I recently read an article by Paula Findlen (2017) on Luca Ghini (1490-1556), the Italian botanist credited with creating the first herbarium. Her piece was a revelation to me. It presented Ghini as a multifaceted individual who did so much more than press plants, and it put the herbarium into context within Ghini’s approach to the study of plants. Findlen argues that Ghini is not better known today because he published nothing during his life, however, he was extremely influential among his students and fellow botanists throughout Europe. In this post, I’ll discuss why he was so important in botanical circles. In the following ones in this series, I’ll profile three significant Italian botanists of the next generation who were influenced by Ghini.
Practicing medicine throughout his career, Luca Ghini was educated as a physician at the University of Bologna. He soon began to teach practical medicine at Bologna and started to collect plant specimens around this time. He then lobbied to teach medical botany, doing so for the first time in 1534. He eventually became professor of materia medica and kept this position until he moved to the University of Pisa in 1544. There he founded the first botanical garden connected to a university, taught medical botany, and served as personal physician to Cosimo I de’ Medici. He remained in Pisa until 1555 when he returned to Bologna where he died the following year.
Findlen begins her paper with the reaction of Ghini’s students and colleagues to his passing. They were horrified at being without their mentor, without the person to whom they brought their botanical questions knowing he would give them solid and thoughtful answers. How had Ghini developed such a reputation? Findlen credits careful observation as central to his method. His professor at Bologna, Niccolò Leoniceno, taught that it was important to correlate words with things, that observation mattered in medicine. To make observation matter, it had to be recorded, so careful note taking was essential as was physical documentation. That’s where botanical gardens and herbaria, both of which Ghini pioneered, came into the picture. Ghini moved to Pisa in part because Medici was willing to finance a garden to be used in teaching. After a lecture, Ghini would spend an hour or two walking among the plants with his students, pointing out species, structures, and medicinal traits relevant to the day’s lesson. But when winter came and the garden was rather useless for demonstrations, Ghini could fall back on his hortus siccus, his dried garden, in the form of pressed specimens. Since this winter garden was rather colorless and flat, Ghini also had illustrations made to preserve plant form and color.
Several students took up Ghini’s practices, and while none of his illustrations or specimens survive, some of theirs do. Gherardo Cibo’s (1512-1600) herbarium, which was begun in 1532, is the oldest one surviving and is held at the Pontifical University Library in Rome. Cibo also painted beautiful illustrations that are in the British Library. They are unique in that unlike most plant images, his are painted against landscape backgrounds where the plants loom very large. Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), who was considered by most of his peers as the person to go to for botanical information after Ghini’s death, amassed a large herbarium and a library of 8000 natural history illustrations, some of which are still extant in Bologna (Bellorini, 2016) The specimens of another Ghini pupil, Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), are in Florence. (Aldrovandi and Cesapino will be the subjects of the following posts).
As did many of botanists of his time, Ghini considered travel and communication as crucial to the development of knowledge (Ogilve, 2006). He took field trips during the summers, going into the mountains between Pisa and Bologna, often in the company of his students or fellow botanists, many of whom travelled to consult him. Valerius Cordus visited from Leiden, William Turner from England, and Guillaume Rondelet from Montpelier. Leonhart Fuchs, the author of one of the first modern herbals (1542) traded specimens, illustrations, and notes. To facilitate the exchange of seed with other botanists, Ghini created the first seed index and circulated this list so botanists would know what they could request from the botanical garden in Pisa. Ghini maintained correspondence with a large number of botanists including many of his former students such Bartolomeo Maranta in Naples, who dedicated his book on medicinal plants to Ghini from whom he had learned research methods. Ghini was very generous with his knowledge and his resources, which was one reason it was difficult to organize his materials after his death—many of them were out on loan.
Around 1551, Ghini made a conscious decision not to publish any work, although he had amassed notes and illustrations for a projected natural history. It was the herbals of Otto Brunfels (1530) and Leonhart Fuchs (1542) that convinced him of the importance of illustrations, but they were expensive to produce, and he wasn’t in a position to take the financial risk involved. Instead, Ghini shared his writings and observations with others, so his work did in part become published in the writings of several botanists, including Ulisse Aldrovandi, Andrea Cesalpino, and most importantly, Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1578). These botanists will be presented in the next three posts.
Note: I want to thank Paula Findlen for generously sharing the reference to her Luca Ghini article with me.
Bellorini, C. (2016). The World of Plants in Renaissance Tuscany. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.
Findlen, P. (2017). The death of a naturalist: Knowledge and community in late Renaissance Italy. In G. Manning & C. Klestinec (Eds.), Professors, Physicians and Practices in the History of Medicine (pp. 127–167). New York, NY: Springer.
Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.