Italian Treasure Rooms

Orchid specimens, Aldrovandi herbarium. University of Bologna.

In this series of posts I am exploring some early modern herbaria that are becoming better known in the 21st century after having been carefully preserved in collections for centuries.  Since the habit of pressing plants in all likelihood arose in Italy, with efforts by Luca Ghini to encourage his students to take up the practice, it’s not surprising that many of the oldest herbaria remain in Italy (Findlen, 2017).  In the last post, I mentioned that the oldest one, begun in 1532, is at the Angelica Library in Rome and now attributed to Ghini’s student Francesco Petrollini, who taught at the University of Bologna.  One of his students, Ulisse Aldrovandi, was also a protégé of Ghini’s.  Aldrovandi had the financial means to amass a large herbarium and a collection of botanical illustrations, as well as other natural history materials and art.  Fifteen volumes of plant material survive in Bologna.  The almost 5000 specimens they contain attest to Aldrovandi’s interest in plants that went beyond the medicinal.  He acquired plants from the eastern Mediterranean, northern Europe, the Americas, and even the Far East.  In many cases, he also had the same plants painted, many from life.

There is interest in such early herbaria because they are physical links to what botanists were looking at and studying at the time.  The botanists were often as interested in receiving seeds.  If they could coax them to germinate, then they would have both living material to study and also to preserve as dried specimens, enough specimens to share with others along with the seeds.  Seeds, unlike specimens, were botanical capital that could increase over time.  While they are less likely to survive than specimens (seeds were capital that was meant to be spent), their importance is documented in surviving letters and other archival materials.  This is how researchers working on another Petrollini herbarium, the En Tibi in Leiden (see last post), were able to find evidence that he had probably received the tomato seeds that produced the plant preserved in his collection from Ghini, who in all likelihood had received them from another of his former students Luigi Anguillara.   

It is these links that are lurking in museums and libraries.  Digitizing specimens and in some cases correspondence will make ferreting out connections easier, but it is still slow and painstaking work.  And work that requires the skills of a historian.  I hate to admit this because I am not a historian and would like to be able to easily find and use the most arcane of materials.  But Google and Wikipedia just don’t cut it.  Even much more sophisticated databases aren’t enough.  That’s why it’s such a joy to read what historians have been able to discover.  In a recent paper, Italian researchers reported finding a specimen of tobacco in the 16th century Erbario Estense preserved in the Modena State Archives (Vicentini et al., 2020).  This is one of only four tobacco specimens of that age in Italy; the others are in Aldrovandi’s collection.  The creator of this herbarium is unknown, but there is evidence that it was made in Ferrara between 1570 and 1598.  It also contains other American species including the tomato which seems to have become ubiquitous in Europe by the end of the century. 

Another important Italian herbarium, this one at the Botanic Garden of Florence, is Andrea Cesalpino’s.  Also one of Ghini’s students, he took over from Ghini as director of the Botanical Garden of Pisa when Ghini returned to Bologna the year before his death (Findlen, 2017).  Cesalpino’s herbarium is particularly important because of its organization.  It was made for a bishop as a way for him to learn about plants and their relationships.  Cesalpino was one of the first to go beyond just describing plants and attempted to organize them by similar traits.  He published on this work but with the herbarium it’s possible to see his theory in action.  Cesalpino also had other collections but this is the only one that survives (Nepi & Gusmerol, 2008). 

It is no wonder that extant herbaria are rare this early in the history of modern botany.  First, preserving specimens had yet to become an essential part of botanical practice.  Pietro Andrea Mattioli, who published a famous translation of the ancient materia medica by Dioscorides, used specimens when writing plant descriptions but then disposed of them.  He later rued this practice.  In other cases, future generations were responsible for the loss.  While Conrad Gessner’s amazing illustrated notebooks remain, his specimens do not, perhaps because his heirs saw the beautiful watercolors as more valuable than the dried “plant skeletons.”  The Neapolitan pharmacist Ferrante Imperato had an 80-volume herbarium but his collection was dispersed about 30 years after his death during a plague in 1656 and only nine volumes remained.  A political uprising in 1799 led to destruction of eight of them.  The remaining volume with 440 plants survives at the National Library of Naples.  A 1903 report on the specimens notes that the collection did not seem to be well taken care of and suffered from insect damage (Giglioli, 1903).

There is a recent update on Imperato’s specimens.  Two researchers studied specimens in the herbarium of the agriculture school at the University of Naples.  They were in the collection of the 18th century botanist Domenico Crillo, who had once owned the nine Imperato volumes.  The specimens were very different from the rest, and when analyzed with a variety of techniques including carbon dating, watermarks, and handwriting analysis, were found to probably have once been part of Imperato’s collection.  (De Natale & Cellinese, 2009).


De Natale, A., & Cellinese, N. (2009). Imperato, Cirillo, and a Series of Unfortunate Events: A Novel Approach to Assess the Unknown Provenance of Historical Herbarium Specimens. Taxon, 58(3), 963–970.

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: Springer.

Giglioli, I. (1903). The herbarium of Ferrante Imperato in Naples. Nature, 67(1735), 296–297.

Nepi, C., & Gusmerol, E. (2008). Gli erbari aretini da Andrea Cesalpino ai giorni nostri. Florence: Firenze University Press.

Vicentini, C. B., Buldrini, F., Romagnoli, C., & Bosi, G. (2020). Tobacco in the Erbario Estense and other Renaissance evidence of the Columbian taxon in Italy. Rendiconti Lincei. Scienze Fisiche e Naturali.

2 thoughts on “Italian Treasure Rooms

  1. Pingback: Swiss Treasure Rooms | Herbarium World

  2. Pingback: Many Treasure Rooms | Herbarium World

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