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Botanical Education in the Horto Medicinale of Padua in the 16th Century: Perhaps the Earliest Teaching in a Botanic Garden

Contributed by Elsa M. Cappelletti, Giancarlo Cassina, Andrea Ubrizsy Savoia, Orto Botanico, Dipartimento di Biologia dell'Università di Padova. Padova, Italy, Dipartimento di Biologia Vegetale, Università ''La Sapienza", Roma, Italy.

The Origin of the Padua Garden

In the sixteenth century, the problem of identifying plants described in classical writings on materia medica seems to have been the principal concern of botanists. Their opinions were often contradictory; the result was that sometimes very different plants were called by the same name and different names were given to the same species.

Chaotic botanical nomenclature was often the cause of errors in the identification of the plants (‘simples’) used in treatment, resulting in incorrect administration of plants, even of very poisonous ones, thus causing the deaths of patients, as pointed out by Palmer (1984 1985). Moreover, uncertainty in plant identification led to fraudulent practices, to the adulteration of drugs, especially of the expensive exotic ones imported from the Indies and the Middle East (Palmer 1984; Cappelletti 1989).

This situation was the main reason for the foundation in 1545 at Padua of a Horto medicinale (later on called Horto dei semplici) for the cultivation of native and exotic medicinal plants, collected on field trips in Italy, Greece, the Middle East, Arabia, and on the coast of Africa. In the opinion of the Venetian Senate, the Horto medicinale would increase knowledge of simples and reduce errors and frauds, since the plants cultivated in the Garden would be useful reference materials for herbalists and apothecaries and enable easier detection of drug falsification. At a period when universities were in keen competition for students (Palmer 1985), the Garden would also improve the quality of medical teaching and therefore increase the prestige of the Paduan Studio.

University Teaching in the Horto Medicinale

The recent discoveries of several sixteenth-century manuscript ground-plans of the Padua Garden, in which the names of the plants cultivated in each bed are quoted, throws light on the educational methods of the time. During Guilandino's prefecture of the Garden (1561-1589), the medical students had to attend two courses on medicinal plants; lectura simplicium, a theoretical course of lectures on Dioscorides, and ostensio simplicium, a practical course held at the Botanic Garden, where each plant was shown to the students. The discoveries of several very similar manuscript ground-plans of the Garden (for instance, the variations among them are only due to freehand copying) suggest that each student received a handwritten map (or made their own copy of the design of the four compartments from a blank master copy), where they had to write the names of the plants observed in each bed.

In plans of the Garden, produced in 1571, a number is written next to nearly all of the plant names. This is the number of the page where the plant species is illustrated in the 1565 edition of the Commentaries to Dioscorides' Materia Medica compiled by the physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli (Mattioli, 1565). These page references to Mattioli’s edition probably indicate that it was used as a reference book by some of the students, but it is very unlikely that it was adopted as an official textbook because of Guilandino’s quarrel with Mattioli (Raimondi, 1906; De Toni, 1911).

Another feature of the Padua Garden which is revealed by the manuscript ground-plans, is that the same species occurred at more than one place in the Garden, perhaps in order to have enough seeds to reproduce the plant the following year, or to have specimens and seeds for exchange with other gardens and scholars. It is possible that students may have been given cuttings, which had to be dried like a herbarium specimen and kept for comparison with the descriptions and illustrations contained in printed treatises.

Printed maps, which can be regarded as an improvement on the handwritten ones, were used later on. The guide to the Garden published by Girolamo Porro in 1591 contains a ground plan of the whole Garden and the plans of each compartment, with beds being marked by numbers. The plan of each compartment is followed by several blank pages on which the students had to write the plant names. One copy of Porro’s guide, partly filled in, is held at in Biblioteca Civica at Padua. A complete list of the plants cultivated in the Garden (with the plant species identified by Cappelletti (1995) is also given for comparative purposes. Thus Porro's guide can be regarded as a working exercise-book.

The Example of the Padua Garden

Shortly afterwards, other botanic and ornamental gardens profited from the use of handwritten and printed plans in the Padua Horto medicinale.

A drawing (now at the Florence National Library) with four compartments very similar to the Padua ones, together with a list of herbs to be planted in the single beds, was prepared by Bartholomeus Memkins in 1579-1588 (Tongiorgi Tomasi, 1986).

The Florentine Dominican monk and keen botanist Del Riccio, in his manuscript treatise on experimental agriculture (containing observations made between 1565 and 1591) and now conserved at the Florence National Library, exhorted his readers to label each garden compartment with letters of the alphabet and to number the plant beds from one 'up to three hundred’. The numbers had to correspond to the plant names, transcribed in orderly lists. He said ‘all this is done so that, with your book thus arranged in the same way as the garden, you can find which plants are in all the numbers of each letter... (as in) many other gardens and collections of simples, as for example, the fine Garden of Pisa recently made by the Fleming Giuseppe Benincasa, or the Padua Garden’ (Del Riccio, 1981).

The seventeenth century handwritten map prepared for the 'secret garden’ of Cardinal Antonio Barberini at Castelgandolfo (now the Pope's summer residence), is equipped with a list of plants to be cultivated in each numbered bed; and a colour drawing of each flower has been prepared and attached (Tongiorgi Tomasi, 1986).


The Padua Botanic Garden, over 450 years old, is regarded as the oldest botanic garden which has survived in the same location with an almost unchanged ground-plan and has kept its original role of research and university teaching.

It must also be stressed that shortly after its foundation the Garden became an important centre of study, where the experimental method was applied to both research and teaching. Besides giving full information on the living collections existing in the Padua Garden in the sixteenth century, as recently pointed out by Ubrizsy Savoia (1995), the completed manuscript garden plans are perhaps the earliest evidence of the teaching methods used in a botanic garden.


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Cappelletti, E. M. (1989), I Semplici a Venezia nel secolo XV: sofisticazioni, succedanei ed errori di interpretazione, in Le piante medicinali e il loro impiego in farmacia nel corso dei secoli. Atti del Congresso dell'Accademla Itall ana di Storia della Farmacia, Piacenza, 23-25 ottobre 1988, Accademia Italiana di Storia della Farmacia, pp. 185-189.

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