This post’s title comes from Tinde van Andel’s inaugural lecture as Clusius Chair of History of Botany and Gardens at Leiden University in the Netherlands: Open the Treasure Room and Decolonize the Museum. Working with a team of researchers, the room van Andel is exploring is at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and is indeed a particularly rich collection. It has a number of 16th-century herbaria, including the En Tibi dated to about 1554 and attributed by van Andel and her team to Francesco Petrollini, a student of Luca Ghini who was at least an early proponent if not the originator of preserving pressed specimens (Stefanaki et al., 2019). Petrollini is also now thought to have created a herbarium in Rome’s Angelica Library that had been attributed to another Ghini student, Gherardo Cibo. It was begun in 1532, making it the earliest extant collection.
Also in Leiden are herbaria created by Leonhard Rauwolf who collected in France as well as in the Middle East (see earlier post). Van Andel’s commented in her lecture that when she showed specimens of sorghum, eggplant, and pistachio that Rauwolf had found in agricultural plots in Syria, it was the first time in over 400 years that someone from the Middle East had set on eyes on them. These plants document what was being grown at the time and may yield DNA revealing more about the history of these crops (Ghorbani et al., 2018). That they are physical evidence for plants of the past is one reason the collections are treasures.
As another example of what these riches have revealed, van Andel, working with molecular biologists as well as historians, has taken a look at the early history of the tomato in Europe. They have recently published on this work, presenting specimens as well as illustrations, putting together a possible timeline of how the plant spread through Europe from Spain to Italy and then to northern Europe (Andel et al., 2022). The fact that there was quite a bit of evidence suggests interest in this strange fruit. The specimen in En Tibi even has half a tomato attached. A small portion of a leaf was removed and DNA extracted from it; research suggests that it was a domesticated plant. Petrollini probably obtained seeds from Ghini, who may have gotten them from a former student Luigi Anguillara, director of the botanical garden in Padua near Venice, which was a busy port where many exotic species arrived. So this one page of En Tibi reveals much not only about the plant’s biology but also about its history in Europe and about how a tightly knit botanical network enabled rapid transmission not only of information but of seeds and other botanical material.
For a long time, early herbaria were ignored, as van Andel’s comment about Rauwolf’s collection indicates. Any pre-Linnaean herbarium that had not been studied by Carl Linnaeus and therefore not used by him in naming species was considered irrelevant to modern botany, which dates from the publication of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum of 1753. The collections were deemed worth keeping, but not worth serious study. This has changed recently for a number of reasons, including the renewed interest in natural history collections in general as sources of information about biodiversity. There is also interest in botany’s social history as the second half of van Andel’s title suggests: decolonize the museum.
The Netherlands was an important naval power with an eye on botanical riches such as nutmeg and cinnamon from the East, but any plants of interest were welcomed in the homeland by eager gardeners looking for novelty. One collection in Naturalis was created around 1587 by an unnamed Dutch collector working in what is now Suriname. It preserves plants native to the area and also African food plants—okra and sesame (Andel et al., 2012). This indicates that the plantation culture, with the presence of African enslaved persons, had brought with it new species, one of many examples of the early movement of plants with links to the slave trade. It shows how herbaria can contribute crucial evidence on cultural and political history and can help clarify portions of history that have long remained hidden, including the early pervasiveness of enslaved labor in the Americas.
I have focused on the Leiden treasure room in this post, but in the others in this series I’ll mention herbaria kept in collections throughout Europe. Some, like part of Felix Platter’s collection in Basel, had been there for hundreds of years but had only been rediscovered in the 1930s. Others, like Ulisse Aldrovandi’s in Bologna were cared for over the centuries, but still, it wasn’t investigated until recently. One reason for the increased attention is that there have been efforts to digitized important cultural collections of all kinds, making the 15 volumes of Aldrovandi’s herbarium available to a wider audience and also making it much easier to compare specimens of the same species from different collections, as done in the paper on the history of the tomato.
To me this is the exciting thing about what could be considered the renaissance of Renaissance herbaria: allowing careful study without necessarily disturbing the very fragile originals. I would love to experience the physical heft of En Tibi or see the pages that Rauwolf saw as he, or an assistant, reinforced/decorated them with patterned paper. However, the very newest of technologies have made these oldest of specimens available to all, even in the age of covid. The important thing now is to mine these works thoroughly to learn more about plants and botanists in the early modern era.
Andel, T. van. (2017). Open the treasure room and decolonize the museum [Inaugural lecture]. Leiden University. https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/51665.
Andel, T. van, Veldman, S., Maas, P., Thijsse, G., & Eurlings, M. (2012). The forgotten Hermann Herbarium: A 17th century collection of useful plants from Suriname. Taxon, 61(6), 1296–1304. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24389114.
Andel, T. van, Vos, R. A., Michels, E., & Stefanaki, A. (2022). Sixteenth-century tomatoes in Europe: Who saw them, what they looked like, and where they came from. PeerJ, 10, e12790. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.12790.
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. https://doi.org/10.12705/673.7.
Stefanaki, A., Porck, H., Grimaldi, I. M., Thurn, N., Pugliano, V., Kardinaal, A., Salemink, J., Thijsse, G., Chavannes-Mazel, C., Kwakkel, E., & Andel, T. van. (2019). Breaking the silence of the 500-year-old smiling garden of everlasting flowers: The En Tibi book herbarium. PLOS ONE, 14(6), e0217779. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0217779.