Friday, November 22, 2019

DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1572: The Last Dragon Slaying


The Last Dragon Slaying in Europe

Most of the dragons that appeared in the middle ages (AKA the Medieval Times) were fanciful beasts, often feathered, with wings and perhaps a couple of front legs. But they were clearly in the realms of people's imaginations brought about into life by some variety of artisan. This current "dragon" is a bit different, to the point that it is very debatable whether this could even be considered a "dragon" by the loosest stretch of the definition. 

Drawing of the "dragon" in question by Ulisse Aldrovandi in the The Natural History of Snakes and Dragons (page 404), published posthumously in 1640. 
It started in 1572 when a herdsman named Baptista of Camaldulus came across this beast that, as far as he knew, resembled a dragon near the town of Bologna. 
"...the herdsman noticed a hissing sound and was startled to see this strange little dragon ahead of him. Trembling he struck it on the head with his rod and killed it."
Normally this would be written off as nutery, however the person who described the remains of this "dragon" was Ulisse Aldrovandi, a naturalist of some influence who had written many essays on the subject and had slowly built up a museum termed the Theatre of Natural Science in Bologna. Aldrovandi described the beast as reptilian that slithered along like a snake, however it used it's front limbs to help propel itself forward. 

Compared with contemporary dragon illustrations there appears many similarities, however this dragon is notable for its lack of wings. Nearly every example of European dragons (at the time) were two legged, winged, reptilian beasts. And although Aldrovandi's illustration hits most of the salient parts, its lack of wings is noticeable. It may be assumed that Aldrovandi was a quack, or just wrote hearsay articles about dragons without any definite proof, so why put any stock in this image. However, he specifically states in his book where this dragon appears, The Natural History of Snakes and Dragons, that all of his dragons are presented as third-hand knowledge and he has had no direct knowledge of any dragons ... except this one. Why single out this one individual?

For example, here is another dragon illustration from the book, which is specifically of a dragon, not a personally described specimen. This dragon follows the body plan that was more or less laid out at the time.

Another dragon illustrated by Ulisse Aldrovandi in the The Natural History of Snakes and Dragons (1640). Image from

As a scientist myself, I wonder if this is some exaggerated specimen of a snake that just ate a large meal, or perhaps a mutated snake with vestigial limbs. Being a naturalist I would assume that Aldrovandi would be able to identify a well fed snake versus a legitimately "fat" snake. This specimen was also apparently kept in his collection at the Theatre of Natural History for a long period of time until it was eventually lost (conveniently), likely sometime in the 1700's or 1800's. Perhaps it was all a hoax at our expense, the world may never know.

Although this would more than likely be classified as an oddity of biology and not a legitimate "dragon" (if it were indeed true), it was often referred to as the "last dragon" of Europe. And Aldrovandi himself referred to the animal as Draco Bononiensis (Bologna Dragon). So I place this here in our history of dragons as cultural influencers, as perhaps this species of animal, whatever it may be, may be our actual link to a dragon source.


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