Pier Mattioli’s 16th Century Herbal

Pier Andrea Mattioli

from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/aconite/mattioli.html

Born in Siena, Pier Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577) was personal physician to Ferdinand I and a prolific commentator on De Materia Medica of Dioscorides, the codex of which Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq had attempted to acquire from the court of Süleyman I (the Magnificent). Although he failed to procure the manuscript, he did return from Constantinople, says Mattioli, with the first lilac (from the Arabic lilak) to be seen in Europe.

The woodcut above from Mattioli’s Commentarii in sex libros Pedacii Dioscoridis (1565) is the first printed image of the flower. A tulip also is illustrated, mistakenly identified as a narcissus. Indeed, before the more familiar name was accepted, the tulip (tulipa) often was referred to as lilionarcissus (and is classified among the Liliaceae). Although this woodcut of the lilac has been colored, such illustrations usually were monochromatic.

 This colored woodblock print of the aconite plant is from the 1568 Italian edition of Mattioli’s Commentarii.

The Commentarii was published in Italian in 1544, with a lavishly illustrated Latin edition in 1554 that brought Mattioli to the attention of Ferdinand I, then Archduke of Austria, who summoned him to court in Prague the next year to treat his son, Maximilian II. With financial support from the imperial court, there were translations in Czech (1562) and German (1563), until the commentaries virtually displayed the original Greek. Determined to be the undisputed authority on Dioscorides, Mattioli attacked anyone who had the temerity to disagree with him. But he also observed and cataloged many plants, himself, aided by correspondents such as Gesner, Quackelbeen, and Busbecq, who lent him two less famous manuscripts of Dioscorides that he had brought back from Constantinople.

Nearly six hundred larger, more detailed woodcuts were commissioned for the Bohemian edition which, because they fill the entire area, are thought to have been designed directly on the woodblocks, themselves. These blocks were used again for the German edition, as well as the Latin edition of of 1565, the most important of the Commentarii, which illustrates more than nine hundred plants (and one hundred animals).

Many of these woodblocks survive, having been bought in the eighteen-century by a French botanist to illustrate a two-volumes work of his own on trees and shrubs. Kept in the family, a few were sold in the 1950s and then, in the late 1980s, one hundred and ten blocks were offered. The illustration (right) of Aconitum napellus (monkshood) is from the catalog of that sale, the flower stem curved to fit the confines of the block. Mattioli had observed the poisoning of two condemned criminals in Rome and, in Prague, had tested aconite, himself, on a prisoner who volunteered to take the poison rather than be executed on the public scaffold.











ReferenceEin Garten Eden (2001) by H. Walter Lack and translated by Martin Walters; The Mattioli Woodcuts (1989) by William Patrick Watson, Sandra Raphael, and Iain Bain; Mattioli’s Herbal: A Short Account of Its Illustrations, with a Print from an Original Woodblock (2003) by John Bidwell; “The Letter: Private Text or Public Place? The Mattioli-Gesner Controversy about the aconitum primum” (2004) by Candice Delisle, Gesnerus61, 161-176.

Beautiful Watercolors of Helpful Plants, from a 16th-Century Book of Herbal Medicine

by Rebecca Onion

These watercolors of herbs and plants useful to doctors are from an Italian edition of ancient Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, reissued with commentary, additional material, and new illustrations sometime between 1564 and 1584. The Public Domain Review posted some of these earlier this week; the images come from the British Library, which hosts digitized versions of 24 of the book’s 131 total illustrations on its website.

These illustrations come from the newer version of the book authored by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, a physician living in Siena who had interests in pharmacology and botany. Dioscordes’ work cataloging and describing plants with medical utility had been a standard reference for physicians and doctors in training and was reissued many times between its first publication, in 70 A.D. and the time this version was created.

Historian Richard Westfall writes that Mattioli had published several other commentaries on pharmacological topics before he turned to this edition of Dioscorides, including “a traditional examination of the origins and treatment of syphilis (in which he was either the first or one of the first to recommend mercury as a cure).”

For this edition of the classic reference work, Mattioli added a new group of 100 plants to Dioscorides’ canon, and artist Gherardo Cibo contributed these watercolors. Cibo’s backgrounds are particularly interesting, offering small landscapes and scenes; often, Cibo includes the figure of a wandering botanist, contemplating plant samples in a rustic setting.


Polygonatum or Elleboro bianco (Solomon’s seal).

The British Library

Iris (now considered primarily a decorative plant; its root was formerly used as a cathartic.)

The British Library

Euphrasia officinalis or “Eringio” (Eyebright).

The British Library

Asarum europaeum or “Assaro” (Hazelwort).

The British Library

Mercurialis annua or “Mercorella basillico” (Annual mercury).

The British Library

Paeonia mascula or “Peonia Rossa” (Wild Peony).

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