Many Treasure Rooms

Specimens of Iris pseudacorus, Herbarium Ratzenberger (1556-1592). Naturkundemuseum Kassel. Photo by Peter Mansfeld.

In this series of posts (1,2,3) I’m exploring what Tinde van Andel calls “treasure rooms” in museums and libraries that hold early modern herbaria.  I’ve discussed some of these in the Netherlands, Italy, and Switzerland, now I want to hunt down a few spread more widely.  One was created by Caspar Ratzenberger in Germany between 1556 and 1592.  It is preserved in three volumes in the Natural History Museum of Kassel, Germany (see figure above).  It contains plants that he grew in his garden, including some exotics such as tobacco.  In 1858, a resident of the city sought it out after reading a reference to such a collection.  He found it stored but forgotten in a government building and made a list of the plants it contained.  Little else seems to have been done on this collection. 

            While the Ratzenberger herbarium didn’t travel far from its point of origin, that isn’t true of some other treasures.  One created in 1606 by Gregorio da Reggio, who collected around Bologna, is now in the Oxford University herbarium (Marner, 2006).  It was given to William Sherard by his friend Giuseppe Monti, director of the Bologna Botanical Garden shortly before Sherard’s death.  Sherard left his collections to Oxford, but this is only part of the story.  The “gift” was meant as an exchange.  Sherard had agreed to send Monti the second volume of Hans Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica, but died before he could do so.  Monti asked Sherard’s brother James for the book, but the sibling ignored the letter because he was miffed at being cut out of the will.  Johann Dillenius, who had become professor of botany at Oxford thanks to Sherard’s funding the position, finally sent the Sloane book to Monti (Harris, 2011).  While it is certainly a gem, it is not unique like the herbarium, which has three hundred specimens with extensive labels.  Unusual for the time, the labels contain information on locality, habitat, and in some cases even flowering times and medicinal uses as well as literature citations. 

            María Carrión (2017) of Emory University has examined a number of early herbaria and written particularly about an Italian collection in Spain’s Royal Library of El Escorial (2017, 2019).  The collector of these four volumes is unknown, but it was owned by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, who had served as Spanish Ambassador to Venice, where he had built up an extensive library, including this herbarium.  He later fell out of favor with the king and was living in exile when the monarch, who was eager to acquire the library with its extensive collection of Greek manuscripts, offered to allow Mendoza to return home if he bequeathed his library to the king.  Since the focus was on the Greek manuscripts, the herbarium didn’t receive much attention.  Carrión has examined the collection and found discrepancies between the number of plants listed in the index to each volume and the plants actually present, with in each case the lists missing plants.  Some are off by a few plants, but for the second volume only 99 of the 209 plants are recorded.  She also found that the first volume is much more focused on medicinal uses than are the others.  As with any herbarium, without any supporting material to offer hints, it is difficult to imagine all the details that went into its construction. 

            The oldest herbarium in the National Museum of Natural History herbarium in Paris dates to 1558 and was created by Jehan Girault, a medical student at the University of Lyons.  With 81 pages and 310 plants, it was kept at the University until 1721 when it was sent to the botanist Antoine de Jussieu in Paris.  It became part of the museum’s collection in 1857, a small portion of the eight million specimens now stored there, yet it is an important piece of the history of medical and botanical education in France.  Girault was a student of Jacques Daléchamps, who in turn was a student of Guillaume Rondelet, one of the pioneers of early modern botany.  Rondelet taught at the University of Montpellier that has a rich history, and he was an early proponent of fields trips as a botanical learning tool (Ogilvie, 2006).

            I’ll end this survey with the creator of multiple herbaria that still exist.  Hieronymus Harder produced 11 extant collections, with most still in Germany, where he lived (Dobras, 2009).  Some were presentation volumes like Andrea Cesalpino’s in Florence that I mentioned in the last post.  Harder was a teacher interested in medicinal plants, and most of the plants are from the area surrounding his Bavarian home.  However, there are also specimens of tobacco, pepper, and tomato which had spread so rapidly across Europe through seed sharing among botanists.  There is also a single herbarium created by Harder’s son, Johannes, an apothecary, at the Oak Spring Garden Library in Virginia.  What makes all these volumes particularly interesting is that the Harders had the habit of “embellishing” or “improving” specimens with watercolor paints to fill in missing petals or stems, to add roots or bulbs, or create a tuft of grass to ground a plant.  The son’s work is the most heavily altered and is an example of the experiments early modern botanists tried in attempting to communicate as much information as possible through their collections.  It is wonderful that such variations still exist to give a sense of the ardor and experimentation of the period.

References

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. https://doi.org/10.5840/jems2017613

Carrión, M. M. (2019). Planting dwelling thinking. Natural history and philosophy in sixteenth-century European dried gardens. Gardens and Landscapes: Sciendo, 6, 5–19. https://doi.org/10.2478/glp-2019-0009.

Dobras, W. (2009). Hieronymus Harder and his twelve plant collections. Ulm Und Oberschwaben, Journal of History, Art and Culture, 56, 46–82.

Harris, S. (2011). Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden, 1501-1900. Cambridge: Bodleian Library.

Marner, S. K. (2006). 400 years old! (A book herbarium from Italy). Oxford Plant Systematics], 13, 9–10.

Ogilvie, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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