its lack of temperance, and because it does not 
know how to control itself for the delight that it has for young maidens, 
forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it goes up to 
the seated maiden and goes to sleep in her lap, and in this way the 
hunters take it. 


Of humility one sees the supreme instance in the lamb, which sub- 
mits itself to every animal. And when they are given as food to lions 
in captivity they submit themselves to them as to their own mothers, 
in such a way that it has often been seen that the lions are unwilling 
to kill them. h n r. 


The falcon from its haughtiness and pride thinks to overcome and 
lord it over all the other birds of prey, because it wishes to reign alone: 
and many times the falcon has been seen to attack the eagle the queen 
of birds. 


The wild ass if when going to the spring to drink it should find the 
water muddy, has never so great a thirst as to cause it not to abstain 
from drinking and wait until the water grows clear. 



The vulture is so given up to gluttony that it would go a thousand 
miles in order to feed on carrion, and this is why it follows armies. 






The turtle-dove never wrongs its mate; and if the one dies the other 
observes perpetual chastity, and never rests upon a green branch or 
drinks of clear water. 


The bat by reason of its unbridled lewdness does not follow any 
natural law in pairing, but male goes with male, female with female, 
as they chance to find themselves together. 


The ermine because of its moderation eats only once a day, and it 
allows itself to be captured by the hunters rather than take refuge in a 
muddy lair, in order not to stain its purity. h 12 r. 


The eagle when it is old flies so high that it scorches its feathers; 
and nature consents that it renews its youth by falling into shallow 

And if its young ones cannot bear to gaze at the sun it does not feed 
them. No bird that does not wish to die should approach its nest. The 
animals go much in fear of it but it does not harm them. It always 
leaves them a portion of its prey. 


This is born in Asia Magna and shines so brightly that it absorbs its 
shadows. And in dying it does not lose this light, and the feathers 
never fall out. And the feather which is detached ceases to shine. 



This bears a great love to its young; and if it finds them slain in the 
nest by a serpent it pierces itself to the heart in their presence, and by 
bathing them with a shower of blood it restores them to life. 






The salamander in the fire refines its rough skin. — For virtue. 
It has no digestive organs and does not seek any other nourishment 
than fire, and often in this it renews its rough skin. 


This lives on air and it is there at the mercy of all the birds. And in 
order to be safer it flies above the clouds, and there finds an air that is 
so rarefied as to be incapable of supporting any bird that would follow 

At this height there flies nothing save that to whom it is given by 
the heavens: it is there that the chameleon flies. h 13 r. 

The alepo cannot live out of water. 


For armies, food of commanders. 

It extracts nourishment from iron; hatches eggs by its gaze. 


The swan is white without any spot, and sings sweetly as it dies; this 
song ends its life. 


It cures itself of sickness by drinking salt water. If it finds its com- 
panion in fault it abandons her. When it is old its young ones brood 
over it and nourish it until it dies. h 13 v. 


This with its song puts the cuckoo to silence. It dies in oil and is 
revived in vinegar. It sings through the burning heats. 




For vice which cannot endure where virtue is. 

This loses its sight more where the light has more radiance, and be- 
comes more blinded the more it looks at the sun. 


This changes from female to male and forgets its former sex. Out 
of envy it steals the eggs of others and hatches them, but the young 
ones follow their true mother. 


This by means of celandine opens the eyes of its little ones when 
blind. h 14 r. 


This opens completely when the moon is full: and when the crab 
sees it it throws a piece of stone or a twig into it and thus prevents it 
from closing up, so that it serves the crab for a meal. 

So it may be with the mouth when it tells its secret, that it puts itself 
at the mercy of the indiscreet listener. 


This is shunned by all the serpents; the weasel fights with it by 
means of rue and slays it. Rue for virtue. 



This carries sudden death in its fangs; and in order not to hear the 
enchantments it stops up its ears with its tail. h 14 v. 


This twines itself round the legs of the elephant, and it falls upon 
him and both die. And in dying it has its revenge. 




This in pairing buries her mouth and at the end clenches her teeth 
and kills her husband; afterwards the sons having waxed big within 
her body tear open her belly and slay their mother. 



The saliva spat out upon the scorpion when fasting slays it after tht 
manner of abstinence from gluttony, which carries away and puts an 
end to the illnesses that proceed from this gluttony, and opens the path 
to the virtues. h 15 r. 


This animal seizes a man and instantly kills him; and after he is 
dead it mourns for him with a piteous voice and many tears, and 
having ended its lament it cruelly devours him. It is thus with the 
hypocrite, whose face is bathed with tears over every slight thing, 
showing himself thus to have the heart of a tiger; he rejoices in his 
heart over another's misfortunes with a face bedewed with tears. 



The toad shuns the light of the sun: if however it be kept in it by 
force it pufTs itself out so much as to hide its head below and deprives 
itself of its rays. So acts whoever is the enemy of clear and radiant 
virtue, who cannot maintain itself in its presence save by force, with 
puffed-up courage. h 17 r. 



The caterpillar which through the care exercised in weaving round 
itself its new habitation with admirable design and ingenious work- 
manship, afterwards emerges from it with beautiful painted wings, ris- 
ing on these towards heaven. 




The spider brings forth out of herself the delicate and subtle web 
which gives back to it as its reward the prey that it has taken. 

h 17 v. 


This animal with its resounding roar rouses its cubs on the third day 
after their birth and teaches them the use of all their dormant senses, 
and all the wild creatures which are in the forest flee away. 

One may liken these to the children of virtue who are wakened by 
the sound of praise: their studies grow in distinction, raising them 
continually more and more, and at the sound all that is evil flees away, 
shunning those who are virtuous. 

The lion also covers over his tracks so as to leave nothing to indicate 
his course to his enemies. So it is well for captains that they should 
conceal the secrets of their minds, in order that the enemy may have 
no conception of their plans. h 18 r. 


The bite of the tarantula fixes a man in his purpose, that is in what 
he was thinking about when he was bitten. 


These punish those who have a skirmish with them by depriving 
them of life; and nature has so ordained in order that they may be fed. 

h 18 v. 


The great elephant has by nature qualities which rarely occur among 
men, namely probity, prudence, and the sense of justice and of re- 
ligious observance. Consequently when there is a new moon they go to 
the rivers, and there having solemnly purified themselves they proceed 
to bathe, and after thus saluting the planet they go back to the woods. 
And when they are ill they throw themselves upon their backs and 



toss up plants toward heaven as though they wished to offer sacrifice 

They bury their tusks when they drop out from old age. Of these two 
tusks they use one to dig up roots in order to feed themselves and keep 
the point of the other sharp in order to fight with it. 

When they are conquered by the hunters and overcome by fatigue 
the elephants clash their tusks, and having thus broken them off use 
them for their ransom. 

They are mild in disposition and are conscious of dangers. 

If one of them should come upon a man alone who has lost his way 
he puts him back peacefully in the path from which he has wandered. 
If he should come upon the man's footprints before he sees him he 
fears a snare, and so he stops and blows through his trunk as he shows 
them to the other elephants; and these then form themselves into a 
company and advance cautiously. 

These animals always proceed in companies. The oldest goes in 
front and the next oldest remains the last, and thus they enclose the 

They fear shame and only pair at night and secretly, and do not 
rejoin the herd after pairing until they have first bathed themselves in 
the river. 

They do not fight over their females as other creatures do. 

It is so peaceable that its nature does not allow it willingly to injure 
creatures less powerful than itself. If it should chance to meet a drove 
or flock of sheep it puts them aside with its trunk so as to avoid 
trampling upon them with its feet; and it never injures others unless 
it is provoked. When one of them has fallen into a pit the others 
fill the pit with branches, earth and stones, so that they raise the floor 
in such a way that it may easily make its escape. They have a great 
dread of the grunting of pigs and retreat hastily before it, causing no 
less damage with their feet to each other than to their enemies. They 
delight in rivers and are always wandering about in their vicinity; but 
on account of their great weight they are unable to swim. They devour 
stones, and the trunks of trees are their most welcome food. They hate 
rats. Flies are much attracted by their smell, and as they settle on their 
backs they wrinkle up their skin, deepening its tight folds, and so kill 

When they are crossing rivers they send their young towards the 



fall of the stream, and standing themselves up stream they break the 
united course of the water so that the current may not carry them 

The dragon throws itself under the elephant's body, twines its tail 
round its legs and clings to its ribs with wings and claws and bites open 
its throat. The elephant falls on top of it and the dragon bursts open; 
thus it revenges itself by the death of its enemy. 

h. 19 r. and v., 20 r. and v. 


These band themselves together in companies and twine after the 
manner of roots, cross swamps with their heads raised and swim to- 
wards where they find better pasture; and if they did not thus com- 
bine they would be drowned. — So the union is made. 

h 20 v. and 21 r. 


The serpent, a very large animal, when it sees a bird in the air 
inhales its breath with such vigour as to draw the birds into its mouth. 
Marcus Regulus the Consul of the Roman army was with his army 
attacked by such a monster and almost routed. After the creature had 
been slain by a catapult it was found to measure a hundred and 
twenty-five feet, that is sixty-four and a half braccia i 1 its head towered 
above all the trees in a wood. h 21 r. 


This is a great snake which twines itself round the legs of the cow 
in such a way that it cannot move, and then it sucks it so as almost to 
dry it up. One of the species was killed on the hill of the Vatican in 
the time of the Emperor Claudius, and it had a whole boy inside it 
whom it had swallowed. h 21 r. and v. 



This beast is a native of the island of Scandinavia. It has the shape 
of a great horse except for the differences caused by the great length of 

1 It is not always possible to harmonize Leonardo's measurements. 




the neck and ears. It crops the grass going backwards, for its upper lip 
is so long that if it were to feed while going forward it would cover 
up the grass. It has its legs without any joints and so when it wishes 
to go to sleep it leans against a tree; and the hunters after having re- 
connoitred the spot at which it is accustomed to sleep saw the tree 
almost through, and when afterwards it leans against it as it sleeps it 
falls in its sleep and so the hunters take it. Every other method of 
capturing it is bound to fail because it runs with incredible speed. 

h 21 v. 


This is a native of Paconia, and it has a neck with a mane like a 
horse: in all other respects it resembles a bull except that its horns bend 
inwards to such an extent that it cannot butt with them. This is why 
its only refuge is in flight, in which it voids its excrement a distance of 
four hundred braccia from its course, and wherever this touches it 
burns like fire. 


These keep their claws in sheath and never put them out except 
when on the back of their prey or an enemy. 


When the lioness defends her cubs from the hands of the hunters, 
in order not to be affrighted by the spears she lowers her eyes to the 
ground, so that her cubs may not be taken prisoners through her flight. 

h 22 r. 


This animal which is so terrible fears nothing more than the noise 
of empty carts and in like manner the crowing of cocks, and when it 
sees these it is much terrified, gazes at their combs with a look of fear 
and is strangely perturbed even though its face is covered. 


This has the shape of a lioness, but it is taller in the leg and slimmer 
and longer and quite white, marked with black spots after the manner 



of rosettes; all the animals are fascinated by these as they gaze at them 
and they would remain standing there always if it were not for the 
terror of its face; being conscious of this therefore it hides its face, and 
the animals that are round about it take courage and draw near so as 
to be able the better to enjoy so much beauty: it then suddenly seizes 
on the nearest and instantly devours it. h 22 v. and 23 r. 


The Bactrian have two humps, the Arabian one. They are swift in 
battle and very useful for carrying burdens. This animal is a great 
observer of rule and proportion, for it does not move at all if its load 
is larger than it is accustomed to, and if it is taken too long a journey it 
does the same and stops suddenly, so that the merchants are obliged to 
make their lodging there. h 23 r. 


This is a native of Hyrcania; it bears some resemblance to the pan- 
ther from the various spots on its skin; and it is an animal of terrifying 
speed. When the hunter finds its cubs he carries them off instantly, 
after placing mirrors at the spot from which he has taken them, and 
then immediately takes to flight upon a swift horse. 

The panther when it returns finds the mirrors fixed to the ground 
and in looking at these it thinks that it sees its own children, until by 
scratching with its paw it discovers the fraud and then following the 
scent of its cubs it pursues the hunter. And as soon as the hunter sees 
the tigress he abandons one of the cubs, and this she takes and carries 
it to her lair and instantly sets off again after the hunter, and this is 
repeated until he gains his boat. h 23 v. and 24 r. 


It is found in Ethiopia near to the principal source of the Niger. 
It is an animal which is not very large. It is sluggish in all its limbs 
and has the head so large that it carries it awkwardly, in such a way 
that it is always inclined towards the ground; otherwise it would be 
a very great pest to mankind, for anyone on whom it fixes its eyes dies 
instantly. h 24 r. 




It is found in the province of Cyrenaica and is not more than twelve 
fingers long. It has a white spot on its head of the shape of a diadem. 
It drives away every serpent by its whistling. It resembles a snake but 
does not move by wriggling, but extends itself straight forward from 
its centre. It is said that on one occasion when one of these was killed 
by a horseman's spear and its venom flowed over the spear, not only 
the man died but the horse did also. It spoils the corn, not only that 
which it touches but that upon which it breathes; it scorches the grass 
and splits the stones. h 24 r. and v. 


This on finding the den of the basilisk kills it with the smell of its 
urine by spreading this about, and the smell of this urine often kills 
the weasel itself. 


These have four small movable horns; and when they wish to feed 
they hide the whole of their body except these tiny horns under the 
leaves, and as they move these it seems to the birds that they are little 
worms wriggling about, and so they instantly descend and peck at 
them. And then the ceraste immediately wraps itself round them in a 
circle and so devours them. h 24 v. 


This has two heads, one in its usual place the other at its tail, as 
though it was not sufficient for it to throw its poison from one place 


This stations itself in trees and hurls itself like a dart, and transfixes 
the wild beasts and slays them. 


There is no remedy for the bite of this animal except instantly to 
cut away the part affected. Pestilential though it is this animal has so 
strong an affection for its companion that they always go in pairs. And 




if by a mischance one of them should be slain the other pursues the 
murderer with incredible speed, and is so alert and eager for venge- 
ance as to overcome every obstacle. It will pass through a whole 
troop seeking only to wound its enemy, traversing any distance, and 
the only ways of avoiding it are by crossing over water or by a very 
rapid flight. Its eyes turn inwards and it has large ears, and its hearing 
guides it more than its sight. h 25 r. 


This animal is the mortal enemy of the asp. It is a native of Egypt, 
and when it sees an asp near to its place it runs instantly to the mud 
or slime of the Nile and covers itself with it entirely, and then after 
drying itself in the sun smears itself again with mud, and thus drying 
itself time after time covers itself with three or four coats like coats of 
mail; after this it attacks the asp and struggles with it determinedly, 
until it seizes its opportunity and flies at its throat and chokes it. 

h 25 v. 


This is a native of the Nile. It has four feet and is dangerous both on 
land and in the water. It is the only land animal that is without a 
tongue, and it bites merely by moving its upper jaw. It grows to a 
length of forty feet, it has claws, and is covered with hide that will 
withstand any blow. It remains on land by day and in the water by 
night. When it has had its meal of fish it goes to sleep on the bank of 
the Nile with its mouth open, and then the bird called trochilus, a 
very small bird, runs immediately to its mouth, and hopping about 
among its teeth in and out proceeds to peck at the remains of its food, 
and causing it entrancing pleasure thereby tempts it to open its mouth 
more widely, and in so doing it falls asleep. No sooner does the ichneu- 
mon perceive this than it flings itself into its mouth, pierces its stomach 
and intestines, and so finally kills it. h 25 v. and 26 r. 


Nature has given such power of understanding to animals that in 
addition to the perception of what is to their own advantage they 



know what is to the disadvantage of the enemy; as a consequence the 
dolphin knows both the power of a cut from the fins which it has on 
its hack, and the tenderness of the belly of the crocodile, hence when 
they fight it glides underneath it, pierces its belly and so kills it. 

The crocodile is terrifying to those who flee from him and an utter 
coward when he is being pursued. h 26 r. 


This when it feels itself becoming overloaded looks about for thorns 
or where there are the fragments of split canes, and there it rubs a vein 
so hard as to burst it open, and then having allowed as much blood to 
flow as may be necessary it besmears itself with mud and so plasters up 
the wound. It has almost the shape of a horse, with cloven hoofs, 
twisted tail, boar's tusks, and neck with flowing mane. The hide 
cannot be pierced except when it is bathing. It feeds on corn that 
grows in the fields, and makes its way into them backwards, so that 
it may appear that it has just emerged. 


This bears a resemblance to a stork, and when it feels ill it fills its 
crop with water and makes an injection with its beak. 


This when it feels itself bitten by the spider called phalangium eats 
crabs and rids itself of the poison. h 26 v. 


This when it fights with serpents eats sow-thistles and gains its 

This gives sight to its blind young with the juice of the celandine. 

This when it chases rats eats first of rue. 



This cures its diseases by eating ivy. 


This when it wishes to renew itself casts its old slough, commencing 
by the head : it transforms itself in a day and a night. 


This will still fight with the dogs and the hunters after its entrails 
have fallen out. h 27 r. 


This always takes the colour of the object on which it is resting; as a 
consequence they are often devoured by the elephants together with 
the leaves on which they are resting. 


This v/hen it has slain the chameleon purges itself with laurel. 

h 27 v.