I found some excellent plates of the Monstrorum historia cum Paralipomenis historiae omnium animalium by the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 – 1605) at the Universidade de Coimbra. You can view full sized versions by clicking the thumbnails. In the same collection are also plates by Ambroise Paré, Conrad Gessner, Bartolomeo Ambrosinus, Olaus Magnus, Giovanni Cavazzi da Montecuccolo.
Plants, sea-creatures, serpents, birds, domestic beasts, exotic creatures, ‘monsters’ (deformed animals, freaks of nature, conjoined twins, etc.) are all depicted in these watercolours, as are fantastic fauna, such as dragons, whose existence one supposes had not yet been altogether disproved. Many of the paintings are very beautifully and vividly executed. I’m particularly impressed by the pair of entwined snakes which, whilst I can hardly vouch for their zoological verisimilitude, appear very much alive.
The natural history museum was a place where the line between “high and low” culture effectively vanished–where our awe of nature, our taste for the bizarre, and our thirst for knowledge all blended happily together. The first natural history museums were little more than high-toned side shows, with such garish exhibits as the pickled head of Catherine the Great’s lover.