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Botanical Renaissance

The botanical Renaissance – 1483 to 1623

Only with the revival of classical learning during the European Renaissance of the 14th to 17th centuries and the Reformation (which lasted from 1517-1648) do we see a return to true plant science.

The botanical Renaissance was part of the humanist rediscovery of classical antiquity that marked the transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity. Springing initially from 15th century Italy it would, in the 16th century, spread across Europe – to France and the Low Countries (Belgium and Netherlands), the Holy Roman Empire, then Scandinavia and eventually Britain – each country developing its own distinctive emphasis such as the art and architecture of France, the Protestant Reformation and printing in Germany and, in England, the Elizabethan playwriting of Shakespeare and Marlowe.

The thirst for classical learning occurred at a time of social change in which increasingly wealthy merchants undermined both the old feudal social structure and the power of the church to lay the foundations of future capitalism. There was also a deep questioning of why science should be a secure source of knowledge, a ‘uniquely potent combination of systematic observation, critical experiment and rational theorizing’.[9] Wealth from trade combined with applied scientific knowledge was clearly a path for nations seeking political and economic power.

The new, now large-scale, technological application of science with its self-evident practical benefits helped draw academic minds away from Aristotles deductive logic and the philosophical systems of the ancients, away from the cloistered other-worldly theology of monasticism, even away from the herbals copied again and again from the Materia Medica of Dioscorides. Instead, at first just gradually, they began the return to observing, experimenting on, and theorizing about live plants growing in nature.

The revival of botany, like the revival of science in general, emanated from Italy. Intellectuals, bankers and merchants driven out of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 had settled on the Italian peninsula.


Old libraries were scoured for original sources and manuscripts, especially the Greek. One especially notable project was that initiated by Pope Nicholas V who set about the translation of all the old manuscripts held in the Vatican library. It was here that manuscripts of Theophrastus‘s Historia Plantarum and Causae Plantae were discovered. They were translated by Theodore Gaza (1400-1475) who was from Thessalonica in Greece. He had escaped to Italy when his country was invaded by the Turks before 1430. First he became a Professor of Greek at Ferrara before becoming Professor of Philosophy in Rome. Though there was no indication that he had botanical experience his scholarly translation was impressive becoming the standard Latin translation and taken, it seems, from a text that no longer exists. Earlier he had completed translations of all of Aristotle‘s zoological works. It was his careful translation that led to the eventual publication of Theophrastus’s masterpieces in 1483.

Translations of Theophrastus’s works in both Latin and Greek were available, and read by the early botanists in Italy but their theoretical value was largely ignored due to the pressing problem of comparing the many new plants to those described or listed in ancient texts as the works of Aristotle, Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Hippocrates were recovered from Arabic scholars and once again read in the West. Ghini, with a reputation as an inspiring teacher, worked first as a teacher of botany at Padua, then ‘Reader in Dioscorides’ at Bologna in 1527, sometimes regarded as the first position warranting the title professor of botany as distinct from medicine.With his pupils Ulysses Aldrovandi and Louis Anguillara (who became ‘reader in simples’ at Padua) he established the Botanical Garden at Bologna. Ghini probably assisted at Padua, Florence and Pisa. Where the gardens were established in 1544. Among his pupils were Mattioli, Caesalpinus, John Falconer, Valerius Cordus and William Turner, Caesalpinus’s work in classification possibly strongly influenced by his teaching (Hawks p. 147). Turner’s fellow English student John Falconer is attributed with possessing the first English and indeed the first collection of dried herbarium specimens on record compiled between 1540 and 1542 but no longer in existence (Hawks p. 147) although the collection of Aldrovandus in 16 volumes remains at Bologna and that of Caesalpinus is housed in Florence. It is historian Sachs who suggests that ‘he seems to have been the first who made use of dried plants for scientific purposes’. Other old collections include those of Greault (Lyons 1558), Ratzberger (Cassel 1559), Rauwolf (Leyden 1563-5), and that of the Bauhins collection at Basel. Turner befriended Gesner in Zurich probably in 1543, settling for a while in Basel. In 1548 he published The names of Herbes in Greke, Latin, Englishe, Duche and Frenche with the Commune Names that Herbaries and Apotecaries Use. Then in 1551 the first part of his Herball was published in London, the second part published in Cologne in 1562, then three combined parts in Cologne in 1568. Of the 516 woodcuts 400 were copied from the work of Fuchs whom he criticizes, along with Bock and Mattioli for their identifications (Hawks p. 150).

Italian botanical revival

The revival of botany in Italy was associated with a renewed interest in Epicureanism which, through its atheistic tenor, added weight to the new humanism by challenging the Church and siding with science especially in the Italian medical schools of the early 14th century where human dissection was now being permitted. The result was a new critical examination of Galen’s work and ancient pharmacology. Critical curiosity led to the desire for improved plant description (and therefore identification) supported by botanically accurate illustrations and exploration of the medicinal qualities of native plants.

All of this was part of a new and serious attempt to understand local plants, if only to connect them to those that appeared in the classical pharmacopeias. It was a gathering realization of how few plants had been recorded in ancient texts (Morton 1981, pp. 116-117) .

The extent of the world’s plant variety became much more obvious during the 15th and 16th century European Age of Exploration and Discovery. The early voyages of the famous Portuguese navigators were bankrolled by Italian merchants and bankers with the profits flowing back into Italy (Morton 1981, p. 118) along with many of the plants needing acclimatization. Novel crop plants were trialled in the countryside around Italy’s northern cities in the 16th century. From the New World came maize, sweet potato, potato, runner beans, French beans, pineapples, sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes while the tomato we now associate so closely with Italian cuisine was widely available as both red and yellow ‘love apples’ called this on account of their supposed power as an aphrodisiac. Capsicums, both red and green were widely cultivated in Italy, Castile and Moravia by 1585 (Morton, p. 119).

By the late 15th century the Medici and other wealthy families were cultivating newly-introduced beautiful, curious and other novelty plants in their private gardens.

Merchants in the commercial hubs of northern Italy (Florence, Milan, Genoa and Venice) challenged the power of both the church and feudal aristocracy as capitalism became established in Europe’s leading countries, its industry and dynamism supported by new science and technology on a scale not witnessed since the days of Rome. These were city-states with their own armies and and navies commandeering European trade in the Mediterranean, including the luxury goods, like spices, that originated from the Far East.

Above all economic botany would thrive on the chase for spices and the introduction of maize, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, French and runner beans, sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes. Starting in Italy botany would emerge as an independent science and one of the major disciplines of natural history, not just an adjunct to agriculture and medicine.
Classical knowledge preserved in the Arab world had been returned to Europe as plunder from the Medieval Christian Crusades.

Germany & the Reformation

In Europe the classical revival in knowledge that occurred in the Renaissance was hardly divorced from the theological ructions of the Reformation. Martin Luther had nailed up his 95 theses in 1517,the Lutheran branch of the Church splitting off in 1521 with the Edict of Worms. Three of Western Europe’s leading botanists of the early 16th century – Otto Brunfels (1488-1534), Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) and Hieronymus Bock (1498-1554, Latinised Tragus) – were Lutheran sympathisers as was the first English botanical writer of the Renaissance across the English Channel,  William Turner.

An early plant systematist Euricius Cordus, (1486-1535) (cordus – last-born) was born in Marburg and moved to Ferrara in 1521 to study medicine under Leoniceno, returning to Erfurt in 1523 as a municipal physician, then in 1527 as professor of medicine at the newly founded University of Marburg. Dedicated to botany he laid out a botanical garden and was the first German university professor to organize field excursions for plant study. In 1533 he moved to Bremen as municipal physician and professor at the Gymnasium. His Botanologicon was an early attempt at scientific plant classification. Historian Green notes that it ‘gives a clearer insight into the state of medical botany in Middle Europe in the time of Brunfels, Fuchs, and Tragus (Bock), than could be gathered from the most exhaustive study of those author’s folios themselves . . .. Euricius was the father of the better known Valerius Cordus.

Leonhart Fuchs (Fuchsius) was a Bavarian where studied at the Ingolstadt University (classics, philosophy, medicine) becoming a physician in Munich in 1524 then personal physician to the Margrave of Brandenberg at Ansbach before, in 1535, and for the rest of his life, Professor of Medicine at the University of Tübingen where he immediately established a medicinal garden. His most famous work was De Historia Stirpium Commentarii (1542), a masterpiece of Renaissance botany with 500 woodcut hand-coloured botanical illustrations with excellent in likeness & accuracy, often including detail of the parts, deliberately added to assist the students with identification, a benefit he supplemented with field trips into the surrounding countryside.

Of particular interest was the inclusion of plants recently introduced from the New World, most of them among the 100 or so plants illustrated for the first time, plants that are now cosmopolitan – tomatoes, corn, and chillies – but also cacti, pumpkins, potatoes, squash, kidney beans and tobacco, probably illustrated from plants growing in his own garden. Unusually there is full acknowledgement, with portraits, of the artists Albrecht Meyer who drew the plants from living specimens, Heinrich Füllmaurer who converted these for woodblocks, and Vitus Rudolph Speckle ‘by far the best engraver in Strasbourg’ who completed the job.[14] The work even included what was probably the first botanical glossary, indicating the desperate need for a universal botanical terminology. Even within his lifetime editions were printed in Latin, French, German, Spanish and Dutch, an English translation appearing 20 years after the original. Sadly, about 100 copies are all that remain.[14] Brunfels and Fuchs produced decriptions and illustrations of a core set of species making them identifiable regardless of the name used.

Clusius’s translation of the Flemish Dodoens’s Cruydebock was translated into English by Henry Lyte (1529-1607) in 1578 when it was published as A Niewe Herball. Passing to five editions two of these were published after Gerard’s Herball which was essentially a translation of Dodoens’s Pemtades. It is possibly from Lytes book that Shakespeare drew his frequent references to Plant lore.[15]

Botanical-medicinal knowledge and experience was obtained at this time by studying under the leading academic botanical physicians of the day in Europe’s major medical university faculties: Paris, Montpellier, Leiden (Antwerp) and the cities of northern Italy. At Montpellier in 1561 there was a trio of plant enthusiasts and students: Jean Bauhin, Pierre Pena and Matthias de Lobel (De l’Obel), the former pair possibly boarding with their mentor Rondelet, the latter pair going on botanical collecting trips, Rondelet bequeathing his manuscripts to de Lobel. Penna, after spending time in Paris and Antwerp had then travelled to Padua in 1558 and again in 1562 when he also spent time in Verona and possibly in Pisa in 1563 (where he was acquainted with Caesalpino) and at Bologna where he met Aldrovandus, in 1564 with Gesner in Zurich, moving on to Venice. In 1566 Penna and Lobel crossed the channel to collect in England for four years (possibly a safe Protestant country) publishing their work in 1571 as Stirpium Adversaria Nova (a new plant notebook) dedicated to Queen Elizabeth and the professors at Montpellier while acknowledging assistance from William Turner who died in 1568 and Englishmen Thomas Penny, Hugh Morgan and William Cecil.

The Adversaria . . . presented one of the best systems of 16th century plant classification, the Preface marking the document pronouncing itself a work of science by declaring itself concerned with ‘Order, than which there is nothing more beautiful in heaven or in the mind of a wise man’. Penna subsequently became physician to Henry III. In 1572 three major botanical sons of Flanders were in frequent contact – Dodoens, Clusius, and Lobel. Clusius had in 1564 travelled to Augsburg where he attracted wealthy associates to join him on a botanical collecting tour of France, Spain and Portugal – visiting Gibraltar, Valencia and Lisbon, returning to Antwerp with about 200 new species[17] that formed the major part of his Rariorum Stirpium per Hispanias Historia (1576). Clusius had visited Paris and England in 1571 meeting up with Lobel in Bristol while in 1573 he was placed in charge of the new imperial gardens of Maximilian II in Vienna and studying the plants of Austria and Hungary and making a second visit to England in 1581, befriending Francis Drake.

In 1568 the great Belgian anatomist Versalius had died and Philip II of Spain asked Dodoens, as another Belgian, to accept the position of physician to his court but as life became more demanding he accepted a similar position with Maximilian II in 1574 in Vienna where he was reunited with his old friend Clusius but returned a few years later to Antwerp, accepting a chair of medicine at the University of Leyden (Leiden) in 1582, his collected botanical works Stirpium Historiae Pemptades being published in 1583, two years before his death.


The English Renaissance was given impetus by Thomas Linacre (1460-1524) who had returned from Florence to the University of Oxford inspired by the Italian Renaissance. Having learned Greek he absorbed the ‘New Learning’ from the instruction of Angelo Poliziano also given to the sons of Lorenzo de Medici. In 1509 Linacre was appointed King’s Physician to Henry VIII (1491-1547).

Of greater botanical interest is William Turner (1508-1568) who attended Pembroke Hall at Cambridge University graduating in 1529-30 and elected a Fellow in 1531. Around 1537 he published the 20-page Libellus de re Harbaria Nova . . . ‘ which included records of local plant distributions, mostly in Northumberland, the 144 plants with Latin, Greek and English synonyms, extended in 1548 as The Names of Herbes with triple the number of plants. He is generally regarded as England’s first botanist, bringing plants to the people by publishing the first herbal in English rather than the traditional academic Latin. Deeply religious but a non-conformist he fell out of favour with the Church authorities during the English Reformation (c. 1527-1590) when he was banished from the church and travelled to the continent where he studied medicine and botany first in Ferrara and then in Balogna, Italy, with Luca Ghini before then travelling to Switzerland and then Germany where he met Leonhart Fuchs and then to Holland where, for four years, he was personal physician to the Earl of Emden. Back in England Turner was employed by Edward Seymour to design a garden and build up its collection of plants. The garden was that aristocratic Syon Park, a former abbey and pilgrimage destination that was dissolved in 1539 and handed from the Crown to Seymour who had close links to the Tudors. As a grand private garden Syon House was later landscaped in the 18th centuryby Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. From 1551 to 1553 Turner was Dean of Wells Cathedral where he established a physic garden.

Turner’s reputation lies in his 3-parted herbal. The first part of A new herball, wherin are conteyned the names of herbes . . . was printed in 1551, the second in 1562 and the third in 1568. This was the first attempt at a descriptive account of English plants decorated withy the woodcut illustrations from Leonhart Fuchs’s 1542 De historia Stirpium . . . but with his own descriptions: it included field observations in addition to the usual ‘uses and vertues’. As a radical attacking the accepted order he proudly announced in the Preface that his use of vernacular English, for the first time, now made botanical information accessible to the general populace rather than  restricting it to professionals and academics. His third edition was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I.

Turner embraced the transmutation of species, historian of science Charles Raven writing that ‘Turner, a shrewd observer and an excellent botanist, accepted transmutation as a commonplace event.’ This gives an Indication of the early origins of ideas generally associated with the 19th century.

The man who would establish a firm foundation for future English botany was John Ray (1623–1705) who shared Turner’s religious fervour. As a naturalist had wide interests that were not confined to plants as he attempted to bring order to the natural world. Son of a blacksmith he won a scholarship to Cambridge University at age 16 where he excelled and, while doing so built up a collection of living plants in his garden carefully studying their similarities and differences, his field trips into the surrounding countryside culminating in his Catalogus Plantarum Circa Cantabrigiam Nascentium (1660) which which drew on the principles of Swiss botanist Jean Bauhin but also demonstrated his skills at close observation: it was the first British county Flora.

In 1658 he embarked on the ambitious task of compiling a Flora of England and Wales for which he made several field trips sharing the work load with friends and even getting sidetracked into Europe for three years in 1663 with his friend and student Francis Willughby. Like Aristotle and Theophrastus before, this pair made a pact to describe the known organic world, Ray the plants and Willughby the animals. The result was his Catalogus Plantarum Angliae (1670) updated with additions in 1677.

Ray was an advocate of natural theology maintaining that the reason or purpose for the existence or ‘creation’ of each species could be determined by finding out its practical application. His work on the continent was pubkished in 1682 as Methodus Plantarum Nova which continued his thinking on plant classification making the insightful distinction between monocotyledons and dicotyledons. This was followed by the work that established his lasting reputation, Historia Plantarum like a preliminary attempt at a world Flora. Volumes one (with first usage of the word ‘species’) published in 1686 and volume two in 1688: they contained over 6000 species, mostly observed himself and including a few American plants from Bishop Compton’s garden. Volume three listed about 10,000 species, partly a record of England’s major exotic collections at Oxford University (est. 1621) and Chelsea Physic Garden (est. 1673). Ray’s classification was based on relationship of form based on gross morphology outlined in his Methodus . . . included kinds of fruit and subdivided using leaf and flower types. Though technically advanced the use of phrase names consisting of many words, rather than binomials, made it cumbersome to use. His Methodica Stirpium Britannicarum (1690) extended his British work, effectively Britain’s first Flora While Stirpium Europearum Extra Britannias Nascentium Sylloge (1694) extended his European work and defended his classification system against that of German botanist Augustus Rivinus (A.Q. Bachmann) leading to a further work in 1703 that took into account the system of de Tornefort. The large number of new species recorded by Ray was partly the result of his narrow species concept but also a consequence of his detailed field observations and plant exploration beyond Europe. He hade a major contribution to the field of plant taxonomy.

Renaissance gardens

Nobility and the wealthy elite enjoyed new plants from overseas in their elaborate private gardens. Notable among these were the gardens of the Medici family in Florence in the 15th century. By the early 16th century catalogues of these gardens included plants from not only the newly encountered Americas but rhubarb from Central Asia, egg plants from tropical Asia. The exciting tulip imported from Persia around 1559 had captured the European imagination, the bulbs causing the sensation known in Holland as ‘tulipomania’ which created a financial bubble.

In earlier times luxury goods like gold and silver competed with spices for attention and in the Renaissance the thrill of possible fortunes and miracle cures perpetuated the attraction of drug plants like the new Guaiacum as a cure for syphilis.

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