Andrea Cesalpino and Luca Ghini

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Title page of Andrea Cesalpino’s De plantis libri XVI, Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Andrea Cesalpino (1524-1603) is, I think, my favorite among Luca Ghini’s successors in botany because he most exemplifies the careful attention to detail and to observation that were hallmarks of his teacher’s work.  He also had a philosophical side that manifested itself in his great publication De plantis libri XVI or The Plant in Fourteen Books (1583).  Cesalpino had already achieved a great deal before publishing this work.  He was one of Ghini’s students at Pisa, earning his degree in medicine.  When Ghini left Pisa in 1555, Cesalpino took his place as professor of botany and director of the botanical garden there; he also adopted his mentor’s device for documenting plants for teaching and research:  the herbarium.  He created at least two, one with over seven hundred specimens which he dedicated to Bishop Alfonso Tornabuoni and which survives in the herbarium of the University of Florence.  This gives a hint that herbaria were beginning to be used for a variety of purposes.  While Ghini saw teaching and documenting species information as foremost, Cesalpino also saw the form as a way to thank and honor a patron.

From his correspondence and publications, which were extensive, we know that Cesalpino went on plant collecting field trips, created lists of the species growing in the Pisa botanical garden, and taught both materia medica and then general medicine.  He remained at Pisa until 1592 when he became professor of medicine at the University of Rome and physician to Pope Clement VIII.  This move relatively late in life was provoked by the promotion of another professor, the famous physician Girolamo Merculiale, over him at Pisa.  Cesalpino remained in Rome until his death in 1605.  While I’m interested here in his botanical research, he studied many areas of medicine including geology and the use of minerals as materia medica, as well as the circulation of blood through the heart, making the most progress in this area before William Harvey.

In all his work, but perhaps especially in botany, Cesalpino took a more theoretical view of natural history than was common at the time.  He didn’t want to just collect information and organize it, he sought out fundamental ideas behind the details.  He was Aristotelian in his approach and like Aristotle’s student Theophrastus, he attempted to formulate a system of plant classification.  However, Cesalpino didn’t publish it until after he had spent many years studying plants in the field, the botanical garden, the herbarium, and the literature.  Despite being a physician, he did not, like Dioscorides—then still the leading source of information about materia medica—focus on the medicinal properties of plants.  Instead, Cesalpino sought basic traits on which to base his taxonomy.

Theophrastus began his system by dividing plants into four categories: trees, bushes, shrubs, and herbs, noting that the division among them is not hard and fast—a deep classificatory problem that plagues systematists to this day:  living things refuse to fit into neat categories.  Cesalpino used a different, but related, four-part scheme.  He put trees and shrubs together; had a second category for seeds without coverings, namely gymnosperms; then came non-woody plants with covered seeds: the herbs and finally plants without discernable seeds.  In a letter, he described how he would shuffle through his herbarium sheets, putting them into piles based on similar traits.  This suggests that when he was working with specimens, they were not bound in volumes, but more conveniently loose for just such rearranging.

This and other interesting pieces of information are in Cristina Bellorini’s (2016) book on medicine and botany in Renaissance Tuscany, where she describes the results of Cesalpino’s studies that appeared in De plantis.  Bellorini considers Cesalpino’s system as natural in that it’s based on similarities that link plants having more than arbitrary likenesses.  Within his four basic categories, he groups species according to what he saw as their most fundamental functions:  nutrition and reproduction.  For nutrition, he looked at roots and divided them into those that became woody and those that didn’t.  For reproduction, he examined flowers, fruits, and seeds.  Cesalpino was not alone in focusing on such structures as key to understanding plant relationships.  In an earlier post, I’ve written about Conrad Gessner’s notebooks that are filled with images and notes that often highlight just such plant parts, which Florike Egmond (2016) sees as evidence that Gessner was thinking of these traits in terms of classification.

It’s important to note that Cesalpino’s book has no illustrations.  He wrote that he didn’t think they were necessary because he was less interested in differentiating among species that in illustrating ways in which they were alike.  Lack of illustrations is probably one reason why he is less known today than some of Ghini’s other associates such as Pietro Andrea Mattioli, whom I’ll discuss in the next post.  In many cases images in publications made them more popular and therefore more likely to be republished.  In the present day, early botanical works are often valued for their illustrations rather than for their texts, which is definitely the case with Mattioli.

In his history of botany, A.G. Morton (1981) regards Cesalpino’s contributions to the development of plant classification very highly.  He presents Cesalpino’s work in detail relative to how he treats many other botanists’ thought.  Morton sees Cesalpino as one of the few botanists before the 17th century to deal with fundamental questions about how to organize plant knowledge.  Obviously this issue became more urgent as more and more species became known, but even in the 16th century, plants from the Americas and Asia were being grown in Pisa.  For example, Cesalpino discusses the tomato, sunflower, and agave.  He seemed to understand the way botany was heading and felt it necessary to think deeply about plant organization.  He followed in the tradition of his teacher, Luca Ghini, in amassing specimens and information, and then subjecting it all to careful analysis.


Bellorini, C. (2016). The World of Plants in Renaissance Tuscany. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.

Egmond, F. (2016). Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Morton, A. G. (1981). History of Botanical Science. New York, NY: Academic Press.


At the Beginning: Luca Ghini

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Portrait of Luca Ghini. Wikipedia.

I recently read an article by Paula Findlen (2017) on Luca Ghini (1490-1556), the Italian botanist credited with creating the first herbarium.  Her piece was a revelation to me.  It presented Ghini as a multifaceted individual who did so much more than press plants, and it put the herbarium into context within Ghini’s approach to the study of plants.  Findlen argues that Ghini is not better known today because he published nothing during his life, however, he was extremely influential among his students and fellow botanists throughout Europe.  In this post, I’ll discuss why he was so important in botanical circles.  In the following ones in this series, I’ll profile three significant Italian botanists of the next generation who were influenced by Ghini.

Practicing medicine throughout his career, Luca Ghini was educated as a physician at the University of Bologna.  He soon began to teach practical medicine at Bologna and started to collect plant specimens around this time.  He then lobbied to teach medical botany, doing so for the first time in 1534.  He eventually became professor of materia medica and kept this position until he moved to the University of Pisa in 1544.  There he founded the first botanical garden connected to a university, taught medical botany, and served as personal physician to Cosimo I de’ Medici.  He remained in Pisa until 1555 when he returned to Bologna where he died the following year.

Findlen begins her paper with the reaction of Ghini’s students and colleagues to his passing.  They were horrified at being without their mentor, without the person to whom they brought their botanical questions knowing he would give them solid and thoughtful answers.  How had Ghini developed such a reputation?  Findlen credits careful observation as central to his method.  His professor at Bologna, Niccolò Leoniceno, taught that it was important to correlate words with things, that observation mattered in medicine.  To make observation matter, it had to be recorded, so careful note taking was essential as was physical documentation.  That’s where botanical gardens and herbaria, both of which Ghini pioneered, came into the picture.  Ghini moved to Pisa in part because Medici was willing to finance a garden to be used in teaching.  After a lecture, Ghini would spend an hour or two walking among the plants with his students, pointing out species, structures, and medicinal traits relevant to the day’s lesson.  But when winter came and the garden was rather useless for demonstrations, Ghini could fall back on his hortus siccus, his dried garden, in the form of pressed specimens.  Since this winter garden was rather colorless and flat, Ghini also had illustrations made to preserve plant form and color.

Several students took up Ghini’s practices, and while none of his illustrations or specimens survive, some of theirs do.   Gherardo Cibo’s (1512-1600) herbarium, which was begun in 1532, is the oldest one surviving and is held at the Pontifical University Library in Rome.  Cibo also painted beautiful illustrations that are in the British Library.  They are unique in that unlike most plant images, his are painted against landscape backgrounds where the plants loom very large.  Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), who was considered by most of his peers as the person to go to for botanical information after Ghini’s death, amassed a large herbarium and a library of 8000 natural history illustrations, some of which are still extant in Bologna (Bellorini, 2016)  The specimens of another Ghini pupil, Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), are in Florence.  (Aldrovandi and Cesapino will be the subjects of the following posts).

As did many of botanists of his time, Ghini considered travel and communication as crucial to the development of knowledge (Ogilve, 2006).  He took field trips during the summers, going into the mountains between Pisa and Bologna, often in the company of his students or fellow botanists, many of whom travelled to consult him.  Valerius Cordus visited from Leiden, William Turner from England, and Guillaume Rondelet from Montpelier.  Leonhart Fuchs, the author of one of the first modern herbals (1542) traded specimens, illustrations, and notes.  To facilitate the exchange of seed with other botanists, Ghini created the first seed index and circulated this list so botanists would know what they could request from the botanical garden in Pisa.  Ghini maintained correspondence with a large number of botanists including many of his former students such Bartolomeo Maranta in Naples, who dedicated his book on medicinal plants to Ghini from whom he had learned research methods.  Ghini was very generous with his knowledge and his resources, which was one reason it was difficult to organize his materials after his death—many of them were out on loan.

Around 1551, Ghini made a conscious decision not to publish any work, although he had amassed notes and illustrations for a projected natural history.  It was the herbals of Otto Brunfels (1530) and Leonhart Fuchs (1542) that convinced him of the importance of illustrations, but they were expensive to produce, and he wasn’t in a position to take the financial risk involved.  Instead, Ghini shared his writings and observations with others, so his work did in part become published in the writings of several botanists, including Ulisse Aldrovandi, Andrea Cesalpino, and most importantly, Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1578).  These botanists will be presented in the next three posts.

Note:  I want to thank Paula Findlen for generously sharing the reference to her Luca Ghini article with me.


Bellorini, C. (2016). The World of Plants in Renaissance Tuscany. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.

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.

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