Flora: The ‘Erbario Miniato’ and
By Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi and
Royal Collection Publications in association
with Harvey Miller Publishers, October 2007
679 pages, over 360 illustrations
Treatments for a serpent bite, cracks between fingers and a fall from a height are among the hundreds of natural remedies found in this remarkable collection of early botanical drawings. The Erbario Miniato, an early 17th-century herbal, and the drawings from a companion volume (now partly dispersed) were part of the extraordinary Paper Museum (Museo Cartaceo) of Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657).
Cassiano embodied the new spirit of empirical investigation that transformed the study of natural history in the 17th century. He belonged to Europe’s first modern scientific academy, the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome, which numbered Galileo among its members. Cassiano instructed artists to record fruit, flora, fungi, fauna, minerals, fossils, architecture and antiquities for his Paper Museum. Numbering more than 7,000 watercolours, drawings and prints, this pictorial encyclopaedia was an attempt to understand and classify both the natural and man-made world.
The Erbario Miniato, now in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, was originally made for Federico Cesi, Prince of Acquasparta, before being acquired by Cassiano after Cesi’s death. It provides a fascinating insight into the study of botany at the dawn of the modern era, when traditional beliefs about the nature of plants were being subjected to a new scientific scrutiny. The drawings record the native flora of central Italy, including trees, fruit and flowers. There are also rare specimens from across Europe and species recently imported from further afield, such as the tobacco plant, the tomato and the aubergine.
The pages of the herbal are annotated with descriptions copied from Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s 1568 edition of Dioscorides’ De material medica. This treatise from the first century was used as the basis for pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge for more than 1,500 years. While most of the plants will be known to today’s reader, their wide-ranging properties may be less familiar, offering cures for all manner of ailments – from a lost appetite to warts.
We learn that ground elder is considered ‘valuable for heart defects’, ‘restores lost appetite’ and ‘frees one from the effects of bites of rabid dogs and equally from those of serpents’, the wall fern ‘applied externally is most effective for dislocated joints and for the cracks that develop between the fingers’, while yarrow should be ‘given to drink to those who have fallen from heights’. Aubergines, on the other hand, ‘generate melancholy humours, occlusions, cancers, leprosy, headaches, sadness, obstructions of the liver and spleen and lead to an unhealthy colour in the whole person and persistent fevers’.
Several of the plants are recommended as natural beauty products. Primrose, it is claimed, ‘relaxes the skin and eliminates all blemishes’. The seed of the snapdragon, when mixed with lily and privet oil, can be used ‘to make an oil for the face’ and ‘those who use it become most beautiful’.
Flora: The ‘Erbario Miniato’ and Other Drawings are the latest volumes in the catalogue raisonné of Cassiano’s Paper Museum. The complete catalogue will comprise 36 volumes arranged by subject-matter, 14 of which have been published to date. It will cover not only the major portion of the Paper Museum that is kept in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle, but also the material now in the British Library, the British Museum, the Library of the Institut de France in Paris and a number of other public and private collections.
Flora: The ‘ Erbario Miniato’ and Other Drawings is available from
Royal Collection shops or www.brepols.net
A small selection of drawings from the Erbario Miniato will form part of the exhibition Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace (14 March - 28 September 2008). The exhibition has been selected from the collections of the Royal Library by Royal Collection curators in collaboration with the distinguished naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.