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Università degli Studi di Padova

PHAIDRA – Digital collections

Illustrated herbals from Padua's Botanical Garden Library

Writing of the “archive” of the Botanical Gardens in 1913, Beguinot described a collection composed of manuscripts, printed texts and herbaria of dried plants. Here we present a selection of volumes with hand-drawn and painted representations of plants, illustrated herbals that have much to teach us about the development of botanical science and illustration.
The works in question were produced between the 15th and 19th centuries, and were added to the library collection at various points in its history.

There are three examples from the oldest body of works in the library, all associated in some way with the teaching activities and book-collecting enthusiasm of the Garden’s “prefect” Giovanni Marsili (1727–1795).

First up is the Pseudo Apuleio, an illustrated, hand-written herbal produced in the Veneto area during the second half of the 15th century. Here, the illustrations of medicinal herbs are painted at times with a fresh naturalism, at others in a more abstract manner. There is even a convincingly realistic depiction of the fantastical version of the mandrake (Ar.26).

Mandragora foemina
"Mandragora" and "Mandragora foemina" from Pseudo Apuleio

Next we have a herbal dedicated to the flora of the Monte Baldo massif produced by Bartolomeo Martini (1626–1720), a herbalist from the town of Soave (Mons Baldus naturaliter figuratus… – Ar.27, vol. 1, vol. 2), un erborista di Soave (1626–1720). The illustrations in this work – which are accompanied by a legend listing the names of the plants according to the Bauhin system – are duplicated in another volume of similar construction, and we find the same design solutions popping up again in other texts – these too on the flora of the Veneto region – which were added to the collection at a later date (1904).

The herbal prepared by a certain Giovanni Crasso, meanwhile, can be more directly linked to the educational work of the Botanical Garden, and the plants cultivated there. Crasso, a student at the Garden, used a “smoke printing” technique, whereby the plant is coated in soot and pressed directly on to the support, creating an image of surprising delicacy and realism. The prints made in this manner were then bound according to the Tournefort classification system by the prefect Marsili in 1784.

'Butomus flore roseo' from 'Stirpium specimina calcata'

"Butomus flore roseo" from "Stirpium specimina calcata"

Upon the death of Marsili, the collection was acquired by his successor as prefect, Giuseppe Antonio Bonato (1753–1836), who brought it under the auspices of the university, establishing the library of the Botanical Garden as a university institution (1835). It included the collection Piante del R. Orto Botanico di Padova (“Plants from the Royal Botanical Gardens of Padua”), which boasted 360 full-page, painted colour illustrations including both aids for lessons on botanical subjects and images of the flowers grown in the Garden. From heather and roses to water lilies and magnolias, and many more besides, it is a work that still evokes a timeless, romantic bouquet.

Illustration from 'Piante del R. Orto di Padova'

Decades later, prefect Pier Andrea Saccardo’s network of connections, and his enthusiasm for botanical history, would bring new herbals to the library as he added both illustrated volumes and collections of dried specimens prepared by Venetian apothecaries and naturalists.

In 1901, for instance, he purchased the entirety of Abbot Angelo Franciosi’s (1759–1822) Cento fiori colti nel loro mese… (“one hundred flowers picked in their month…” – vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3) from Angelo Zennaro of Chioggia. The total cost of the 12 sheaves, each of which comprised around 100 leaves, was 150 lire. A native of Adria, Abbot Franciosi had lived with the maternal branch of the Vianelli family in Chioggia. There, he indulged his interest in botany and painting, producing these images of local plants on which he also recorded the names, along with notes on their characteristics and how they were collected. It is from the Vianelli that Zennaro acquired the collection. In a letter now held at the library – headed “Angelo Zennaro Jeweller and Goldsmith, 218 Calle Manfredi, Chioggia” and dated “Chioggia, 15 May, 1901” – he petitions Saccardo to cite the provenance of these volumes in memory of the family. As on other occasions, the purchase stimulated Saccardo to conduct his own research on the work and its provenance, resulting in his own contribution to the history of botany, La iconografia botanica dell'ab. Angelo Franciosi… (“The botanical illustrations of Abbot Angelo Franciosi” – Padua, 1902).

Iris xiphium
Cynara scolymus
Ambrosia maritima
Tulipa gesneriana
Iris xiphium, Ambrosia maritima, Cynara scolymus and Tulipa gesneriana, from "Cento fiori colti nel loro mese…", vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3

In 1902, the Venetian pharmacist Girolamo Dian donated to Saccardo a notable collection of handwritten documents and herbaria – both illustrated works and collections of dried plants – that had belonged to two local, 18th-century apothecary-botanists. These were Gian Girolamo Zannichelli (1662–1729), apothecary at the Spezieria all’Ercole D’Oro near Santa Fosca in Venice, and his friend Bartolomeo Martini. The material in question had been left for safekeeping with the Galvani pharmacy in Venice’s campo Santo Stefano by Zannichelli’s heirs, one of which, Carlo Zannichelli, would later bequeath it all to Galvani’s son-in-law, the aforementioned Girolamo Dian. Dian then donated it to the Botanical Garden, where Zannichelli’s natural history collection was already part of the university’s holdings (1759). Saccardo went on to consolidate his work on these botanical collections and their compilers with three new contributions (1898, 1904, 1907).
First up for inspection among these “Zannichellian” reliquiæ is a codex containing 116 full page illustrations on paper, and one on parchment, by an unknown artist. It forms part of a collection of images of plants that was published in 1735 with the title Istoria delle piante che nascono ne' lidi intorno a Venezia (“History of the plants that grow around the sandbars and beaches surrounding Venice”). The verso of each leaf includes notes on the location and date of collection (an endeavour that ran from 1722 to 1726); on the recto, the Linnaean name of the species is written in Saccardo’s own hand. Among the most noteworthy specimens, we might highlight the Eryngium maritimum on leaf no. 21, or the oldest known image of Ruta patavina – “Haplophyllum patavinum” in Saccardo’s note – on leaf 49.

Eryngium maritimum
Ruta patavina
Eryngium maritimum and Ruta patavina from the Zannichellian codex

Delle Orchidi, meanwhile, is a codex on the subject of Italian orchids, with 65 colour images that include the depiction of two fantastical plants: the flowers of one are shaped like birds, those of the other like humanoid figures (Ar.7). The names of the orchids using Bauhin and Tournefort’s nomenclature are provided alongside lists that use the Linnaean system. According to Saccardo (1904), the codex is a copy of a work by Antonio Micheli, a Florentine scholar with whom Zannichelli corresponded.

Illustration from Delle Orchidi

Illustration from "Delle Orchidi"

Two volumes by Bartolomeo Martini Flora exoticha… and Flora alpestre… re not unlike the illustrated manuscript that belonged to Marsili. (Ar.27 vol. 1, vol. 2). Nor are they dissimilar to the Mons Baldus naturaliter figuratus… (F.Ve.27), which is mentioned above, and which passed through various hands before it joined the library’s collection. Indeed, F.Ve.27 bears an impressive array of marks of ownership from which we learn that it belonged to the Fracchia of Treviso, a family of pharmacists, before making its way into the private collection of Pier Andrea Saccardo. From there it passed to Saccardo’s son-in-law and pupil, Alessandro Trotter, who gifted it – in memory of Saccardo – to another of his father-in-law’s students, Achille Forti. In 1937, it arrived at the Botanical Garden as part of a larger bequest by the munificent Forti. Conceived and created in the same field of enquiry, and dealing with the same subjects, these volumes bear witness to an uninterrupted tradition of illustrated manuscript texts.

Returning to the donation made by Girolamo Dian, however, we cannot neglect to mention two quarto volumes containing images of the plants identified during Zannichelli’s 1726 botanical expedition to Monte Cavallo in Friuli (Ar.9 vol. 1, vol. 2). The first volume contains 100 full-page images, the second 82. The leaves had already been separated by Dian when they arrived in 1905, although Saccardo would have them rebound.
In addition to the images of plants, they also include a representation of the alpine salamander (Salamandra atra).
An account of Zannichelli’s expedition – on which he was accompanied by Pietro Stefanelli, gardener to the Nani family of Venice – was published in the Opuscula botanica posthuma…, which was printed in Venice in 1730.

Labore et studio Zannichelliano plantarum montis Caballis

According to a handwritten note by Saccardo, a final collection of around 182 loose, full-page botanical illustrations by Martini were donated by Cesare Garbelli in 1904 and then bound to produce a volume in two parts (Ar.29). A number of the paintings are exquisitely made, the tulips for instance, but few are accompanied by a conventional caption indicating the species name, and many of the illustrations bear the marks of poor conservation – stains, lacerations, etc. – and earlier attempts at restoration.

In November 1913, Egidio Gamberini, a Venetian, offered Saccardo two volumes of botanical illustrations – mostly pen drawings taken from works by various botanists, plus a few painted images – for the price of 30 lire. Gamberini claimed to have purchased them, along with other antique items, from a goldsmith in Piacenza who enjoyed good connections with certain noble families and religious communities. Saccardo believed the author of these works to be Giovanni Battista Morandi, who was official painter at the Botanical Garden of Turin from 1732 to 1741, and to whom a whole corpus of images – now kept variously in Milan, Pavia and Turin – had been attributed, along with the printed edition of the Historia botanica practica (Milan, 1744 and 1761 – a digitised version is available at the Sapienza Digital Library).
Codex Ar.52 ncludes a number of fine images of plants and flowers with captions written in reverse, a feature that would make them suitable for copying onto an engraving plate, the resulting print thus having the text the correct way round. However, only 19 of these images can be found in the Historia… as printed. There are also images that have been cut out, glued together or separated out, as though the sheets were used for purposes other than simple consultation. The only image painted in colour is the first. The codex also includes handwritten notes about a number of plants, such as vanilla, morning glory and coffee, which are accompanied by a drawing of a flowering twig with the caption: “life-size, outlined and painted from life by Cavaliere Giovambattista Morandi in Pisa, in the year 1722”.

A page from codex Ar.52

A page from codex Ar.52

A receipt preserved along with two letters from Gamberini in Ar.53 informs us that the sale was concluded for 20 lire. The handwritten frontispiece in this codex purports to be the work of a certain Father Zaccaria of Piacenza, thus linking the volume to its last certified site of provenance.

“To the most sagacious Creator of plants, the glory of the eternal name that as many leaves as tongues proclaim: for all its slightness, may this endeavour be consecrated by me, Father Francesco Zaccaria of Piacenza of the Bolognese province of the Order of Reformed Friars Minor, admirer of the virtue of botany”

The title page is followed by a colour drawing with palms, birds and a fantastical, exotically styled castle that recalls the orientalising decorations that found some popularity in the eighteenth century. There are also a few touches of colour in the later pages, for instance in the images of the “Palma indiana”. The condition of the two volumes, with their worn decorated-paper covers and loose leaves, speaks of heavy use.

Exotically styled illustration from codex Ar.53

Exotically styled illustration from codex Ar.53

It is interesting to note that here, as with other works, Saccardo writes directly on to the volumes themselves – either bibliographical notes, or information about their acquisition – and kept letters and receipts relating to their purchase among the pages. Ever the systematic botanist, he also added the Linnaean name of the plants to their depictions, the images having been captioned with names that referenced other systems of classification, such as those of Bauhin and Tournefort.

A handwritten message by the botanist Achille Forti on an anonymous collection of colour botanical illustrations serves as an introduction to the story of the provenance of codex Ar.57. Dated “Padua, 30 March 1927” it asserts that the volume in question was donated to the Garden, via Forti, by Ottorino Biasi, who held the title of “Pretore” of Verona. With the aid of an obituary written by Forti in 1928 for the botanist Caro Benigno Massalongo, we learn that Giovanni Battista Pedretti, a priest and professor of Natural Sciences at the Seminary of Verona, coordinated the illustration of at least two botanical works, this one in Padua, and another, titled Raccolta di diverse piante designate dal naturale… (“Collection of various plants drawn from life…”), which has been attributed to a certain Pietro Saccomani, and once belonged to Massalongo although it is now in the Civic Library in Verona. Who Saccomani was, and whether he was also responsible for the Padua illustrations, we do not know. Perhaps further examination of the volume in Verona will help unravel the mystery.

For more information visit the virtual exhibition The botanical illustration


“Morandi” in La botanica in Italia, by P.A. Saccardo. Venezia: C. Ferrari, 1895 p. 113 e 1901 p. 75.

Giovanni Girolamo Zannichelli, by di P. A. Saccardo. Genova: Cominago, 1898.

Correspondence about the purchasing of volumes by Franciosi Ar.46,1-3, (1900–1901), in Ar.Racc.2(b) in the Padua's Botanical Garden Library.

La iconografia botanica dell'ab. Angelo Franciosi, veneto. Notizie storiche e revisione botanica, by P.A. Saccardo. Padova: Randi, 1902.

Appunti intorno alla Iconographia Taurinensis 1752–1868, by I. Chiapusso-Voli in Malpighia, A. 18 v. 18 (1904) p. 305-310.

I codici botanici figurati e gli erbari di Gian Girolamo Zannichelli, Bartolomeo Martini e Giuseppe Agosti esistenti nell'Istituto botanico di Padova… by P. A. Saccardo. Venezia: C. Ferrari, 1904.

Un manipolo della flora del monte Cavallo desunto dalle iconografie inedite di G.G. Zannichelli Nota del prof. P. A. Saccardo… in Atti del Reale Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, AA. 1906–1907, t. 66 pt. 2 p. 625-642.

Le piante figurate negli acquarelli di un codice finora ignoto, by C. Massalongo. Venezia: C. Ferrari, 1914.

Bibliographical notes. 72. Morandi's “Historia Botanica Practica”, by J. Britten in The journal of botany British and foreign, v. 56 (1918) p. 212-217.

I materiali di archivio del R. Istituto ed Orto Botanico di Padova, by A. Beguinot. Messina: Stab. Tip. dell'Avvenire, 1923.

Caro Benigno Massalongo nato a Verona, 25 marzo 1852, morto a Verona, 18 marzo 1928, by A. Forti. Firenze: Soc. botanica italiana, 1928. p. 259-291. Excerpt from: Nuovo giornale botanico italiano, n.s., vol. 35.

Iconografia botanica ed erbari, by G. Forneris, F. Montacchini, C. Martoglio in Erbari e iconografia botanica storia delle collezioni dell'Orto Botanico dell'Università di Torino, edited by F. Montacchini… Torino: Allemandi, 1986 p. 73-137.

Erbari, by F. Menegalle in La curiosità e l'ingegno… Padova, 2000.

I manoscritti medievali di Padova e provincia…, edited by Leonardo Granata… [et al.]. [Venezia]: Regione del Veneto…, 2002 n. 151.

Il Fondo Marsili nella Biblioteca dell'Orto botanico di Padova, edited by A. Minelli, A. Angarano, P. Mario. Treviso: Antilia, 2010.

Giovanni Girolamo Zannichelli speziale a Venezia e il suo tempo, by C. Lazzari. Venezia, 2016.

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