Bestiary of Improbable Beasts.

Mateo Pizarro is wildly beyond talented. He does absolutely amazing work, some of which is incredibly detailed miniature work, the Micro-Barroque. He also has an amazing series of drawings done on the pages of On the Origin of the Species.

It’s Pizarro’s Bestiary though, that I chose to focus on today. I have a great love of bestiaries, illuminated manuscripts of all kinds, and cabinets of curiosities. When reading old bestiaries, the descriptors are often much more amazing than the resultant illustration, even when those illustrations are wonderfully improbable. Working with a colleague, Pizarro worked from the descriptions alone, without knowing what animal was being described until he was done drawing. The results are truly fantastical!

The following animals are based on descriptions found in classical sources, or those written by naturalists in their travels. The process we followed involved Maria del Mar searching (in a wide range of books) for passages in which animals are described in peculiar ways, then editing those texts so the animal’s names are excluded from the description. This is central to the project: I don’t know what animal is being described. So the drawings are based solely on the written accounts. The idea is to try to reproduce the experience of a person who reads about some beast he has never seen before (say a hyena or a shark). Before photography and google, this was not an uncommon experience.One of the things we find to be interesting is how wildly different the imagined animal can be to the real one. If you were so inclined, you might spend a little time thinking how many possible versions of the elephant existed in the imagination of Europeans between the Ist and the XIVth centuries, several of whom had heard about them but most had never seen a pachyderm in their lives. You add that to the fact that maps still had vast blank areas in them, and you end up with a version of the world that has a certain kind of infinity to it.

This is going to be a book. The first chapter we did was:
Note: you will find the names of the actual animals being described next to each drawing. It should be said that at the time of the writing of most of these texts, many mythological creatures were just as real as cats, wolves, or giraffes. Also, I am of the opinion a giraffe, for example, is just as improbable as any sciapod or unicorn.
Finaly: ahí ustedes disculparán el espanglish.

Armenian Horned Chicken.

Armenian Horned Chicken.


 Leaf-Nosed Vampire Bat.

Leaf-Nosed Vampire Bat.


Camel Ostrich.

Camel Ostrich.




You need to see everything. It is all pure amazement, wonder, joy. Bestiary One. Bestiary Two. Bestiary with some original descriptors.


  1. rq says

    :D These are so much fun! Interesting how the written word can be so imprecise -- I wonder what ordinary people imagined when reading these descriptions, back when they were new and fantastic? Probably nothing like the real thing, as Pizarro shows… :D

  2. scottbelyea says

    “Armenian Horned Chicken”

    As we know, more properly called the “Armenian Antlered Chicken.”

  3. rq says

    I personally like the bear with rainbow breath. Has a certain je ne sais quoi that appeals.

  4. says

    One thing about this -- I already have a long history of willingly throwing myself deeper into the pit of artist debt when it comes to paper. You can’t help but be a paper freak when it’s one of your major tools, and the temptation of surrendering up any amount of cash for handmade paper with a seriously long history is one that is not remotely resisted.

    So far, I’ve feebly resisted the siren call of Fabriano, but I just…can’t…hold…out… (to put the Kirk drama on it). Looking at that natural white, and the utterly gorgeous toothiness of the Fabriano in these fab drawings, oh. I want to touch it. I want to place my face against it and draw its scent into my skin. I want to stroke it with pencil, ink, and brush. And Fabriano has that lure of history, in spades. They’ve only been in business since 1238.

    Fabriano papers has beckoned, and I’m going to indulge.

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