By A. Tosini (G Agostini "dis. in. pictra”). 16thC print.

Research: Hortus

Hortus is a new project, which involves research into the early Renaissance Botanic Gardens of Padua (IT) and Leiden (NL). I’m very glad to receive the a-n bursary (see blog) so I can start my project by visiting these sites and their libraries. I know, the 16th Century is going back a bit but it is for a very good reason.

The early botanic gardens were among the first places to catalogue and research new plants and animals. European explorers of new trade routes and territories brought back a large number of new species, which led to a rethink about what people knew about the world. To be able to make sense of it all, or to impose some order on the wide variation of the expanding natural world, a classification system needed to be created. It was the Universities who initiated botanic gardens as places to research and teach a new understanding of the world, not only from books but from life itself. The study and categorisation of plants and their medicinal properties led to new science, Botany. The gathering at the Hortus of new, otherworldly specimens of animals became exhibitions of the natural world. The Hortus as garden became a place where you could wonder about the world. The University of Leiden even staged life anatomical dissection of bodies for the public in an anatomical theatre next to the Hortus. (Who needs reality TV?)

My research aims to investigate early practices of collecting and cataloguing as exemplified by the 16th Century botanic gardens and libraries of Padua (IT) and Leiden (NL).
I am particularly interested in the inter-relationships between catalogs, herbals, herbaria and botanic gardens because they show various ways in which objects have been represented, referred to, catalogued and placed within a larger collection. It is relevant for my artist’s practice because I use archives and databases as part of my artwork. From these collections, I create artwork that explores transformations between text, image and objects. All together these linked entities form a network that is dispersed and flows between expositions, publications and archives. See for example the project ‘Unconsumable Global Luxury Dispersion’ exhibited at John Hansard Gallery Southampton UK.
Another point of interest is a history of science and environmental issues. I am drawn to the 16th Century because the revolution in science and society that took place was linked to discovering new worlds and an expanding world view. Our world today seems to be shrinking: disappearing environments and more and more species becoming extinct.
The research will lead to creating a new art installation with digital and physical objects, that draws on the above mentioned two key world views, expansion and contraction.

Below is a description of my two research trips and a link to my project page on ResearchGate.

July 2019 Hortus Botanicus Leiden, NL.

In July this year, I visited the Hortus Botanicus and the Special Collections Library of the University of Leiden. I wanted to experience both the Hortus and the first catalogue of it in person. I am lucky because the Hortus has been reconstructed in its sixteenth /seventeenth-century form and its first representation in book form, as a catalogue from 1601, is still available in the library. To experience these in the first person is vital because that was in a sense their purpose. They are both teaching aids and were then part of a new teaching method that aimed to study not only from books but after life. Looking, experiencing and testing the real thing (for example, the human body or plants for medicinal usage) instead of relying on knowledge in books passed down from Greek and Roman philosophers.

For example, can you recognise the plant from this illustration (taken from a coloured copy of ‘Cruydt boeck’ by Rembertus Dodonaeus, the standard work of the time)?

I am intrigued by the links between the design of the library, catalogue and Hortus. The catalogue includes a map of the Hortus. It is populated with figures showing how it is used and it marks the planting beds so that the position of each plant can be catalogued. Each plant can then be found back just like a book in the library. The index gives then an overview of all plants. The really clever part of the catalogue design is the open boxes on each page where the user of the book can write in the names of the plants. This makes it a study aid or workbook for the student and at the same time creates a framework for cataloguing the position of all the plants, which are constantly changing. The catalogue is the size of a pocketbook so it is easy to carry with you.

I viewed a few copies in the library and they were the copies from Pieter Paaw (Keeper of the Hortus, and professor of anatomy and botany) who has written in really neat handwriting the names of plants in it. Clearly not done in the garden but after a stock take. So instead of having to print a new book each year, they could take a blank copy and write in the plant names. All the copies together show then the development of the garden and log the dynamic nature of a collection.
The design of the catalogue with open boxes to be written into was not new but Paaw adapted it from an example he came across while studying in Padua, Italy. I will follow this trail in my study visit to Padua.

There is actually a lot to pick apart from my visit to Leiden and I will take some time to go through some of the literature I found to research the background story of the Hortus and its context. For instance, the sixteenth/seventeenth century is known for all the collections of curiosities and cabinets of naturalia created by scholarly collectors and the aristocracy. These were connected to libraries and the idea that one could make a collection of ‘everything’, collect all books, or all plants, or at least a sense of wanting to gather as much knowledge as possible to be able to read ‘the book of Nature’. Within all of this lies a complex web of religious, scientific, or aesthetic motivations or we can look at it as a status symbol.

One book in the library caught my eye (finding things by chance is still one of my favourite strategies of gathering information): Egmond, F., & Coenensz, A. (2005). Het visboek : de wereld volgens Adriaen Coenen 1514-1587. Zutphen: Walburg Pers. The book reproduces illustrated manuscripts by Adriaen Coenen who collected stories, beached whales and other extraordinary marine creatures and produced several manuscripts of his findings. It is full of fact and rumours but Adriaen Coenen produced one of the first catalogues of whales. It gives an insight into what the state of the gathering of knowledge about our world was like in the sixteenth century.

Aug 2019 British Library

Following up on info found during my trip to Leiden, I went to the British Library to see a copy of the first catalogue of the Botanical Garden in Amsterdam.

Snippendalius, Joannes. [Catalogus] Horti Amstelodamensis… Amstelodami, 1646.

The botanical garden in Amsterdam was opened in 1638, about 40 years after Leiden and Proosdy and Baljet describe in ‘Kruidenier aan de Amstel’ [Bouman, Baljet, Zevenhuizen, and Snippendaal. Kruidenier Aan De Amstel : De Amsterdamse Hortus Volgens Johannes Snippendaal, 1646. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007] that the founding of it was initiated by the guild of doctors and pharmacists, that is, not by a university as in the case of Leiden. In ‘Kruidenier aan de Amstel’, I also found a translation of the introduction and dedication. Finally, a publisher who bothers to include a full translation. That gave me an insight into how a Hortus was perceived at that time. The dedication by a Medical Doctor de Vicq is a poem that links the Hortus on the one hand with the world and on the other hand with the human body. The garden forms a space or a dimension between the larger world outside (macrocosm) and our own being (microcosm). From my point of view, the garden and its medicinal plants are placed between and mediating between the forces of the universe and us human beings. It reminds me of the Hermetic maxim ‘As Above, So Below’.

It would be a shame to miss this kind of information. Looking at the catalogue of Leiden and Padua, there seems to be no translation available. So for all of us researchers who do not speak Latin, it would be great if there was a translation. I have posted this question on ResearchGate in the hope I might find Latin scholars who are interested. Please have a look here and click on the ‘Questions’ tab

Another question that I had in Leiden concerned the notion of the environment in the 16th-century. If they were in that time exploring new continents, cultures, plants and animals, did the plant collectors, for instance, have a notion of ecologies? A researcher alerted me to this article: Zemanek, Alicja, Andrea Ubrizsy Savoia, and Bogdan Zemanek. “The Beginnings of Ecological Thought in the Renaissance: An Account Based on the Libri Picturati A. 18–30 Collection of Water-Colours.” Archives of natural history 34, no. 1 (2007): 87-108. [article link on ResearchGate]

Nov 2019 The Botanical Garden of Padova, IT

For the second part of my research, I visited the Botanical garden and library in Padua. Being in Padua you can’t escape the historic background of the city and to get a better understanding of the Renaissance context of the Hortus and the link to the university I visited several museums.

First stop was the archaeological museum which has so much to show, it’s a bit mind-blowing. To pick one thing out in relation to my project, it has great examples of Roman script, expertly chiselled into stone. Next door is the Cappella Degli Scrovegni, with the famous Giotto di Bondone’s frescos. They are a prime example of 14th-century frescos and early-Renaissance iconography.

Next item I wanted to see was the Anatomical Theatre. It is still in its original site at the Palazzo Bo. Like the Hortus, it was part of the Medical School of the University of Padua (Anno 1222) and standing right in it I can now imagine the scene unfolding of a body being dissected while 200 people are standing almost on top of it. So tight is this windowless room it must have been a visceral experience. As an art installation, it would even today be mind-blowing.

The Hortus was founded in 1545 as part of the Medical School of the University of Padua (Anno 1222) to enable medical students to recognise and learn about medicinal plants. Together with the Anatomical Theatre, the Hortus can be seen as a physical expression of the Renaissance ideal to learn from Nature, or from your own experiences, as well as from the Classics. Besides the medical-educational usage, it also became an open-air test ground for plant classification and experimenting with plants brought back from other continents.

My first impression of visiting the Hortus (Anno 1545) is that it is large. I guess it is 4 times the size of the Hortus in Leiden (in its original design). The design from 1545 is still in place and forms a square within a circle surrounded by a wall. The square is again divided into four each one with a fountain at its centre. Each square has a different layout which makes it easy to recognise where you are in the garden. Not so much a Dutch strait line practical design but an intricate play with shapes.

Interesting to see that Goethe’s Palm planted in 1585 is still going strong and that there is a section showing plants that have been introduced into Europe through the Hortus (Potato, Sesame, Lilac, Sunflower). There is also a section showing plants that are rare and endangered and of course the medicinal plants.

With a Facsimile reprint of the first Hortus catalogue I tried to see how it works out to be in the garden, observe the plants to remember them and write down their name. One little path took me an hour. It reminded me of the time when I was studying landscape architecture and had to learn many plants by doing exactly the same at the school garden. This takes a long time. I can easily see that it might take years to cover all the plants in this garden. I also see the point of making the design of each square so different. It is easier to remember where you are, started, or stopped. Definitely, something to further explore for the design of an art installation.

Seeing the garden with the printed plan from the Cortusi catalogue 1591 makes it also possible to compare what is changed. For example, the squares are not raised anymore and the fountains in the centre are also not on the plan. Also the shape of some of the plant boxes has changed over time.

Next to the Hortus is the Hortus Library where I met the very helpful librarians who showed me the original catalogues. I was mainly interested in the first one by Cortusi but seeing all of them from the 16th century is quite something.

Cortusi, Giacomo Antonio, L’horto de i semplici di Padoua… Venezia, Girolamo Porro, 1591.
This catalogue has the amazing design of an exercise book with maps and blank boxes and an index, and is about an A6 size so it is easy to take with you. This was the design Paauw copied for the catalogue in Leiden. It is also interesting to see that none of the later catalogues has this feature. They all reverted back to a simple index only and some are really small. Just the size of an A7.

The copy in this library had no hand writing in it. The librarian told me that the city library also has a copy, but one with plant names written in it. Next day I visited the city Library and their copy was bound together with other books. It was many blank and had only on one page plant names written in it. In addition, it also had some other pages in the introduction. An image of Cortusi for example.

As with the catalogue of Leiden’s Hortus, the Cortusi catalogue has an introduction that is in old-Italian and Latin and a translation is not available. I am in contact with the Librarian to see if we can get a translation, because I think that through these texts we might get a better idea how the authors saw this publication and the Hortus (see the text about the Amsterdam catalogue).

I also discovered something else in the Hortus. There was a display with prints of plants made with a technique I had never heard of. By smoking the original and then pressing into paper. The results are amazing. Asking about it the librarians said they can’t tell me exactly how that was made. Do you need to dry the plants first or not? What kind of smoke was used? The results are so amazing that needs further investigation!

So, again, lots of info and ideas to take home and explore further. Also great to make some new connections and contact to develop my project further.


If you are interested in translating from Latin have a look at my Researchgate page:
Select the tab: Questions

Top Image: The Botanical Garden of Padova (Orto dei semplici) in a 16th-century print.
By A. Tosini (G Agostini dis. in. pictra) – lithographed by “Kiev”? in Venice – Unknown. Reprinted in “L’Orto botanico di Padova nell’ anno 1842” by Roberto De Visiani (1842).
Public Domain. Wikipedia.

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