Ulisse Aldrovandi and Luca Ghini

2 Aldrovandi

Website for the Herbarium of Ulisse Aldrovandi

In the last post, I discussed the life of Luca Ghini, the Italian botanist who created the first herbarium, but is little remembered because he published none of his botanical work.  However, several of his students had distinguished careers and carried on his tradition of careful observation combined with documentation in notes, illustrations, and specimens.  The one considered his heir in terms of depth of botanical knowledge is Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), yet he never officially studied with Ghini.  Aldrovandi received his medical degree from the University of Bologna while Ghini was teaching at the University of Pisa.  However, Ghini often returned to his native Bologna where he had taught earlier, and they probably met during one of these visits.  Paula Findlen (2017) speculates that they might have been introduced sometime around 1553 by one of Ghini’s former students, Francesco Petrollini, who taught Aldrovandi and who, like Ghini, kept an herbarium.  Aldrovandi soon took up the practice, and even improved upon it, describing a paste he used to hold down the specimens on paper and help preserve their color.

After they met, Aldrovandi spent time in Pisa learning from Ghini.  Together they collected on field trips into the mountains and also investigated the plants in the Pisa botanical garden.  The younger man published a catalogue of the 620 species growing there.  Ghini shared teaching and research materials, including his class notes, which were helpful to Aldrovandi when he became professor of natural sciences at the University of Bologna.  Ghini left Pisa and returned to Bologna in 1555; by this time, he was a sick man.  Aldrovandi worked with Ghini, attempting to get his mentor’s papers in order, and thus was seen by other botanists as the person to contact about Ghini’s medical condition as well as about botanical matters.  Aldrovandi went on to live for another 50 years and had a rich career involved in a number of fields, including botany.

Ghini and Aldrovandi had much in common as botanist-physicians.  They were intent on learning about plants not only to use in treatment but as objects of curiosity—a trend that became more common as the 16th century went on (Ogilve, 2006).  They also differed from each other in many ways. They were both born in Bologna and studied there, but Ghini eventually left, while Aldrovandi spent most of his life there.  They both came from families that weren’t wealthy, however, the Aldrovandis were noblemen and their fortunes improved when a member of his mother’s family became pope in 1570.  By the time Aldrovandi died, he had amassed a reasonable fortune and a large natural history collection, which included everything from plants and minerals to insects and a variety of other animals.  He had over 14,500 specimens and 2,000 drawings of plants by 1570 (Findlen, 1994).  Like Ghini, he saw both text and image as necessary for communicating about the form of organisms; neither alone would suffice.  Aldrovandi had a large library of 4000 volumes including many of his bound collections of letters and notes.  He had an impressive network of correspondents, many times larger than Ghini’s 227.  This indicates that the perception of science as a solitary profession has never been the case:  the making of scientific knowledge has always been communal.  Even in the early modern period, no one person could know it all, though people like Aldrovandi definitely made an attempt at it.

Aldrovandi used his specimens, illustrations, and library as the basis for the many books he published, most on zoological topics.  Like Ghini, he was interested in other areas of natural history besides botany.  While I am focusing on plants here, most of Aldrovandi’s published works deal with animals, including books on birds, one on snakes, and a volume on monstrous animals.  The last is hardly surprising: curiosities and oddities remained an interest from the Middle Ages, and new and strange species were being discovered around the world.  However, Aldrovandi’s writings were based primarily on first hand observation, as was the case for his botanical work, a legacy of his time with Ghini.  He used an organizing system that was becoming common: making notes on slips of paper and pasting them into notebooks along with other relevant information, sometimes including images.  Aldrovandi did write a book on trees, Dendrologiae naturalis, which was illustrated but like most of his writings it wasn’t published until decades after his death.  That he left publication to those who followed him is probably one reason that so little about plants went into print:  books about animals seemed more fascinating, a problem that persists to this day.

Besides the fact that his work was published and Ghini’s wasn’t, another reason Aldrovandi is remembered is that his collection didn’t quickly disappear as Ghini’s did.  Aldrovandi insured its survival by willing it to the Senate of Bologna, and it was conserved in the city palace.  But in the 19th century the collection was distributed among several libraries and other institutions, leading to loss of a great deal of the material.  Some of what is left is now on display in Bologna’s Palazzo Poggi, but it is a poor remnant of its former richness.  The legacy of another of Ghini’s protégés, Andrea Cesalpino, will be the subject of the next post.


Findlen, P. (1994). Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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.


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