The major problem with the big names, big ideas, big books version of the history of science is that it very often overlooks many highly influential figures in the development of a science discipline. A classic example of this is the physician and botanist Luca Ghini (1490–1556). Ghini published almost nothing in his entire career but his influence on the development of the science of botany out of materia medica in the sixteenth century was immense. As we have already seen he began lecturing on simples at Bologna in 1527 and was appointed professor for simples in the academic year 1533-34. When Cosimo reopened the University of Pisa in 1543, he wooed Ghini away from Bologna to hold the chair of simples. The list of important students who received their introduction to botany in his lectures is truly impressive. It was also Ghini, who was the first to introduce the field trip to study herbs in the nature into the university curriculum. He followed this by becoming the head in Pisa of one of the first university botanical gardens. If this was all that he initiated, he would be a major figure in the history of botany but there is more.
The major problem with excursion in nature, field trips, and even botanical gardens is that plants have growth cycles. You cannot observe a plant in bloom all the year round but only for a short period. This of course applies to all the phases of its growth. How do you demonstrate to students the flowering phase of a particular simple in the middle of winter? It seems that once again Ghini was the first to solve this problem with the creation of a herbarium, that is a collection of dried and pressed plants. It appears that before Ghini came up with the idea sometime between 1520 and 1530 nobody had ever built up a collection of dried and pressed plants or at least no earlier ones are known.
Within the historical context it is important to note that in the sixteenth century the term herbarium didn’t refer to a collection of dried and pressed plants, as it does today, but to what we now call a herbal; a book with descriptions of herbs, a topic that I will deal with in a future post in this series. In the Renaissance such collections were known as a Hortus hiemalis or Winter garden, others called them living herbals that is Herbarius vivus or Hortus siccus, a dry garden. The earliest known use of the term herbarium in the modern sense is by the French botanist Pitton de Tournefort (1656–1708) in his Eléments de botanique, ou Méthode pour reconnaître les Plantes published in 1694.
Although various historical herbaria still exist, Ghini’s doesn’t. Around 1551, when he sent dried plants gummed upon paper to Pietro Andrea Gregorio Mattioli (1501–c. 1577) his collection was known to contain around three hundred different plants. However, it must have been in existence well before that date as the oldest extant herbarium is that of his pupil Gherado Cibo (1512–1600), which he began at the latest in 1532. Cibo was an avid botanist, known for his plant illustrations, who like Ghini never published anything, although he kept extensive diaries and notebooks of his botanical studies.
Of interest is that fact that initially there were no publications about herbaria and knowledge of their existence and how to create them seems to have been spread by word of mouth and correspondence by Ghini and his students.
The earliest known printed reference to a herbarium is by the Portuguese, Jewish physician Amatus Lusitanus (1511–1568) in one of his works on Dioscorides in 1553, where he mentions the dried plant collection of the English botanist John Falconer (fl. 1547), who is known to have travelled in Italy and probably learnt how to make a herbarium either from Ghini directly or one of his students.
In the late 1540s, Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566) travelled with his patron Cardinal François de Touron (1489–1562) around Europe and in Italy got to personally meet and talk with Ghini in Pisa. When he returned to Montpellier in 1551, he took with him the knowledge of how to make a herbarium, which he passed on to his students, including Felix Platter (1536–1614), who graduated in Montpellier in 1557.
Platter took that knowledge with him to Basel after graduation. So, spread the knowledge slowly through Europe. Part of Platter’s own herbarium is one of the sixteenth century ones that still exist or at least part of it, totalling 813 specimens.
Information on how to make a herbarium was first published by Adriaan van de Spiegel (1578–1625), who studied medicine in Padua under Girolamo Fabrizio da Acquapendente (c. 1535–1619), in his Isagoge in rem herbariam in (Padua, 1606).
To quote Agnes Arber:
In his Isagoge–a general treatise on botany–he explans the method of pressing between two sheets of good paper, under gradually increasing weights, and notes that the plans must be examined and turned over daily. When they are dry, they are to be laid upon inferior paper (charta ignobilior), and, with brushes of graded sizes, painted with a special gum, for which he gives the recipe. The plants are then to be transferred to sheets of white paper; linen is to be laid over them, and rubbed steadily until they adhere to the paper. Finally the sheets are to be placed between paper, or in a book and subjected to pressure until the gum dries.
Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605) was one of the most influential naturalists of the sixteenth century.
In 1533 he obtained a degree in medicine and philosophy and in 1554 he began to teach philosophy in the following year, appointed professor of philosophy in 1561. Already an enthusiast for botany, zoology, and geology he was appointed the first professor of natural philosophy at Bologna in 1561 (lectura philosophiae naturalis ordinaria de fossilibus, plantis et animalibus). Never a student of Ghini, he might better be described as a disciple. Inspired by Ghini’s garden in Pisa he was responsible for the botanical garden in Bologna in 1568. Also inspired by Ghini, he created an extensive herbarium which eventually numbered about 4760 specimens on 4117 sheets in sixteen volumes, which are preserved in the University of Bologna.
Like the botanical garden the herbarium or winter garden survived and developed upto the present. There are large scale herbaria in universities, museums and botanical gardens throughout the world often numbering millions of specimens. The largest in the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris has more than nine million.
 Agnes Arber, Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution: A Chapter in the History of Botany 1470–1670, CUP; 1912, republished Hafner Publishing Company, Darien Conn., 1970, p. 142
4 responses to “Renaissance science – XXXIV”
Thony I think your predictive text is messing with you. 🙂 First sentence should it not be overlooked rather than overseen? Second paragraph should it be sample and not simple? Of course it could be me LOL. Yet another good post.
You are correct on overlooks but a simple is a medical herb
Looks like I am the simple one 🙂
You left out coverage of the 16th Century’s most hyped herb, pantagruelion. Francois Rabelais, who was a physician as well as a novelist, extolled its virtues at some length. Besides its medical properties, you can make rope out of it to hang your enemies.