Cultural anthropologist, Emanuela Appetiti, and historian of science, Alain Touwaide, believe that cultures would not have invested time and energy into medical formulas if they were not effective. To preserve traditional therapeutic remedies before they are lost forever, Emanuela and Alain founded the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. The Institute is a research and education organization with non-profit 501(c)(3) status hosted by the Smithsonian. Through the Institute, Emanuela and Alain pursue their research activities, including research for the PLANT program.
The acronym PLANT stands for PLantarum Aetatis Novae Tabulae (meaning in Latin Renaissance botanical illustrations). The PLANT website is a historical encyclopedia of botanical illustrations found in Renaissance herbals and is a collaborative effort between the Smithsonian Libraries Digital Collections department, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma (National Library of Rome) and the Library of the Botanic Gardens of Padua. While still under development, the website contains a lot of interesting information and images. Visitors are able to view images from ancient herbals. Visitors can enlarge an image so they can view each illustration up close, closer than if each herbal were in front of them. When you visit the PLANT website, be prepared to be there for a while.
Today we have the unique opportunity to learn from Emanuela and Alain. Please join me in welcoming them.
ARTPLANTAE: The PLANT project currently features 149 herbals created between 1470-1745. Funding was awarded in 2002 and research for this project began in 2003 in Rome, Padua, and Washington, DC. This comprehensive project has already been a 10-year effort. How much work remains?
EMANUELA APPETITI and ALAIN TOUWAIDE:
During 2003-2006 we browsed, analyzed and photographed all these books with the help of about 250 Earthwatch volunteers who came with us to work in the National Library in Rome, and later on in the Library of the Botanic Gardens of Padua. As a result, we have collected more than 70,000 images and generated three dictionaries of plant names, one for ancient names (Greek and Latin), another for Medieval and Renaissance names (including 32,000 items in Arabic, Medieval Latin and vernacular languages), and a third with the names of plants in five modern languages (12,000+ items). We are now in the process of double-checking all this information. We are writing original bios and essays about the authors and their books, based on the direct contact we have had with these works. We have completed our collection of portraits in collaboration with the National Library of Medicine and the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, both of which own extensive collections of historical portraits. A few biographies have already been uploaded, such as those of Prospero Alpini and John Gerard.
Once all the databases and the images are uploaded and connected, it will be possible to retrieve all the illustrations of the same plant in chronological order, so as to visually follow the transformation of the botanical drawing and knowledge. Each image will come up with its names from all the dictionaries listed above. This means that users interested in a plant of which they know only the vernacular or the common name, for instance, will be able to retrieve it and get all its names, including the scientific, binomial name. For the user to contextualize the books, the Latin names of cities where these books where printed are translated into their current name. Also, a short bio-sketch of publishers is provided together with the list of the botanical books they have published in order to see their contribution to the production of herbals. The cities should already be clickable on the website. We are currently working on the bios of the publishers, research that requires hours of investigation into the field of Renaissance publishing.
AP: Many of the illustrations in the herbals are highly stylized renderings containing elements that look as if they were meant to serve as symbols of something else (e.g., Arbor vel lignum vite paradisi, folio 20 verso in the anonymous Ortus sanitatis (1491) published by Jacobus Meydenbach). How do you determine the accuracy of an illustration?
When you know what a plant looks like, you have a sense of the elements that may have been a bit exaggerated (e.g., Ananas, page 268 in Trattato della historia, natura, et virtu delle Droghe Medicinali, & altri Semplici rarissimi, che vengono portati dalle Indie Orientali in Europa (1585) by Cristobal Acosta). But when you are not familiar with a plant, how do you check on the accuracy of an illustration, and more importantly, the accuracy of the species name?
AT: These are two different cases, both very interesting and hinting at fascinating aspects of our work.
One, the arbor paradisi (which is also the tree of knowledge), opens to the anthropological dimension of the research. Part of the text related to this tree (tree or wood of paradise life) reads as follows:
“They naturally have such a property that he who eats its fruit, is invigorated by a perpetual strength [….] and will not be affected by any illness, anxiety, sign of tiredness, or weakness […]”.
As you can understand from this extract of the text, this is an imaginary plant that serves educational and moral purposes. Theoretically, it should not appear in a book of herbs, but its presence clearly indicates that the benefits to be obtained from a plant were both physical and spiritual. And the Ortus Sanitatis is indeed about body and soul. Incidentally, you will note that the initial letter of the word arbor (tree) is missing. However a space has been left for it to be added, probably by hand, as a painted initial.
The second case you mention, the ananas (pineapple), makes clear the function of this kind of illustration: it emphasizes the most characteristic features of the plants for identification purposes. So, when you did not know the plant, you memorized this peculiar morphology so as to recognize it in the field, being able to connect the plant with such characteristics and its name.
Concerning the botanical identification, we use all possible available information to propose the best possible identification. This includes the text related to the illustration, the botanical tradition (coming from the most remote antiquity and continuously handed down up to the Renaissance), and the modern (= post-Linnean) scholarly and scientific literature, along with dry specimens from herbaria. Of course, we do this work in collaboration with botanists; sometimes, one ancient plant name corresponds to more than one modern taxon, and therefore we cannot arrive at the species level.
AP: There are times when I wish I could read every language on the planet on demand. Exploring the herbals on the PLANT website made me wish for this ability yet again so I could learn more about the illustrations. In the herbals you have studied, is there any mention about how the illustrations were created?
AT: In the preface of the herbals, several authors discuss this point. For example, Otto Brumfels, Leonhard Fuchs and Matthioli. Publishers were pushing authors to include illustrations with their texts. A significant case is the publisher and printer, Christian Egenolph, in Frankfurt, Germany. He created a set of woodblocks that he used for several texts, which were not originally illustrated. In so doing, he expanded considerably the market for his production. Though initially reluctant, the authors followed his example and agreed to have their works illustrated. Matthioli perfectly understood this logic and, besides repeatedly publishing new editions of his work, moved from small to large illustrations, each time also adding new items.
AP: Do you know of any studies focused specifically on the marks used to depict form (or light and shade) in the herbals? Some of the marks seem a bit excessive and confusing (e.g. Rhamnus secundus, page 73 in Pedacio Dioscorides Anazarbeo, Acerca de la materia medicinal, y de los venenos mortiferos, Traduzido de lengua Griega, en la vulgar Castellana, & illustrado con claras y substantiales Annotationes, y con las figuras de innumeras plantas exquisitas y raras, por el Doctor Andres de Laguna (1570).
EA: There is quite a body of literature on the history of botanical illustration in early printed books. However, studies have mainly focused on botanical accuracy, sources of illustration, floristic extensiveness and, more recently, on printing techniques. Rarely, analysis has addressed such an aspect at the crossroads of the visual arts and botanical knowledge.
AP: The hand-colored illustrations I saw in the Kreuterbuch herbal by Adamus Lonicerus (1582) were colored loosely. It looks like the coloring was done very quickly. Is this approach to hand-coloring commonly observed in herbals?
EA: There are indeed several herbals in collections worldwide that are hand-colored. Each and every such book is an individual case. Some have been very roughly and rapidly made like the Kreuterbuch, whereas others were artistically painted with botanical exactness, as in Fuchs. It depended on the personal choice of the owner of the book. Some probably wanted to have a nice copy, while others needed it to study and work with in the field.
AP: I have a question about Alain’s Life & Literature slideshow that you shared with me. On the slide that shows what I assume to be Arabic characters, certain words/phrases were circled in red. Why were these words/phrases highlighted? What was the story behind this particular slide? I’m curious, that’s all.
AT: Good catch! You are totally right in asking, and you’ll be amazed to know this story (which is one of our most cutting-edge programs). This is indeed the reproduction of a page from a Chinese manuscript containing formulae for medicines. This page should be vertical to read Chinese in the proper way (in columns), but I turned it horizontally to read what are, in fact, Arabic terms (names of medicines)! This story is long, but let’s make it short. Greek pharmaceutical texts were translated into Arabic and, the Arabic versions were transmitted up to China through India. So, we can state that Greek science traveled up to China.
The most marvelous thing is that the terms in Arabic are actually Greek words written with the Arabic alphabet (what is called transliteration). And, these Arabic terms have been reproduced as such in the Chinese manuscript. This means that we have in China the Greek names of medicines, even though they are written in Arabic.
As mentioned above, Emanuela and Alain’s research includes the preservation of information about plants and their use in medicine. Their current focus is on Greek medical heritage and contributions to medicine made by the Arabo-Islamic World. The website of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions (IPMT) features a growing collection of books, images, digital texts and databases related to plants and medicine. The Institute’s website is very interesting and contains many layers of information. You are sure to spend hours on this website too.
Emanuela and Alain have studied medical traditions for decades and have worked in Spain, France and England. Emanuela says that they work in at least four languages everyday!
What is the relationship between the PLANT project and the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions?
After moving to the US in 1999, Emanuela and Alain worked for a few years as independent scholars affiliated with the Smithosonian. Alain received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct research on the therapeutic uses of plants in Classical Antiquity. Alain conducted his research at the Smithsonian. The PLANT program arose as an extension of this NIH project and received early support from the EarthWatch Institute.
The PLANT project is a consortium composed of Alain & Emanuela (project authors and co-principal investigators), both libraries in Italy and the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL). The SIL and the Italian libraries helped to collect the primary information for this project, and each library owns the rights of the images coming from its herbals and then published on the website. SIL Digital Collections is the e-publisher of this work.
The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions (IPMT) is a natural extension of Emanuela and Alain’s research that, over time, grew into a new field of its own. This area of research needed its own space, so Emanuela and Alain created IPMT. The Institute is a self-funded entity that is now affiliated with, and currently housed at, the Smithsonian.
Alain and Emanuela work with about ten students and volunteers who help develop the Institute’s programs. The Institute has established an extended network of institutions and scholars with whom Alain and Emanuela work. A short list of their partners can be viewed on the IPMT website. It is IPMT’s mission to disseminate the concepts and methods they have developed to recover, preserve and analyze ancient knowledge. Emanuela says they want to educate the next generation of educators who will “expand the scope of our activity and broaden the audience we reach.”
The Institute hosts seminars at the Master’s and Doctoral level and conducts classes worldwide to interested audiences. The Institute’s educational activities address all disciplines related to its research, from ancient books to scientific technology. Emanuela describes the Institute’s mission succinctly, “We trace and follow the development and transmission of knowledge in the field of the natural and life sciences based on the written record, with a special focus on the Mediterranean area.”
Botanical artists painting medicinal plants and interpreters researching a heritage site will find the Science Services offered by IPMT especially interesting. Emanuela explains how the Institute can assist artists and interpreters with their research:
Our work is not only about collecting, but also, if not mainly, interpreting. We have created tools for a correct understanding of ancient botanical history and illustration, and also heritage sites. For example, in approaching ancient illustration of plants in books, we read the illustrations together with the related text. In so doing, we inject botany into history, and we are in a better position to properly understand the ancient documentation. Similarly, to approach a site, for example, we connect it to its contemporary botanical knowledge and create bridges between such knowledge, on the one hand, and, on the other, architecture and landscape. Alain has studied the representation of a garden in a 1st-century Roman palace and demonstrated that it reproduces the organization of a garden in nature, which, in turn, was based on the classification of plants in ancient botanical knowledge. There thus is a strong link between artistic creation and scientific theory.
When asked how they would like scholars, physicians and the public to use the IPMT website and its resources, Emanuela replies:
As a research entity, the IPMT is both a laboratory and a library collection. Alain and I have been collecting books on all the topics covered by our research for years and years and currently own a specialized library of circa 15,000+ items. This is a research collection for consultation. It is currently housed at the Smithsonian and is open to the scholarly and scientific community. We regularly receive requests for information, and for permission to visit the collection and take advantage of its resources from students and colleagues. In the future, we hope to be able to offer grants for students to stay in-house for a certain period of time, to carry on their own research.
As for our research, our vision is to generate new data from tradition and to inspire further innovative investigation. Ancient information is indeed a source for new developments that will contribute to (the improvement of) people’s health and healthy lives. In this view, we wish to partner with entities that will capitalize on our work and translate it into new applications, in the fields of medicines, food, hygiene and cosmetics.
A not-for-profit organization, the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions relies on donations to conduct its research. Interested individuals can contribute to the Institute by becoming an Associate Member ($20/yr.) or by making contributions through NetworkforGood.org, JustGive.org, or Razoo.com.
The PLANT website will be the focus of a roundtable discussion during a meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in Washington, DC (March 22-24, 2012). On March 24, Alain will co-present The Digital Herbal: Roundtable on Renaissance Botanical Illustration on the Internet.
A Special Viewing
Emanuela and Alain’s research started, and still focuses, on handwritten manuals of therapeutics, conserved in libraries or private collections all over the world. Unlike printed books produced on a larger scale, each handwritten manuscript is unique. As an example of their analysis and study of manuscripts, Emanuela and Alain have provided a link to view the Padua manuscript. This section is still a work in progress, with several parts still to be presented. This is the first time this manuscript has been uploaded and Emanuela and Alain hope you enjoy the sneak preview!
- Biblioteca Dell‘Orto Botanico
- Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma
- Visit the PLANT Project
- Visit the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions