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The Botanic Garden of The University of Padua 1545-1995

Volume 2 Number 4 - December 1994
Prof. Elsa M. Cappelletti

In the Renaissance, the revival of interest in classic botany led to the recovery of the works by Diocorides and other ancient authors of materia medica. As early as 1533 the Universitas Artistarum of Padua founded the first chair of materia medica (Lectura simplicium). Identification of the plants described by ancient authors was a serious problem and, in many instances, mistaken identifications or falsification of drugs caused the death of patients.

In 1545 the Senate of the Venetian Republic, being convinced that an increased knowledge of simples (herbal remedies) would reduce errors and frauds in pharmacy, followed the advice of Francesco Bonafede, professor Lectura simplicium, and of other Paduan doctors and students, and decided to found a garden for cultivation and research on medicinal plants.

From the beginning, the Botanic Garden of Padua remained in its original location and maintained its original layout substantially unchanged.

Probably planned by the Venetian nobleman Daniele Barbaro, the garden consists of a circle (84 metres in diameter) enclosing a square, which is divided into four quadrants by two main intersecting alleys. A few years after the foundation, a circular enclosure wall was built in order to prevent the frequent plant thefts. At the beginning of the 18th century four doorways with wrought iron gates were built, the enclosure wall was refinished by a white stony balaustrade and the fountains outside the southern and eastern gates were embellished with statues representing Theophrastus, Solomon, and the four seasons.

Since its foundation, the garden was steadily enriched with plants (more than one thousand were cultivated as early as the 16th century) collected on field trips financially supported by the Venetian Republic. Therefore, the Botanic Garden of Padua became a centre of cultivation of plants from all over the world and played an important role in the introduction of many exotic plants.

The garden of Padua followed the evolution of botany from its initial application to medicine to its many present branches and so the garden's development was gradually accompanied by the establishment of an herbarium, a library and a number of laboratories.

At present, the circular original garden is surrounded by a small arboretum in which an old tree (Platanus orientalis L.) planted in 1680 can be found. In the four quadrants inside the circular wall, species representative of the main Angiosperm families are grown inside small and variously shaped parcels which form a graceful geometrical pattern. The beds towards the wall are devoted to special collections: medicinal and poisonous plants, rare and endangered species from north-east Italy, plants of the local flora (Euganean Hills). A collection of freshwater aquatic plants sharing a number of adaptations to this particular habitat, is located in the ponds. A few trees grow inside the circular wall, among which, sheltered by a glasshouse, is the oldest plant in the garden, a specimen of Chamaerops humilis L. var. arborescens (Pers.) Steud. It was planted in 1585 and is commonly known as the "Goethe Palm", since in 1786 the german writer drew inspiration from it for a theory on metamorphosis of plants. Other collections are located outside the wall; plants of the Mediterranean maquis, alpine plants, exotic plants which the Botanic Garden of Padua introduced or contributed to the distribution in Europe. Glasshouses shelter collections of insectivorous plants, orchids, and succulents.

The Botanic Garden of Padua plays an important educational role. In addition to the University students, more than 10,000 pupils of the elementary and secondary schools visit the garden every year. In recent years, special attention has been devoted to education of handicapped people: a videotape describing the garden's history and collections by means of subtitles and sign language is available for deaf people. Noteworthy is an itinerary, especially conceived for blind people, which consists of plants with explanatory labels in braille.

The garden has seed exchange relations with 930 gardens from all over the world. The Index Seminum is published biennally and includes seeds collected both from plants grown in the garden and from plants in the wild.

The Botanic Garden of Padua contributes to the biodiversity conservation by ex situ conservation of rare and endangered plants from north-eastern Italy. Restoration of the building next to the glasshouses will allow in vitro propagation of endangered plants as well as the establishment of a germplasm bank. Research on the ecology of endangered species will be possible only on condition that an adjoining piece of land will be made available.

International Symposium

In 1995, the 450th anniversary of the foundation of the Botanic Garden will be celebrated and an International Symposium will be held in Padua on June, 29th-30th. The Symposium will consist of two Sessions, the first devoted to historical aspects ("Botanic Gardens through the Centuries", June 29th), the second (June 30th) to present state and perspectives of Botanic Gardens.

In 1995 the University of Padua will also celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Anatomical Theatre. The role played by these two institutions in the establishment of the experimental method in science will be emphasized by a series of plenary lectures to be held on June 28th. On the same day, a Round Table on "Plant remedies: from simples to taxol" and the opening of an exhibition of medicinal plants used in the past will remember the original role of the garden as "Horto medicinale".

A post-symposium excursion to the Cansiglio Plateau (Venetian Pre-Alps) for the inauguration of an Alpine Botanic Garden is planned for July 1st.