Renaissance science – XXXI

In the last episode of this series, I traced the roots of natural history in Europe in antiquity and through the medieval period. Beginning roughly in the late fifteenth century, over the next one hundred and fifty years those roots were brought together and transformed in a series of stages into the modern science of natural history. Two major factors contributed to the first stage of this process in the fifteenth century, the reinvention of moveable type in Europe and with it the printed book, and the critical intervention of the North Italian Renaissance humanists with their philological analysis of Greek and Latin texts.

Gutenberg printed and published his famous Bible around 1450 and the print technology that he invented spread first throughout Germany and then into the neighbouring countries fairly rapidly. As I wrote in an earlier episode:

The first printer-publishers in Italy were Arnold Pannartz and Conrad Sweynheym, who set up a press in the Benedictine abbey of Subiaco in 1464. Their output was from the beginning humanist orientated. Their first book was by Aelius Donatus a Roman grammarian of which no copies survived. Next, they printed Cicero’s De oratore followed by religious books by Lactantius and Augustinus.

From the very beginning, the new art of book printing was closely associated with the Renaissance Humanists in Italy[1]. In terms of the sources for natural history we looked at in the last episode the works of Aristotle found their way into print fairly early. Individual works found their way into print earlier, but the first edition of his Opera (complete works) in Latin was issued in Venice by Philippus Petri, in 1482. Earlier, his three works on biology, including his De Historia Animalium had been issued separately in Latin also in Venice by Johannes de Colonia and Johannes Manthen in 1476. They reprinted this work in 1492, 1495, and 1498. It was also reissued by the Aldine Press in 1504 and 1513 and by Hieronymus Scotus in 1545. 

In 1495, Aldus Manutius published the first volume of a five-volume edition of the opera of Aristotle in Greek, in Venice. The subsequent volumes followed in 1497, volumes two three and four, and 1498, volume five. Reprinted in 1504 by Aldine, in 1513 by Alde, and in Basel in 1534.  As well as the works of Aristotle, including, of course, his biological books, it contained works by other notable Greek authors.

Aristotle Opera Aldus Manutus 1495

As we saw earlier the Renaissance Humanist ideal was a back-to-the-roots-movement. Original Latin texts in the classical Latin of Cicero and co and not in the barbaric Latin of the medieval scholastics. Greek manuscripts in the original form, freshly translated into Latin and not corrupted and polluted by translation into and out of Arabic. At the end of the fifteenth century no printer-publisher did more to fulfil this ideal than Aldus Manutius (c.1450–1515) and his Aldine Press. A humanist scholar with close connections to Giovanni Pico (1493–1494), who helped to finance Manutius’ printing venture, he became the first printer publisher to systematically publish original Greek works in Greek and also to publish the new Latin translations of those texts.  Manutius printed thirty editio principes of Greek texts.

Aldus Pius Manutius, illustration in Vita di Aldo Pio Manuzio (1759) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Imprint of Aldus Manutius Source: Wikimedia Commons

Manutius also laid great value on the unique presentation of his published volumes. The humanists had criticised the scholastic handwriting and they developed a new style of handwriting. In particular Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459) developed a much admired and copied script.

1597 engraving of Poggio Bracciolini Source: Wikimedia Commons
A sample of Poggio’s handwriting Source: Wikimedia Commons

The French type-designer, Nicholas Jenson (c. 1420–1480) created a new type face, Antiqua, based on this script, and Manutius had the type-cutter Francesco Griffo (1450–1518) create a version of it for his Greek publications. 

Portrait of Nicholas Jenson Source: Wikipedia Commons
Griffo’s first Antiqua typeface 1495 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Manutius also introduced a series of octavo pocketbook publications, which were very popular, and he had Griffo created the first italic typeface, probably based on the handwriting of Niccolò de’ Niccoli (1364–1437) especially for his pocketbooks.

Sample of Niccoli’s cursive script, which developed into Italic type Source: Wikimedia Commons

These pocketbooks are said to be the forebears of the paperback. However, it should be noted that it is not true that Manutius was the first to print and publish octavo volumes.

Griff’s Italic typeface in Aldus Manutius’ Horace Source: Wikimedia Commons

Under Aldus Manutius, the Aldine Press was the material embodiment of the Renaissance Humanist ideal, and his books remained much sought after and highly prized long after his death and the later demise of his publishing venture.

As another major Greek author, highly regarded during the Middle Ages, Galen’s books received the same major treatment in the age of print, as Aristotle’s. His Opera in Latin was first issued by Philippus Pincius in Venice in 1490. However, this did not include either of his texts on simples. The Greek Opera, which did contain the texts on simples, was first published Ex aedibus Aldi et Andreae Asulani soceri in Venice, in five volumes, in 1525. In 1538, a new edition was published in Basil by Andreas Cratander, edited by Joachim Camerarius, Leonhart Fuchs and Hieronymous Gemusaeus. There had been earlier editions of separate Galen texts in Latin earlier in the fifteenth century but not of his texts on simples. 

Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, immensely popular during the Middle Ages, was just as popular during the early age of the printed book. The first printed edition was issued not later than 1469 in Venice by Johann von Spier. At least forty-six editions were printed before 1550. An Italian edition was published by Nicolas Jenson in Venice in 1476. The medical sections, De re medica V, which include much of his work on plants, were issued separately in the Collectio edited by Alban Thorer (c. 1489–1550), professor for medicine in Basel, and published by Andreas Cratander in Basel in 1528. 

PLINIUS SECUNDUS, Gaius (Pliny the Elder, 23-79). Historia naturalis. Venice: Johannes de Spira, [before 18 September] 1469. Source

Theophrastus is an interesting case, because although his name was known in the Middle Ages, through Pliny amongst others, his work wasn’t. A Greek manuscript 0f his two botanical works were brought to Rome through the offices of Pope Nicholas V (1397–1455), a humanist bibliophile, who initiated the Vatican Apostolic Library, although he didn’t live to see it built. Theodore Gaza (c. 1398–c. 1475), was commissioned by Pope Nicholas to produce the Latin translations of De plantis and De causis plantarum in 1454. The Greek originals were printed by Aldus Manutius in his Opera of the works of Aristotle 1495–1498. The Latin translation were first published as De historia et causis planatarum by Bartholomaeus Confalonerius in Treviso in 1483. 

De historia et causis planatarum 2nd edition 1529 Source:

Our last natural history author from antiquity is Dioscorides. His De materia medica rivalled Pliny in its popularity in the early days of print. The first Latin edition, a translation credited to Constantinus Africanus (d. before 1098), was published by Johannes de Medemblick in Colle di Valselsa in 1478. The first Greek edition was issued by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1499. Additional texts by other authors were often added to both Greek and Latin editions. 

There were at least thirty-two editions of Dioscorides are known to have been published between 1478 and 1550. Three of these were in Greek, one of them an improved text edited by Girolamo Rossi and Francesco Torresani, and published by the Aldine Press in Venice, in 1518. Three editions had both Greek and Latin texts.  Nineteen editions were in Latin, ten of them in the new Latin translation of Jean Ruel (1474–1537), which was first published by Henri Estienne in Paris, c. 1516. A German addition by J. Danz van Ast was issued in Frankfurt in 1546. 

De materia medica 1554 edition

There were six Italian editions during this period of which the most important were the four editions of the humanist physician and naturalist Pietro Andrea Gregorio Mattioli (1501–c. 1577) issued in 1544, 1548, 1549 and 1550 by Vincenzo Valgrisi (c. 1490– after 1572) in Venice.

Pietro Andrea Mattioli, by Alessandro Bonvicino called il Moretto c. 1533 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mattioli’s Italian translation was based on Jean Ruel’s Latin translation but was accompanied by lengthy Commentarii (commentaries) of his own. The book also included descriptions of a hundred new plants. In 1554, an edition of Ruel’s Latin translation with the addition of Mattioli’s Commentarii translated into Latin was published in Lyon. The Commentarii were also translated into French (Lyon, 1561), Czech (Prague, 1562) and German (Prague, 1563). The four Italian editions sold thirty-two thousand copies during Valgrisi’s lifetime. 

Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501–1577). Commentarii in libros sex Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei, de medica materia. Venice: Vincenzo Valgrisi, 1554. Source:

All of the major botanical texts from antiquity had become established printed works by the beginning of the sixteenth century and the number of editions published by 1550 indicated a major interest in the topic of natural history amongst the scholars of that century. The humanists began to apply their philological skills to the study of these texts, and this led to what might be called the Pliny wars. The two main contenders in the humanist disputes about Pliny’s Historia Naturalis were Ermolao Barbaro (1454–1493) and Niccolò Leoniceno (1428-1524)

Ermolao Barbaro was a scion of prominent, wealthy, patrician family of Venice with roots back to the ninth century. The family produced many noted church leaders, diplomats, patrons of the arts, military commanders, philosophers, scholars, and scientists. He was a Renaissance Humanist scholar, educated in various places throughout Northern Italy ending in Padua where he was appointed professor of philosophy in 1477. He was elected to the Senate of Venice in 1483. In 1486 he was appointed Venetian ambassador to the Dutchy of Milan and in 1490 ambassador to the Holy See. Embroiled in a political dispute between Venice and the Papacy he was sacked as ambassador and exiled him from Venice. He moved to Rome where he died of plague in 1493. He often complained that his political life interfered with his studies.

Ermolao Barbaro Source: Wikimedia Commons

Barbaro carefully and accurately analysed the first printed edition of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, and his not very positive conclusions were published in his Castigationes Plinainae et Pomponii Melae by Euchrius Silber in Rome, in 1492. Barbaro claimed to have identified and corrected five thousand errors in the Historia Naturalis. He attributed these errors not to Pliny but to the numerous copyists, who had copied the manuscript down the centuries.

In Caii Plinii Naturalis historiae libros castigationes, 1534 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He also produced a translation of Dioscorides, In Dioscoridem corollariorum libri V., published by Aloysius et Franciscus Barbari in Venice, in 1516.

Dioscorides, version by Barbaro, 1516: title page Source: Wikimedia Commons

Niccolò Leoniceno was a physician and humanist scholar born in Lonigo, Veneto, he graduated at the University of Padua. In 1464, he was appointed to teach mathematics, philosophy, and medicine at the University of Ferrara, where he remained until his death.

Artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Also in 1492, he launched an attack on the Historia Naturalis in his pamphlet, De Plinii et plurium aliorum medicorum in medicina erroribus, published by Laurentius de Rubeis and Andreas de Grassis, in Ferrara.

De Plinii, & plurium aliorum medicorum in medicina erroribus opus primum (BEIC) Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was the opening salvo in a dispute over Pliny with Pandolfo Collenuccio (1444–1504) another humanist scholar.

Pandolfo Collenuccio artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Collenuccio’s response, Pliniana defensio adversus Nicolai Leoniceni accusationem, was published by Andreas Belfortis in Ferrara, in 1493.

Pliniana defensio adversus Nicolai Leoniceni accusationem title page Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Barbaro, Leoniceno did not blame the copyists in his attack on the botanical section of Pliny’s work, but rather Pliny himself. Leoniceno was of the opinion that many of Pliny’s error were produced because his translations from the Greek were defective. Other local humanists, such as the physician Alessandro Benedetti (c. 1450–1512) and the poet and translator Giorgio Merula (1430–1494), also defended Pliny’s honour against Leoniceno’s harsh criticism.

Due to large parts of it having been published in print the discussion over Pliny and the reliability of the natural history in his encyclopaedia spread throughout Europe as a talking point for much of the sixteenth century. However, it is two spin offs from the original debate that were most significant for the future development of natural history during that century. Firstly, the touchstone, the standard by which Pliny’s knowledge of natural history was judged was the works of Theophrastus and Dioscorides. The three areas of the study of natural history, the philosophical (Aristotle and Theophrastus), the medicinal (Dioscorides and Galen), and the encyclopaedical (Pliny), which had always been seen as separate in antiquity and the Middle Ages, now coalesced into a single stream, one topic and no longer three. Secondly, some of the participants in the debate, most notably Leoniceno, realised that to really identify the plants being discussed by Pliny and the others, reading the descriptions in their books was not enough, the scholar had to leave his study and venture out into the world and actually study plants empirically. We shall be following the results of this empirical development in further episodes.

[1] Most of the information on published editions of texts and their dates of publication are taken from Margaret Bingham Stillwell, The Awakening Interest in Science during the First Century of Printing 1450–1550: An annotated Checklist of First Editions viewed from the Angle of their Subject Content, The Bibliographical Society of America, New York, 1970


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, Natural history, Renaissance Science

2 responses to “Renaissance science – XXXI

  1. Alexey Romanov

    This post uses “opera” as a term in a way I haven’t seen before in your previous posts. And I’d expect it to mean simply “works” but then you have “Opera of the works”. Maybe worth a definition?

    • Opera is the plural of Opus, which simply means work, as in book, piece of music etc. One comes across Opus most often in Magnum Opus which means great work or often greatest work. Opera is used, as in this article, to refer to complete works, although a published Opera is often actually not complete.

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