Ulisse Aldrovandi and Luca Ghini

2 Aldrovandi

Website for the Herbarium of Ulisse Aldrovandi

In the last post, I discussed the life of Luca Ghini, the Italian botanist who created the first herbarium, but is little remembered because he published none of his botanical work.  However, several of his students had distinguished careers and carried on his tradition of careful observation combined with documentation in notes, illustrations, and specimens.  The one considered his heir in terms of depth of botanical knowledge is Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), yet he never officially studied with Ghini.  Aldrovandi received his medical degree from the University of Bologna while Ghini was teaching at the University of Pisa.  However, Ghini often returned to his native Bologna where he had taught earlier, and they probably met during one of these visits.  Paula Findlen (2017) speculates that they might have been introduced sometime around 1553 by one of Ghini’s former students, Francesco Petrollini, who taught Aldrovandi and who, like Ghini, kept an herbarium.  Aldrovandi soon took up the practice, and even improved upon it, describing a paste he used to hold down the specimens on paper and help preserve their color.

After they met, Aldrovandi spent time in Pisa learning from Ghini.  Together they collected on field trips into the mountains and also investigated the plants in the Pisa botanical garden.  The younger man published a catalogue of the 620 species growing there.  Ghini shared teaching and research materials, including his class notes, which were helpful to Aldrovandi when he became professor of natural sciences at the University of Bologna.  Ghini left Pisa and returned to Bologna in 1555; by this time, he was a sick man.  Aldrovandi worked with Ghini, attempting to get his mentor’s papers in order, and thus was seen by other botanists as the person to contact about Ghini’s medical condition as well as about botanical matters.  Aldrovandi went on to live for another 50 years and had a rich career involved in a number of fields, including botany.

Ghini and Aldrovandi had much in common as botanist-physicians.  They were intent on learning about plants not only to use in treatment but as objects of curiosity—a trend that became more common as the 16th century went on (Ogilve, 2006).  They also differed from each other in many ways. They were both born in Bologna and studied there, but Ghini eventually left, while Aldrovandi spent most of his life there.  They both came from families that weren’t wealthy, however, the Aldrovandis were noblemen and their fortunes improved when a member of his mother’s family became pope in 1570.  By the time Aldrovandi died, he had amassed a reasonable fortune and a large natural history collection, which included everything from plants and minerals to insects and a variety of other animals.  He had over 14,500 specimens and 2,000 drawings of plants by 1570 (Findlen, 1994).  Like Ghini, he saw both text and image as necessary for communicating about the form of organisms; neither alone would suffice.  Aldrovandi had a large library of 4000 volumes including many of his bound collections of letters and notes.  He had an impressive network of correspondents, many times larger than Ghini’s 227.  This indicates that the perception of science as a solitary profession has never been the case:  the making of scientific knowledge has always been communal.  Even in the early modern period, no one person could know it all, though people like Aldrovandi definitely made an attempt at it.

Aldrovandi used his specimens, illustrations, and library as the basis for the many books he published, most on zoological topics.  Like Ghini, he was interested in other areas of natural history besides botany.  While I am focusing on plants here, most of Aldrovandi’s published works deal with animals, including books on birds, one on snakes, and a volume on monstrous animals.  The last is hardly surprising: curiosities and oddities remained an interest from the Middle Ages, and new and strange species were being discovered around the world.  However, Aldrovandi’s writings were based primarily on first hand observation, as was the case for his botanical work, a legacy of his time with Ghini.  He used an organizing system that was becoming common: making notes on slips of paper and pasting them into notebooks along with other relevant information, sometimes including images.  Aldrovandi did write a book on trees, Dendrologiae naturalis, which was illustrated but like most of his writings it wasn’t published until decades after his death.  That he left publication to those who followed him is probably one reason that so little about plants went into print:  books about animals seemed more fascinating, a problem that persists to this day.

Besides the fact that his work was published and Ghini’s wasn’t, another reason Aldrovandi is remembered is that his collection didn’t quickly disappear as Ghini’s did.  Aldrovandi insured its survival by willing it to the Senate of Bologna, and it was conserved in the city palace.  But in the 19th century the collection was distributed among several libraries and other institutions, leading to loss of a great deal of the material.  Some of what is left is now on display in Bologna’s Palazzo Poggi, but it is a poor remnant of its former richness.  The legacy of another of Ghini’s protégés, Andrea Cesalpino, will be the subject of the next post.


Findlen, P. (1994). Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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.

Specimen Labels: History


Specimen from the Ulisse Aldrovandi Herbarium at the University of Bologna

It’s often noted that herbarium specimens are prepared today much as they were in the 16th century when Luca Ghini (1490-1556) created the first well-documented herbarium. This lack of “progress” is because the original approach was both easy and effective: press a plant between two pieces of paper to absorb moisture and to flatten it. Plant material treated in this way can last indefinitely. Moisture encourages the growth of fungi and other agents of decay, and pressing means the plant doesn’t curl up into an irregular mass as it dries. Today, the sheets of paper may be interleafed with felt pads and cardboard sheets to hasten drying. After this the specimen is mounted on heavy white paper and labeled. It is in the labeling that significant changes have occurred over the years and continue to occur. To put it simply, the amount of information on a sheet has increased significantly, but even today, there is no “perfect” label, no standard for what be included and in what format. This may not seem like a very exciting topic to pursue, but I hope to show that following the label story tells a great deal about the history of plant collections and of plant science itself.

Ghini’s herbarium is not extant, but those of his students, Gherardo Cibo (1512-1600) and Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) are (Nepi& Gusmerol, 2008). They are beautifully mounted, and on the latter, the plant names are written in script. There is little other notation, and this is true of most early specimens. Since herbaria were created either by or for individuals, it can be assumed that these owners knew more about the plants, could fill in the blanks, at least for many of the specimens. They felt the name was all the information they needed; there were books with species descriptions that could be referenced. However as Brian Ogilve (2006) notes, at this time the written information on plants lagged behind the illustrations and plant specimens then available. This was one of the driving forces behind the creation of herbaria: to have good visual information available for study. Plants themselves were studied first for their uses in medicine, and then as fascinating in themselves, opening the way to plant taxonomy. Geography or date of collection wasn’t considered important, nor was the name of the collector.

As time went on, labeling and specimen preparation became more standardized, but still, collections were for the most part individual rather than institutional so personal idiosyncrasies were common. This was especially the case among the wealthy who saw a herbarium as an important element of a cabinet of curiosities and a significant symbol of status. A case in point is the herbarium of George Clifford (1685-1760), which was studied and augmented by Carl Linnaeus during his time in the Netherlands. Clifford was a wealthy banker with an interest in gardening and wanted to document the range of plants he grew. Each sheet had an ornately bordered label and the bottom of the stem was covered by an engraving of a vase from which the plant was seemingly growing. In other collections, the pages were framed with a border of inked lines. The Oxford botanist Johann Dillenius (1684-1747) pasted thin strips of wallpaper around the edges of his moss specimen sheets to strengthen them. On the other hand, Hans Sloane (1660-1753) who had one of the largest pre-Linnaean herbaria, didn’t use any such devices, unless the specimens he was given or that he purchased came with them, as in the case of the herbarium of Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (Laird, 2015). He simply had the sheets mounted in volumes, 265 of which still exist in the Natural History Museum, London.

Binding was another common herbarium practice of the past that has disappeared. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) kept his specimen sheets loose so that he could easily organize—and reorganize—them. He had a wooden cabinet constructed for his collection, and his strategy is still used today. One of his practices that hasn’t continued is writing on the back of the sheet. This is now frowned upon because accessing the information means turning over the specimen, which can lead to plant fragments falling off. Loss of fragments still occurs; this is why many sheets prepared today have a folded paper envelope attached in which any such debris can be saved. After his death, Linnaeus’s collection was sold to Edward Smith and formed the basis of the Linnean Society herbarium in London. However, other such collections were either discarded by uninterested heirs or found their way into university, botanical garden, or museum collections. Often they were just stored as they were, so the idiosyncrasies remained.

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Nepi, C., & Gusmerol, E. (2008). Gli erbari aretini da Andrea Cesalpino ai giorni nostri. Florence, Italy: Firenze University Press.
Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.