This is my final post on Luca Ghini and the botanists influenced by him. My subject here is Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577), who was not one of Ghini’s student but definitely benefited from his mentorship. Mattioli’s first publication was a 1544 translation and commentary on the Greek physician Dioscorides’s first-century AD book on herbal medicine, the leading reference in the field for over 1500 years. It was copied in many different versions in Greek, Latin, and Arabic, often with notes added to include new information or to correct mistakes. Mattioli followed in this tradition. By the time he was writing, there were several forces at work making updating Dioscorides more difficult. First was the problem of attempting to relate the plants the Greek described with those botanists found growing in their own localities. It was becoming clear that biogeography had to be taken into account. This presented a problem for physicians: how could they know that a plant with certain medicinal properties that Dioscorides described was the plant they were looking at? Some saw this as a philological issue, a matter of textual descriptions, and tried to work it out by editing his text and adding comments to it. Others, and these became more common as the 16th century moved on, saw the solution in direct observation of the plants they had before them, and testing the species’ medicinal properties.
Luca Ghini obviously belonged to this second group, but he was also a product of a time when Dioscorides was still revered. In fact, he had planned his own commentary on the earlier work and had been accumulating specimens, observations, and illustrations for it. Yes, illustrations. While Ghini thought that textual descriptions were necessary, he considered images valuable in communicating information about plant form. In her article about Ghini that I’ve used as a reference for these posts, Paula Findlen (2017) writes that sometime around 1551, Ghini made the decision not to pursue work on his book. He had too much else to do and producing a publication was a major task. In addition, it would be a costly one if there were illustrations involved. Instead, he freely shared his research with other botanists. As I’ve mentioned an earlier post, he lent notes, images, and even specimens and also received loans of such materials. This was how knowledge was shared and developed, but Ghini was particularly giving in this regard.
He was especially generous to Mattioli, who was the recipient of Ghini’s research on Dioscorides’s plants. In 1551, Ghini completed his annotations to Mattioli’s commentary on Dioscorides. Known as the Placiti, it was made up of 69 opinions or notes,. He sent this to Mattioli and also recommended that illustrations be included. There must have been correspondence between Ghini and Mattioli over these revisions, but all their letters are lost. By 1554, Mattioli was preparing another edition, and Ghini spent four days finishing his review of the manuscript and made a list of suggested corrections, which he sent to his protégé Ulisse Aldrovandi for his comments, a great example of the communal nature of botanical inquiry.
Mattioli’s 1554 edition of Dioscorides was the first to be illustrated, including woodcuts of illustrations that Ghini had sent, as well as one made from his pressed plants. It had quotes from the Placiti and as citations from Ghini’s letters. Mattioli is well-known today not so much for his written commentaries but for the illustrations in the latter editions of his work on Dioscorides. The last edition which he oversaw was published in 1565 in Venice and had over 1000 illustrations. Remarkably, many of the carved wooden blocks used to print these images have survived and are held at a number of institutions including the Oak Spring Foundation Library, and the libraries at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) and the Missouri Botanical Garden (Tomasi & Willis, 2009). Oak Spring also has a copy of the 1565 edition that was printed on blue paper—one of only two in existence—with the illustrations highlighted in silver and gold (Tomasi, 2013). I saw it on display at NYBG a few years ago, open to the page with an illustration of lavender and I found it mesmerizing (Tomasi, 2013). And this is the point: Mattioli is known for the beauty of his publication more than for their substance; by the time this edition came out interest in attempting to update Dioscorides and other ancient texts was fading. Botanists like Ghini’s student Andrea Cesalpino (see last post) were writing new texts based on observation and analysis rather than on philology, analyzing the meaning of ancient texts.
The transition from one approach to the other was slow, and Mattioli was in the middle between the two traditions, with Ghini pushing him toward direct observation and visual evidence. As Findlen remarks, Ghini’s lack of publication caused him to become rather invisible in botanical history, despite his pivotal role in early modern Italian botany. His major claim to fame seems to be his development of the herbarium though there are some who see it as having been invented earlier. In any case, he is the one who proselytized its use to the point where it became a relatively common means of documenting plants. I should note however, that Mattioli, while he pressed plants and studied those pressed by others, including Ghini, didn’t keep an herbarium. He tossed his sheets out after he was finished studying them!
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.
Tomasi, L. T. (2013). The Renaissance Herbal. New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden.
Tomasi, L. T., & Willis, T. (2009). An Oak Spring Herbaria: Herbs and Herbals from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.