Order from Chaos: Linnaeus Disposes


During the Renaissance, many scientific texts arrived from Byzantium in their original languages. Their study led to a scientific crisis: comparing Latin and Greek works, scholars discovered similarities. They concluded very soon that Latin works were, in fact, translations of Greek ones and proposed to abandon the former to study only the latter.

In the field of botany, this meant that Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica had to be preferred to Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, which was a major reference work during the Middle Ages. This thesis was proposed and defended by a physician of Ferrara, Nicolao Leoniceno (1428–1524), whose booklet titled De Plinii et Aliorum in Medicina Erroribus (On the errors of Pliny and other authors in medicine) (Ferrara, 1492) provoked a virulent polemic. Leoniceno was among the authors of the Aldine edition of Aristotle and Theophrastus, also lending his personal copy of the Greek manuscript to be used as the source of Theophrastus’ edition. It thus seems that this edition aimed to demonstrate the validity of Leoniceno’s thesis.

Nicolao Leoniceno (HI Archives portrait no. 1)

Theophrastus, ca.370–ca.286 B.C. De Historia Plantarum, Libri Decem … De Causis Plantarum Libri Sex (in Greek) (Venice, 1495–1498).

After Gaza translated the Greek text of Theophrastus’ botanical works into Latin, the Italian scholar, printer and publisher Aldo Manuzio (1449/50–1515) produced the first printed edition of the original Greek text. It appeared in the fourth volume of his monumental collection of Aristotle’s works. Neither Aristotle’s nor Theophrastus’ edition was deficient in polemical intentions: at that period, indeed, the modernists were trying to renovate the sciences and philosophy by re-introducing the original Greek texts of ancient authors, instead of the medieval Latin translations that had been corrupted over time. In making Theophrastus’ work newly available in its original text, Aldo made it possible to avoid problems such as those that arose from Gaza’s translation.

Ermolao Barbaro, 1454–1493. In Dioscoridem Corollariorum Libri Quinque ... (Cologne, 1530).

Below: HI Archives portrait no. 1.

Ermolao Barbaro was a humanist of the first generation: not only did he translate several Greek texts into Latin imitating Cicero’s prose, but also, before translating a text, he gathered as many manuscripts as possible to check the text, avoiding the mistakes provoked by manual copying. At the same time, Barbaro commented on the classical texts of the Naturalis Historia by Pliny and the De Materia Medica by Dioscorides. Like his contemporaries, he compared the two works and noticed that they present similar data.

Leonhard (also Leonhart) Fuchs (1501–1566), considered one of the German fathers of botany, was a key figure in the transformation of botany during the Renaissance. In a first work, he assimilated Leoniceno’s methodology and program, applying them to other treatises and denouncing their mistakes: Errata Recentiorum Medicorum. LX Numero, Adjectis Eorundem Confutationibus in Studiosorum Gratiam (Mistakes of recent physicians, 60 in total, with their refutation, for the use of scholars) (Haguenau, 1530). Then he published a new and original herbal.

Left: HI Archives portrait no. 6a.

Leonhard Fuchs, 1501–1566. Primi De Stirpium Historia Comentariorum Tomi Vivae Imagines … (Basel, 1549).

In the analysis of plants, Fuchs fully assimilated Leoniceno’s program and method, combining empirically and pragmatically the data from different sources: he reproduced Theophrastus’ system of classification in four categories (trees, shrubs, undershrubs and herbs) and largely reproduced Dioscorides’ descriptions of plants. However, at the same time, he applied both this system and these data to other plants than the ones of the classical texts, describing the flora of central Europe.

Leonhard Fuchs, 1501–1566. Herbolario Volgare, Nelqual e le Virtu de le Herbe, & Molti Altri Simplici se Dechiarano, con Alcune Belle Aggionte Nouamente de Latino in Volgare Tradutto (Venice, 1534).

At the dawn of the Renaissance, Italy was the leading center of study. With the development of the German school, Italy’s status, especially in botany, diminished, and no new illustrated herbals were produced there until the mid-16th century. Nevertheless, Italian artists were fully able to reproduce plant images, be it in paintings or in manuscripts. The first illustrated herbal printed in Italy (1522) was a translation of the German Herbarius. It was followed by several re-editions like the one presented here.

Leonhard Fuchs, 1501–1566. L’Histoire des Plantes Mis en Commentaires … et Nouuellement Traduict de Latin en Françoys ... (Lyons, 1558).

This is Fuchs’ most famous work. Published in 1542 and lavishly illustrated, it included some 40 woodcuts of plants not previously illustrated. The illustrations are characteristic, as can be seen when compared to those in Otto Brunfels’ (ca.1488–1534) Herbarum Vivae Eicones (Living images of plants) (Strassbourg, 1530) where the illustrations exactly reproduced the specimens collected in nature by the author, with their individual imperfections (broken or folded stems or leaves, for example). Here, instead, the different elements of the plants are clearly identified and represented in a perfect form, combining direct observation of nature and stylization. In this way, Fuchs gave a general representation of the plant rather than the exact reproduction of a particular specimen. Shown here is a translation of the 1542 first edition.

Sempervivum arborescens, woodcut by Giorgio Liberale and Wolfgang Meyerpeck for Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s New Kreüterbuch (Prague, 1563) with restrike by Clifford A. Harvey, 1981

Eruca sylvestris, woodcut by Giorgio Liberale and Wolfgang Meyerpeck for Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s New Kreüterbuch (Prague, 1563) with restrike by Clifford A. Harvey, 1981.

The woodblocks by Giorgio Liberale and Wolfgang Meyerpeck date before 1563. Xantium, Lappa minor and Sempervivum arborescens appeared in Mattioli’s New Kreüterbuch (Prague, 1563) and Commentarii (Venice, 1565). These blocks are probably pearwood, a favorite for woodcuts. Since the images fill the rectangle to the edges, they probably were designed directly on the blocks. They were used for a number of editions until the 17th century and lost until Duhamel du Monceau (1700–1782) found and used them in his Traité des Arbres et Arbustes (Paris, 1755). The blocks remained in Paris until 1956 when they were sold and dispersed. (For a comprehensive account of these woodblocks, see Catalogue of Botanical Books in the Collection of Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt (Pittsburgh, 1958, vol. 1, item 90).)

Pietro Andrea Mattioli (HI Archives portrait no. 2)