Art: Medieval Herbals

Sloane 1975 manuscript, f31v, British Library

Lately I’ve been indulging my love of botanical art by simply looking at examples of its many manifestations.  With such a massive topic, all I can really do is touch down at a few points on its vast extent.  In this series of posts, I’ve selected four sites, beginning with Medieval herbals.  The conventional view is that there isn’t much to see here:  just repeated copying of rather crude representations that are often difficult to identify.  But as with much else in history, reexamination leads to new viewpoints.  Yes, there are manuscripts like Sloane 1975 at the British Library, a medical text richly embellished with gold leaf and with plants that are extremely stylized.  Still it’s a treasure worth examining to see how they are stylized:  the emphasis is on symmetry with equal numbers of branches or flowers or leaves on each side of a central stem and with elements spread apart so they don’t overlap and are clearly visible.  If the tuber is the portion of the plant that is of medicinal interest then it is often presented as overly large to emphasize its worth.

The text accompanying these striking images is ancient, though hardly a direct copy.  Manuscripts were added to or streamlined and reordered to make them more accessible to new generations of medical practitioners.  Many are in Latin, though names may also be given in Greek, or as in an English herbal from 1070-1100, in Latin and Old English.  This is MS Ashmole 1431 in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.  It’s a version of an herbal written in the fourth century A.D. by someone named Pseudo-Apuleius.  Since it was one of the few texts on medicinal plants available in Latin, it was often copied.  There is a later manuscript in the British Library Egerton MS 747 that was produced in the late 13th century probably in Salerno or Naples and presents many plants quite realistically.   At that time, southern Italy provided some of the most advanced medical education, and this manuscript reveals the first stirrings of the close observation that would be the hallmark of early modern medicine and botany. 

However, there are much earlier manuscripts that have amazingly naturalistic representations of plants, though these also contain many images of lesser quality.  The best known is the Anicia Juliana Codex created in 512 AD and now in the Austrian National Library, created.  It has marked similarities to two other manuscripts known by their present locations, the Naples Codex from the late 6th or early 7th century in the National Library, Naples and the mid-10th century New York Codex at the Morgan Library.  All three are written in Greek and are based on the first-century work of materia medica by the Greek physician Dioscorides.  It wasn’t available in Latin until the 12th century, but was the basis for a great deal of medieval writings on medicines into the early modern era. 

Much research has been done on these codices, especially on the Juliana, since some see it as the model for the two later works.  Several years ago, researchers at Purdue University created a database for the three herbals, so that their similarities and differences could be studied more easily (Janick et al., 2013).  As they note, each of the three presents about 400 illustrations; of these, 282 are common to all.  The website is a great resource for diving into three of the most notable early herbals either from a botanical or an art historical viewpoint, though I am not sure that these can be separated.  Just studying the differences and similarities between any two images is an exploration of how different artists present what they see, even when one is copying the other. 

A recent analysis of all three manuscripts was published by Joshua Thomas (2019) who emphasizes the sources for the images.  Many of the illustrations are so realistic that they can be identified to species, something not possible with many other manuscript illustrations.  Thomas presents a number of arguments others have made about the relationship among the three works.  First is the archetype theory, that the Vienna codex, as the oldest, was model for the other two.  While there are many species common to all three books, even in these cases, the images are not exact copies.  This has led some to see them as related to a common source that has been lost, definitely a possibility.  However, Thomas questions this view because each presents plants in different formats.  One will take up an entire page with an image, another will pair plants together, and a third will only use half or less of the page and fill the rest with text.  It seems to him that if they were all using the same source, there would be more uniformity.

Thomas then builds a case for the models being from the classical period, several hundred years before the Vienna Codex, because he doesn’t see plant images from the 4th and 5th century with the naturalism found in these manuscripts.  Instead he finds similarities with, for example, the plants depicted in the murals in the Empress Livia’s garden room in Rome and others in Pompeii (Ciarallo, 2001).  This leaves him with the question of how they ended up in later works.  He doesn’t consider the papyrus manuscripts of that time as likely sources since papyrus doesn’t allow for the fine detail seen in the codices.  He posits instead that the models were painted on whitened wooden boards called pinakes that artists were known to use.  These would have been portable, explaining how the images could have traveled.  I’m hardly in a position to judge the likelihood of this hypothesis, but it does suggest how closely these ancient botanical jewels are being examined.


Ciarallo, A. (2001). Gardens of Pompeii. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Janick, J., Whipkey, A. L., & Stolarczyk, J. (2013). Synteny of images in three lilustrated Dioscoridean herbals: Juliana Anicia Codex, Codex Neapolitanus, and Morgan 652. Notulae Botanicae Horti Agrobotanici Cluj-Napoca, 41(2), 333–339.

Thomas, J. J. (2019). The iIllustrated Dioskourides codices and the transmission of images during antiquity. The Journal of Roman Studies, 109, 241–273.

Pietro Andrea Mattioli and Luca Ghini

4 Mattioli

Image of crocus in Mattioli’s Sinensis Medici, 1565. Biodiversity Heritage Library.

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.