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Johann Natterer was almost predestined to become a naturalist. His father, Joseph, worked as a falconer and taxidermist at Laxenburg, one of the country estates of the Austrian emperor Franz I.  There the elder Natterer assembled a large collection of birds,  mammals, and insects, which the emperor later purchased and moved to Vienna, where it was opened to the public as part of the Hof-Naturalienkabinette (Court Natural History Collection).  Joseph Natterer used the museum’s collections to train his sons, Johann and Joseph, Jr., in the art of taxidermy. Presumably, he taught them some basic zoology, as well. In 1806,  Karl von Schreibers, an energetic young zoologist, took over the directorship of the Hof-Naturalienkabinette, and, as part of his effort to make the museum one of the best of its kind, he enlisted the help of Joseph Natterer’s nineteen year-old son, Johann. Traveling at his own expense through Austria, Hungary, the Balkans, and Italy, Johann  Natterer acquired valuable experience and proved his ability at hunting and animal preparation. He later traveled to the Turkish border with the hunter and taxidermist Dominik Sochor, and then to Italy in 1812 and 1814.

After Napoleon’s final defeat and exile, Natterer contributed to efforts to recover natural history specimens plundered during the French occupation of Austria. He was sidetracked, however, in 1817, when chosen to be part of an Austrian scientific expedition to Brazil.  This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Natterer was the brainchild of Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, one of Europe’s most influential statesmen and an enthusiastic student of natural history.  Seeking to expand Austria’s influence over Latin America and open up new economic markets, Metternich arranged a marriage between the Austrian archduchess Maria Leopoldina and Don Pedro, the son of the king of Portugal, who had fled to Brazil after Napoleon’s conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.  A group of fourteen scientists and artists was assembled to accompany the emperor’s daughter to Rio de Janeiro. They were then charged with exploring as much of the country as they could, searching for trade opportunities, as well as plants and animals that could be raised in Europe. Natterer was originally supposed to be the expedition’s leader but was passed over in favor of Johann Christian Mikan, a botanist and professor of natural history at the University of Prague.

In November 1817, Natterer reached Brazil and met up with other members of the expedition who had arrived a short time earlier. Two Bavarian naturalists, Johann Baptist Spix and Carl Philipp Martius, soon went their own way, as had been arranged beforehand. After just a few months of exploring, most of Natterer’s Austrian colleagues, including Mikan, returned to Europe on account of ill health, homesickness, or their inability to get along with each other. Natterer and a few others stayed behind. In 1821 the Austrian government officially called off the venture because of political unrest in Brazil, but, not to be deterred, Natterer and his old friend Dominik Sochor chose to continue their work independent of support, either moral or financial. Together they explored the provinces of southern Brazil, collecting in addition to animal specimens a large quantity of ethnological material, including tools, weapons, and jewelry produced by Brazil’s indigenous peoples.

Natterer remained in South America much longer than he had ever intended to – eighteen years.  During  that time he undertook ten trips, traveling through dense forests as far as  the borders with Bolivia and Colombia. He and Sochor were often in poor health.  In 1825, Natterer contracted hepatitis, and in December of the following year Sochor died of fever at São Vicente. Despite his own lingering illness, Natterer pressed on, and, even when the emperor ordered him to return to Vienna, in 1827, he resisted.  For another eight years, he forged ahead with his collecting mission. By the time he finally departed from Brazil, in September 1835, he had collected 12,293 individual birds and a vast array of other specimens, ranging from insects, fish, and amphibians to worms, mollusks, and eggs. Schreibers was initially unable to find a suitable place to store the material that Mikan, Natterer, and other expedition members began sending back to Vienna in 1818, but quarters were eventually found in a building that became known as the Brasilianum. Twelve of its rooms were devoted to natural history and one large room to manmade objects.  All told, the museum contained more than 150,000 items.  It was a popular attraction and remained open until 1836, when its collections were moved into storage. They were partly destroyed by fire during the Revolution of 1848, but most of Natterer’s material survived, including the ethnological objects, which were integrated into Vienna’s Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology) when it opened in 1928. (Michael Taylor)