Antonio Magliabechi wrote Letter L-319 in spring 1697 with a booklet by Dr. Scaramucci about elephant bones found in Saxony

May 1, 1697

No manuscript is known.

In this excerpt from his letter, Magliabechi reports on a recent booklet that he thought might be of interest to Leeuwenhoek and the Dutch readers of Pieter Rabus’s Boekzaal. The booket, written in Latin by Joannes Baptista Scaramucci, was a long letter to Magliabechi about an elephant skeleton recently discovered in Germany by Wilhem Ernst Tentzelius, who had reported his discovery to Magliabechi in a letter of spring 1696.

Scaramucci’s booklet is dated 23 and 28 January 1697. L. acknowledges its receipt in Letter L-323 of 6 June 1697 to Antonio Magliabechi, Collected Letters, vol. 12, so Magliabechi sent it probably in February or March because his letters, this one enclosing a booklet, would often take months to reach Delft.

Rabus did not publish it the usual “Boeknieuws” section, which he used as a title for excerpts from a dozen other letters from Magliabechi to L. at the end of an issue of Boekzaal van Eutope. Instead, because Magliabechi sent the booklet with no other book news, Rabus devoted a whole chapter to it in an issue a year later.


Leeuwenhoek discussed the booklet in Letter 185 L-323 of 6 June 1697 to Magliabechi

Recently I received your very welcome letter, with the printed letter addressed to you by the excellent medical doctor Scaramucci, which letter speaks, inter alia, about the petrified skeleton of an elephant, found in Saxony.

However this may be, I agree with those who believe that neither bones, nor shells, nor fishes are formed under ground, but that the earth has been subject to many mutations, as a result of which mountains and whole regions have been converted into sea and conversely high mountains have arisen from the sea, and thus we do not have to wonder that the bowels of mountains, viz. fishes, shells, etc., have been converted into stones.

“xiv Hoofddeel”, De Boekzaal van Europe, May and June 1698, pp. 541-44. – Copied and pasted from Collected Letters, vol. 20, "in this volume" in the footnotes.

Chapter XIV[1]

Joannis Baptista Scaramucci, primi Medici Urbini, ac ejus status generalis Prothomedici, Meditationes familiares ad clarissimum & sapientissimum virum Antonium Magliabechium Bibliothecarium M.D.E. in epistolam ei conscriptam de sceleto Elephantino a celeberrimo Wilhelma Ernesto Tentzelio Historiographo Ducali Saxonico, ubi quoque testacearum petrificationes defenduntur, & aliqua subterranea phaenomena examini subjiciuntur.

That is,

Joannes Baptista Scaramucci[2], first physician in Urbino, and chief physician of that state, common thoughts to the very famous and wise Antoni Magliabechi, library overseer of the grand duke of Tuscany, on the letter written to him about an elephant skeleton by the very renowned Wilhem Ernst Tentzelius[3], historian of Saxony, where also the fossilization of shellfish is claimed[4]. In Urbino by Leonard 1697. in 8. 2 sheets[5].

The news that comes to us in this short writing from Italy is the following. I got it from Mr. Leeuwenhoek, to whom Mr. Magliabechi had recently sent it in a letter from Florence[6].

Mr. Tentzelius, mentioned in the title, publishd a letter a year or so ago[7], in which he related that an elephant’s skeleton was found in a place where it would not have been expected.

In a village of the landgraviate of Thuringia, called Tonna, there is a hill, on ground full of very white and pure sand.

There, in the previous year, while digging, were found some elephant’s legs, belonging to the hind legs, of nineteen pounds, also one leg, with its round cap [sluitpan], weighing nine pounds, and another leg of thirty-two pounds, which appeared to be from the hip. After that more bones were taken from this place, namely a back bone with the ribs hanging from it, the bones of the front legs, the shoulder bone four feet long and two and a half spans wide: the vertebrae of the neck: at last a very large head with four jaw teeth, or molars, weighing twelve pounds, and two other teeth, eight feet long, and half a span thick.

All these remains Mr. Tentzelius saw himself with the Saxon-Prince[8], and many counts, but it was a pity that, besides the molars, the head, the teeth, and other bones were so mouldered away that they fell off in chunks, and not a leg could be seen in its entirety.

As soon as one hears such a story that one may take as true, who would not, without difficulty, immediately conclude that those found legs were the true legs of an elephant, which the length of time had so consumed on that spot, for what is more natural? Earth has been subjected to infinite changes, and is still moving from one place to another; so that mountains and lands have become sea, and mountains have risen again out of the deep of the sea. So we need not be so surprised that certain bodies are found in the bowels of the mountains, which are also sometimes found petrified, that is, turned to stone[9].

I know of many to whom this might thus arise as the most natural and simplest: but, nevertheless, two-fold opinions have arisen about this among the philosophers. The one, those who claimed the foregoing, namely that the legs were of an elephant: the second, such who would maintain that those legs were a certain ore or mountain matter, like wrought iron of the ever-playing and imitative Nature[10]. Mr. Tentzelius defended himself with the first opinion, and Mr. Scaramucci also joins them.

This same Italian physician, after his meditation about this piece, leaves behind a letter, which he wrote to the renowned gentlemen extract makers in Leipzig[11] because of the * persistent fever[12], from the city of his residence Urbino on the 28th of January of the year 1697[13].

* Febris hectica


[1] Magliabechi’s previous letter to L. is Letter L-310 of 18 December 1696, in this volume. L. did not reply to it before receiving the present letter. The reference to Scaramucci’s booklet, treated here as part of a separate letter, could have been extracted from that December 1696 letter, which was published ealier in De Boekzaal van Europe, January and February 1697, pp. 183-86.

[2] For Joannes Baptista Scaramucci, see Letter L-275 of 23 October 1695, n. 12, in this volume and the Biog. Reg., Collected Letters, vol. 12, p. 407. Magliabechi also reports on books by Scaramucci in Letter L-275 of 23 October 1695 and Letter L-310 of 18 December 1696, both in this volume.

[3] Wilhelm Ernst Tentzel (1659-1707) was a German historiographer and numismatist.

[4] Rabus does not translate the final phrase in the title: & aliqua subterranea phaenomena examini subjiciuntur (and some subterranean phenomena are subject to scrutiny).

[5] Two signatures in octavo produce a booklet of 34 pages.

[6] See Remarks above.

[7] Epistola de sceleto elephantino Tonnæ nuper effosso: ad virum toto orbe celeberrimum Antonium Magliabechium (Letter about the recently excavated elephant skeleton of Tonna to the most famous man over all the world: Antonio Magliabechi) was dated May 1696 from Gotha and published in Jena later that year. Reviews were published in Journal des Scavans for 20 August 1696, p. 614–618, and in Acta Eruditorum, January 1697, pp. 10-14. The letter was published in its entirety on 30 November 1697 in Philosophical Transactions, vol. 19, no. 234, pp. 757-776, under the title Wilhelmi ernesti tentzelii historiographi ducalis saxonici epistola de sceleto elephantine tonnæ nuper essosso, ad virum toto orbe celeberrimum antonium magliabechium, serenissimi magni hetruriæ ducis bibliothecarium & consiliarium (The ducal historian Wilhelm Ernest Tentzel’s letter about the recently excavated elephant skeleton of Tonna, to the most famous man over all the world, Antonius Magliabechium, the most serene librarian and counselor of the great Duke of Tuscany). A note at the end notes that Tentzel sent samples of the elephant bones to the Royal Society, “all of which they [members of the Royal Society] found agreeable to his description and ordered they should be carefully preserv’d in their repository.”

[8] Albert V (1648-1699) was the duke of Saxe-Coburg at that time.

[9] Note the similarity of Rabus’s two sentences from “Earth … turned to stone” to the second paragraph under Remarks above from L.’s Letter 185 L-323 of 6 June 1697 to Magliabechi. Rabus might have received a copy of L.’s reply to Magliabechi along with Scaramucci’s booklet.

[10] Initially, Tentzel’s claim to have found a petrified elephant was disputed by others, but another such discovery of bones nearly in 1699 confirmed his claim.

[11] The first 20 pages of Scaramucci’s De sceleto elephantino contain the letter to Magliabechi dated 23 January 1697. The final seven pages, dated 28 January, are addressed to the editors of Otto Mencke’s journal Acta Eruditorum, a Latin-language monthly published in Leipzig between 1682 and 1731. Tentzel was a frequent reviewer for the journal. In the 1680s, Mencke published excerpts from five of L.’s letters and summaries of eight other letters. See Letter L-219 of 24 June 1692, n. 13, in this volume.

[12] Rabus uses the term taaije, meaning tough or tenacious. The “hectic fever” in Rabus’s footnote is a general term for a fever characterized by a daily spike in temperature. For another reference to “persistent fever”, see Letter 270 L-457 of 25 July 1707 from L. to the Royal Society, Collected Letters, vol. 16.

[13] The next letter from Magliabechi to L. is Letter L-322 of 1 June 1697, in this volume.