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Herbal In Italy

( Originally Published 1912 )

The Italian botanists of the Renaissance devoted them-selves chiefly to interpreting the works of the classical writers on Natural History, and to the identification of the plants to which they referred. This came about quite naturally, from the fact that the Mediterranean flora, which they saw around them, was actually that with which the writers in question had been, in their day, familiar. The botanists of southern Europe were not compelled, as were those whose homes lay north of the Alps, to distort facts before they could make the plants of their native country fit into the procrustean bed of classical descriptions.

One of the chief of the commentators and herbalists of this period was Pierandrea Mattioli [or Matthiolus] (Text-fig. 40), who was born at Siena in 1501, and died of the plague in 1577. We realise something of the frightful extent of this scourge, when we remember that it claimed as victims no less than three of the small company of Renaissance botanists, Gesner, Mattioli and Zaluzian. Leonhard Fuchs was brought into fame by his successful treatment of one of these epidemics. It should also be recalled that, while Gaspard Bauhin, one of the best known of the later herbalists, was practising as a physician at Basle, no less than three of these terrible outbreaks occurred in the town.

Mattioli was the son of a doctor, and his early life was passed in Venice, where his father was in practice. He was destined for the law, but his inherited tastes led him away from jurisprudence to medicine. He practised in several different towns, and became physician, successively, to the Archduke Ferdinand, and to the Emperor Maximilian II.

Mattioli's ` Commentarii in sex libros Pedacii Dioscoridis,' his chef-d'oeuvre, the gradual production and improvement of which occupied his leisure hours throughout his life, was first published in 1544. It was translated into many languages and appeared in countless editions. The success of the work was phenomenal, and it is said that 32,000 copies of the earlier editions were sold. The title does not do the book justice, for it contains, besides an exposition of Dioscorides, a Natural History dealing with all the plants known to Mattioli. The early editions had small illustrations only (Text-figs. 41, 42, 93 and 94), but, later on, editions with large and very beautiful figures were published, such as that which appeared at Venice in 1565.

Mattioli's descriptions of the plants with which he deals are not so good as those of some of his contemporaries.

He found and recorded a certain number of new plants, especially from the Tyrol, but most of the species, which he described for the first time, were not his own discoveries, but were communicated to him by others. Luca Ghini, for instance, had projected a similar work, but handed over all his material to Mattioli, who also placed on record the discoveries made by the physician, Wilhelm Quakelbeen, who had accompanied the celebrated diplomatist, Auger-Gislain Busbecq, on a mission to Turkey.

Busbecq brought from Constantinople a wonderful collection of Greek manuscripts, including Juliana Anicia's copy of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, now in the Vienna Library (see pp. 8 and 154). He discovered this great manuscript in the hands of a Jew, who required a hundred ducats for it. This price was almost prohibitive, but Busbecq was an enthusiast, and he successfully urged the Emperor, whose representative he was, to redeem so illustrious an author from that servitudes." His purpose in buying the manuscript seems to have been largely in order to communicate it to Mattioli, who would thus be able to make use of it in preparing his Commentaries on Dioscorides.

The personal character of Mattioli does not appear to have been a pleasant one. He engaged in numerous controversies with his fellow botanists, and hurled the most abusive language at those who ventured to criticise him.

Another Italian herbalist, Castor Durante, slightly later in date than Mattioli, should perhaps be mentioned here, not because of the intrinsic value of his work, but because of its widespread popularity. At least two of his books appeared in many editions and translations.

Durante was a physician who issued a series of botanical compilations, bedizened with Latin verse. The best known of his works is the Herbaro Nuovo,' published at Rome in 1585 (Text-figs. 45 and 103). A second book, the original version of which is seldom met with, has survived in the form of a German translation, by Peter Uffenbach. The German version was named ` Hortulus Sanitatis.' As an illustration of Durante's charmingly unscientific manner, we may take the legend of the " Arbor tristis " which occurs in both these works. The figure which accompanies it (Text-fig. 45) shows, beneath the moon and stars, a drawing of a tree whose trunk has a human form. The description, as it occurs in the ` Hortulus Sanitatis,' ay be translated as follows :

"Of this tree the Indians say, there was once a very beautiful maiden, daughter of a mighty lord called Parisa taccho. This maiden loved the Sun, but the Sun forsook her because he loved another. So, being scorned by the Sun, she slew herself, and when her body had been burned, according to the custom of that land, this tree sprang from her ashes. And this is the reason why the flowers of this tree shrink so intensely from the Sun, and never open in his presence. And thus it is a special delight to see this tree in the night time, adorned on all sides with its lovely flowers, since they give forth a delicious perfume, the like of which is not to be met with in any other plant, but no sooner does one touch the plant with one's hand than its sweet scent vanishes away. And however beautiful the tree has appeared, and however sweetly it has bloomed at night, directly the Sun rises in the morning it not only fades but all its branches look as though they were withered and dead."

Much more famous than Durante was Fabio Colonna, or, as he is more generally called, Fabius Columna (Plate IX), who was born at Naples in 1567. His father was a well-known littérateur. Fabio Colonna's profession was that of law, but he was also well acquainted with languages, music, mathematics and optics. He tells us in the preface to his principal work that his interest in plants was aroused by his difficulty in obtaining a remedy for epilepsy, a disease from which he suffered. Having tried all sorts of prescriptions without result, he examined the literature on the subject, and discovered that most of the writers of his time merely served up the results obtained by the ancients, often in a very incorrect form. So he went to the fountain head, Dioscorides, and after much research identified Valerian as being the herb which that writer had recommended against epilepsy, and succeeded in curing himself by its use.

This experience convinced Colonna that the knowledge of the identity of the plants described by the ancients was in a most unsatisfactory condition, and he set himself to produce a work which should remedy this state of things. This book was published in 1592, under the name of ` Phytobasanos,' which embodies a quaint conceit after the fashion of the time. The title is a compound Greek word meaning "plant torture," and was apparently employed by Colonna to explain that he had subjected the plants to ordeal by torture, in order to wrest from them the secret of their identity. But it must be confessed that Colonna himself is by no means free from error, as regards the names which he assigns to them.

The great feature of the `Phytobasanos,' however, is the excellence of the descriptions and figures. The latter are famous as being the first etchings on copper used to illustrate a botanical work (Text-figs. 46 and 105). They were an advance on all previous plant drawings, except the work of Gesner and Camerarius, in giving, in many cases, detailed analyses of the flowers and fruit as well as habit drawings. We owe to Colonna also the technical use of the word "petaI," which he suggested as a descriptive term for the coloured floral leaves'.

By means of his wide scientific correspondence, Colonna kept in touch with many of the naturalists of his time, notably with de l'Écluse and Gaspard Bauhin.

A passing reference may be made here to a book which is rather of the nature of a local flora than a herbal, entitled Prosperi Alpini de plantis .iEgypti,' which was published at Venice in 1592. It contains a number of wood-cuts, which appear to be original. The one reproduced (Text-fig. 47) represents Salicornia, the Glasswort. The author was a doctor who went to Egypt with the Venetian consul, Giorgio Emo, and had opportunities of collecting plants there. He is said to have been the first European writer to mention the Coffee plant, which he saw growing at Cairo. Prospero Alpino eventually became Professor of Botany at Padua, and enriched the botanical garden of that town with Egyptian plants.



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