Roman scholars and scientists eagerly wrote and collected texts about plant life. In the fifteenth century, the library began to assemble its very rich collection of ancient and medieval works on "materia medica." Scholars at the curia translated the work On Plants of Theophrastus, Aristotle's pupil, which had been unknown in the Middle Ages, and studied the great Latin encyclopedia by Pliny. The new empirical science of the time, a science based more and more on controlled observation of the natural world, finally took firm root at Rome around 1600. Michele Mercati, botanist and geologist, tried to make the papal metal collection a great center for the study of the earth and its minerals. The astronomical revolution begun by Copernicus found support in the Jesuits' Collegio Romano. The new scientific society Accademia dei Lincei ("academy of the lynx- eyed," so-called from the keenness of sight of its members) gave a powerful example of collective study of scientific problems-- the beginning of something like modern laboratory work. Although Rome was where Galileo met his downfall as censorship prevented the assertion of the truth of Copernican astronomy, nonetheless it remained a center of scientific research as well as of Counter-Reformation orthodoxy, deep into the seventeenth century. When the 24-year-old John Evelyn visited Rome in the winter of 1644-45, fresh from England and Holland, he was amazed at the wealth of information--and new flora, fauna, and minerals--that had flowed into Rome in the Renaissance.


No scientific subject, perhaps, produced a larger, a more curious, or a more splendidly illustrated literature than the world of plants. Greek medical men and scientists, Roman encyclopedists, and medieval doctors compiled and recompiled herbals, generally taking special interest in those plants that were thought to be of medicinal value--as hundreds were. The Vatican Library is a great repository of this tradition, in which direct observation and inherited stereotypes, empirical evidence and wild fantasy, jostled for centuries.

Galen, De simplicium medicamentorum temperamentis ac facultatibus (excerpts), harmonized with Dioscorides, De materia medica (excerpts), and other works

This manuscript, a harmonization of excerpts from two of the most important writers on materia medica of antiquity, was assembled in Byzantium in the tenth century. Most of the substances named in the work are plants. Illustrations were added in the mid- fourteenth century to enhance the practical usefulness of the work. Although many of the illustrations--like the molluscs shown on this page--are strikingly naturalistic, most are copied from much earlier models.

Galen, De simplicium medicamentorum temperamentis ac facultatibus (excerpts), harmonized with Dioscorides, De materia medica (excerpts), and other works. In Greek. Byzantium. Tenth century. Illustrations added in Byzantine territory, fourteenth century

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Pliny, Naturalis historia

The collections of the Renaissance papacy were well supplied with authoritative works on botany and materia medica. This manuscript of Pliny's encyclopedia of natural history, compiled in the first century A.D., was copied in the late eighth or early ninth century in the Carolingian empire, perhaps at the monastery of Corbie. Pliny devoted several sections of his work to plants, animals, and minerals that could be used for medical purposes. Shown here are the contents of Book VIII, which includes medicines from animals, dragons, and serpents of great size--a reminder that fantastic as well as realistic natural history and materia medica had their origins in classical antiquity.

Pliny, Naturalis historia. In Latin. North-east Frankish empire. Late eighth or early ninth century

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Illustrations of Materia Medica

For practical reasons, illustrations--whether stylized or naturalistic--were an important part of some medieval herbals or works on medicinal substances. The interaction of textual and iconographic traditions has a complicated history. This picture book, with no narrative text, is probably associated with a Salernitan herbal compiled at the medical school at Salerno in the twelfth century and known as the Circa instans. Plants, animals, and minerals are arranged in alphabetical order with plant lists and captions in Latin. Here, a highly naturalistic rose appears side by side with some much less realistically rendered plants.

Illustrations of Materia Medica. Latin captions and lists of substances. Italy. Fourteenth or early fifteenth century

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[Serapion], De simplicibus medicinis (On simple medicines)

Simone of Genoa was a physician to Pope Nicholas IV. In addition to translating and compiling works on materia medica, he was the author of a glossary of medical substances called a Synonima. Completed about 1290, it provided transliterated Greek and Arabic as well as Latin nomenclature. The copious illustrations of materia medica in this fifteenth-century manuscript of Simone's works include both some stylized depictions of plants--here, an orange tree--and lively naturalistic drawings of animals, perhaps added by another hand.

[Serapion], De simplicibus medicinis (On simple medicines). In Latin. Translated from the Arabic by Simone da Cordo of Genoa and Abraham Iudaeus. With Simone da Cordo, Synonima. Italy. Fifteenth century

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Nature in the City

Renaissance Rome saw two great efforts to reform the study of plants, as well as that of minerals, insects, and other entities low on the scale of being. In the fifteenth century the systematic treatment of plants by Aristotle's pupil Theophrastus was translated into Latin by Theodore of Gaza, giving the whole field a new and systematic foundation. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, both the curia and other Roman institutions--like the Jesuits' Collegio Romano and the scientific society Accademia dei Lincei--became centers for the collection, observation, and investigation of every kind of natural curiosity. Roman "virtuosi" were just as curious--and just as insistent upon the importance of apparently insignificant things and creatures--as the more famous fellows of London's Royal Society. (John Evelyn, later a fellow, had a wonderful time examining the fossils and other curiosa that Roman colleagues had to show him.)

Theophrastus, De plantis, De causis plantarum (Works on botany)

For sixteenth-century botanical collectors and authors, the works of Aristotle's pupil Theophrastus were both an important source of information and a stimulus to further contributions to knowledge. These treatises, unknown in western Europe before the fifteenth century, were first translated into Latin by Theodore of Gaza at the request of Pope Nicholas V. The translation was finished in 1453 or 1454 and dedicated to the pope. Despite its handsome title page, the text of this codex, unlike some manuscripts of herbals, contains no illustrations to increase understanding of its scientific content.

Theophrastus, De plantis, De causis plantarum (Works on botany). In Latin. Translated by Theodore of Gaza. Dedicated to Nicholas V. Italy. Mid-fifteenth century

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Francesco Stelluti, Melissographia

Francesco Stelluti (1577-1652) was a member of the Accademia dei Lincei and a close friend of Prince Cesi, its founder. This engraving, which records Stelluti's microscopic observations of insects, combines the earliest illustration of a subject seen through the microscope with a Latin poem complimenting Pope Urban VIII. The illustration includes bees, which were the heraldic emblem of the Barberini family, to which the pope belonged. The engraving was presented to the pope.

Francesco Stelluti, Melissographia. In Latin. Printed sheet inserted in manuscript miscellany of Stelluti's papers. Rome. 1625

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Fabio Colonna, Minus cognitarum stirpium pars altera

Botany and natural history were subjects of considerable interest in early seventeenth-century Rome. Fabio Colonna, a leading botanist and botanical illustrator, was a member of the Accademia dei Lincei, founded in Rome by Prince Federico Cesi whose own botanical interest Colonna encouraged. Colonna's interest in describing and illustrating hitherto unknown plants extended to local as well as exotic specimens. He described the plant at left (p. 60) as growing copiously all around Rome. His work is dedicated to Cardinal Odoardo Farnese.

Fabio Colonna, Minus cognitarum stirpium pars altera. In Latin. Rome: Apud Iacobum Mascardum. 1616

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Michele Mercati, Metallotheca

Michele Mercati (1541-93) was the director of the Vatican botanic gardens and a keen collector of minerals. He endeavored to establish a systematically organized papal museum of minerals; his Metallotheca was intended to combine a comprehensive treatise on minerals with a catalogue of the collection. At the time of his death the Metallotheca was still unpublished; soon afterward, the collection itself was dispersed. Mercati's manuscript survived, however, and already contained completed engravings for the illustrations by Anthony Eisenhout; here, the sulphur mines of Pozzuoli near Naples. The Metallotheca was finally edited by the papal physician Giovanni Maria Lancisi and published in 1717, but by then the traditional science of Mercati was of merely historical interest.

Michele Mercati, Metallotheca. In Latin. Manuscript with inserted engravings. Rome. ca. 1589-93

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