Seeking Plants in Seattle: Early Modern Herbaria

2 En Tibi Calendula arvensis

Specimen of Calendula arvensis from the En Tibi herbarium; the collection of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands.

I wouldn’t say that the History of Science Society is a plant-focused organization, but enough historians involved in botanical history in various ways have infiltrated the association that there are always sessions of interest at its annual meeting (see last post).  One I had to attend included two speakers whose work I had read.  Fabrizio Baldassarri of the University of Bucharest organized the session.  He is also the editor of a special issue of the Journal of Early Modern Studies (2017) on Gardens as Laboratories, which included his introductory essay and one by Maria Carrión of Emory University, the other speaker I wanted to hear.  Baldassarri spoke on plant metaphors in the work of several early modern physicians who were attempting to decipher bodily functions, with both William Harvey and Marcello Malpighi drawing comparisons between seeds and eggs.

Carrión’s contribution was on “Thinking, Dwelling, Planting: Dried Gardens and Natural Philosophy in 16th-century Europe.”  It was both intellectually fascinating and visually beautiful.  Granted, I may be prejudiced toward images of herbarium specimens and especially toward very old ones, but still, she presented such a variety of examples that I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was enthralled.  Carrión is a professor of comparative literature so she looks at these botanical documents in a different light than I do, and this is what made her talk so interesting.  To her, they are cultural artifacts, and she is fascinated by their materiality.

Carrión was introduced to herbaria while doing research at the library of the El Escorial in Madrid on early modern gardens as sacred spaces.  The librarian suggested that since she was interested in gardens, she might want to see a very old “dry garden.”  It was owned by a Spanish Ambassador to Venice, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1503-1575).  He possessed such an impressive library that the King of Spain called him back to Madrid and purchased the entire collection.  There’s no evidence that Mendoza created the herbarium which is in four volumes; and he probably acquired it in Italy, where the specimens were in all likelihood collected.  In all it contains over 1000 specimens, some pages with multiple specimens, and there are notes in several different hands.

Seeing this treasure fired Carrión’s passion for such collections, as I can well appreciate.  She has now seen eleven 16th-century herbaria in European collections.  These include the En Tibi, another herbarium whose creator is unknown (see above).  Carrión considers it the best preserved of the ones she’s seen.  Housed at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, it was created in Italy because the plants seemed to be from around Florence and Bologna.  The En Tibi is a thick volume bound in leather with 477 plants.  Carrión noted that it is inscribed:  “Here for you a smiling garden with everlasting flowers.”  I definitely like the idea of an herbarium as a smiling garden.  The watermarks date the paper to 1500-1550, suggesting it’s a very early collection.  The oldest extant herbarium dates from 1532, that of Gherardo Cibo at the Angelicum Library in Rome.

Carrión has also examined herbaria that have not been left intact, or as she puts it, have been “dislodged.”  That of Andrea Cesalpino in Florence is among these.  It has been taken out of its binding, with the loss of its original organization, and rebound in three volumes.  In terms of conservation, this was obviously a wise approach, but as she suggests, it does change the experience of studying the herbarium, especially since in its prolog Cesalpino writes on the benefits of classification.  The rearrangement of Casper Bauhin’s herbarium was even more radical.  Bauhin’s herbarium now in Basel was studied by Linnaeus when he was preparing his Species Plantarum.  The sheets were rearranged according to this new system, so this pre-Linnaean collection has a post-Linnaean organization (Benkert, 2016).

In her travels to collections throughout Europe, Carrión was guided by librarians who could show her unique features of the herbaria.  In one of the fifteen volumes of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s collection in Bologna, there was a large square cut out of a page where a specimen had obviously been removed.  There are missing specimens from many collections.  The plants and the glue holding them in place are so old, it’s not surprising that over time parts of specimens, or even an entire one, may fall off and be lost.  But in the case of the Aldrovandi page, someone very much wanted the plant pasted there.  Unfortunately, his collection has suffered worse loses with only a portion of his thousands of specimens still extant.  This holds for his other collections as well:  insects, shells, minerals, books, and artwork.  As Paula Findlen (1994) notes, Aldrovandi created one of the first museums, one of the first organized natural history collections.  Though portions have been lost over the years, it survives at all because he willed it not to heirs who might very well have auctioned it off, but to the city of Bologna.

3 Limonium sinuatum

Limonium sinuatum collected in Lebanon by Leonhard Rauwolf in 1575. The collection of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands.

Carrión also saw Leonhard Rauwolf’s four-volume herbarium, with plants collected both in Europe and the Near East (see above).  It’s at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in Leiden and is striking because many of its pages have eye-catching paper borders and also because some of the plants are from Syria and Iraq, making them among the earliest specimens from those regions (Ghorbani et al., 2018).  Carrión plans on seeing more such treasures, in fact, she wants to see all pre-1600 herbaria—a noble goal indeed.


Baldassarri, F. (2017). Introduction: Gardens as laboratories. A history of botanical science. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 9–19.

Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a focal point: Knowledge, environment, and image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s herbaria. In Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Carrión, M. M. (2017). Planted knowledge: Art, science, and preservation in the sixteenth-century herbarium from the Hurtado de Mendoza Collection in El Escorial. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 47–67.

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

Ghorbani, A., Wieringa, J. J., de Boer, H. J., Porck, H., Kardinaal, A., & van Andel, T. (2018). Botanical and floristic composition of the historical herbarium of Leonhard Rauwolf collected in the Near East (1573-1575). Taxon, 67(3), 565–580.

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