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Pietro Andrea Mattioli

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Pietro Andrea Mattioli

‘There is no one in any corner of Europe, no man living today, to whom the name of Mattioli is not in some way known’.

   Girolamo Donzellini (1513-1587) (quoted in Findlen, 1999, p. 374).


Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Opera quæ extant omnia : hoc est, Commentarij in VI. libros Pedacij Dioscoridis Anazarbei de medica materia (Basle, 1598), p. 403.

Mattioli (1501-77), was the most successful botanical writer in sixteenth century-Europe. According to his own estimation he has sold thirty thousand copies of his herbal by 1568.  His chief claim to fame was his edition of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides – or one should say various editions because Mattioli, canny operator that he was, constantly emended it, thereby keeping it up to date. Many other writers had sought to edit the Materia Medica but none had been as successful as this Sienese physician. It wasn’t just that he was constantly bringing out new editions, containing new information – he was also well placed to ensure its eventual success. His emphasis on the importance of Italy’s contribution to botany ensured that when Italian universities, such as Pisa and Ferrara, set up lectureships and botanical gardens and were looking for a suitable textbook, it was to Mattioli’s edition of Dioscorides that they turned. In a sense this wasn’t surprising: as Ogilvie (2006) points out, Mattioli’s text operated on two levels, first, as an edition of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica and, secondly, with its additions, as a straightforward national herbal. The two functions of the text were interlinked since Dioscorides’ text had focused on the plants of the Mediterranean literal also. Thus Mattioli’s Latin text became the set textbook for the new courses on botany at Italian universities, and, in turn, when the university botanical movement spread northwards, Mattioli’s text accompanied it. The Latin edition of 1554, which was published in Venice, encouraged this development as previous editions had been in Italian.

Another factor which influenced the spread of Mattioli’s text was his skilful use of his scholarly network. He managed to convince scholars across Europe, but most especially in Italy, that the inclusion of their discoveries into his newest edition was essential to their future career, thus ensuring a steady flow of material to him. This was all the most crucial since, as Palmer (1985) points out, Mattioli himself had done little field work since his early days as a botanist.

Mattioli’s constant editions and their vibrant illustrations ensured that his text did not go out of fashion and it was still being reprinted in the eighteenth century. The illustrations had come relatively late: in the first Latin edition of 1554. These illustrations were included in a larger format in the Prague edition (1562) which had followed on from Mattioli’s move to the imperial court in 1554. The woodcuts for this latter edition (which were subsequently utilised in later editions) were undertaken by Giorgio Liberale (1527-79), an Italian artist at the imperial court. As illustrations they were a new departure: gone were the clean lines of the editions of Brunfels or Fuchs. Instead, the illustrations which Mattioli’s editions made famous combined far more shading and, as Landau and Parshall (1994) suggest, precluded colouring.

Worth’s copy of Mattioli was printed in Basle in 1598. Here, on p. 403 we see that someone (possibly Worth) had used the copy to press a flower. This reminds us of the role played not only by living specimens of plants in botany, but also those dried specimens found in herbaria throughout Europe. We do not know if Worth possessed a herbarium (a collection of pressed plants within sheets) but certainly a number of his botanical works contain some pressed plants. He was evidently interested in the subject generally, judging by the fact that he also collected a 1645 edition of Adriaan van de Spiegel’s collected works: van de Spiegel had, among other things, provided early modern botanically-minded physicians with instructions on how to organise a herbarium.


Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Opera quæ extant omnia : hoc est, Commentarij in VI. libros Pedacij Dioscoridis Anazarbei de medica materia (Basle, 1598), p. 626, Typha.

This is Mattioli’s illustration of Typha latifolia or the bulrush, an aquatic plant, also known as Great or Broad leaved Cattail, which is native throughout large parts of the world in both temperate and tropical areas of Asia, the Americas and Europe, including Ireland, where it is common. It is called in Irish Coigeal na mban sí or ‘the fairy woman’s spindle’. According to Scottish folklore a bulrush, collected at midsummer and wrapped up in a shroud, would guarantee freedom from any disease or illness to the person who collected it for the rest of their lives (Mac Coitir, 2008).

This plant is beneficial in maintaining the health of lakes and waterways by filtering out organic matter and forms an important source of shelter and food for wildlife. It can, however, be invasive as it can spread rapidly by underground rhizomes and can interfere with the ability of other plants to grow. It is used to make matting and baskets, for thatching, and as stuffing for pillows and bedding. It was also used by the Native Americans for food using the rhizomes in Spring when other food was scarce.


Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Opera quæ extant omnia : hoc est, Commentarij in VI. libros Pedacij Dioscoridis Anazarbei de medica materia (Basle, 1598), p. 97, Pine.

These two woodcuts show two different types of Pine Pinus sylvestris montana which is commonly  known as the Scots pine, now known as Pinus sylvestris L and  Pinus domestica, the Stone or Umbrella Pine, now called Pinus pinea L. The Scots pine or European pine is widely distributed throughout Europe and Western Asia from the north of Spain and Scotland  to the Russian Far East, extending up to Lapland and down  to Turkey in the south. However it is extinct as a native in Ireland, England, Wales, the Netherlands and Belgium and all planted specimens have been reintroduced. Originally one of the trees which migrated into Ireland over 10,000 years ago after the last  Ice Age, it started dying out throughout Ireland about 4000 years ago with the spread of blanket bogs although it may have survived in some local sites until medieval times (Mitchell, 2013). The Scots Pine was only reintroduced from 1700 AD onwards . Scots Pine timber, known as Red Deal, is the most important timber in Northern Europe being extensively used in construction and joinery. The Stone or Umbrella Pine, native to Mediterranean from Portugal to Turkey, is the source of pine nuts which have been eaten since Paleolithic times and it may have been cultivated for over 6000 years. Commonly used in Italian and Middle Eastern cuisine, pine nuts have been found in rubbish heaps in Pompey and in Pliny’s day were preserved in honey. (Lim, 2012).


Ferri, Sara (1998) ‘Pietro Andra Mattioli and his Commentarii, in Studies in Renaissance Botany edited by Zbigniew Mirek and Alicja Zemanek ((Krakow: Polish Academy of Science), pp. 113-33.

Findlen, Paula (1999), ‘The formation of a scientific community: natural history in sixteenth-century Italy’, Natural Particular. Nature and the Discipline in Renaissance Europe edited by Anthony Grafton and Nancy Siraisi (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts), pp. 369-400.

Gardner, M. (2013), Pinus sylvestris. In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013:

Landau, David and Parshall, Peter (1994), The Renaissance Print. 1470-1550 (Yale University Press).

Lim, T. K. (2012), Edible Medicinal plants and Non Medicinal plants Vol 4 Fruits:  Pinus Pinea,  pp 304-310:

Linnaeus, C. (1753), Species Plantarum (Stockholm), vol 2, pp.  971.

Mac Coitir, N. (2008), Irish Wild Plants Myths, Legends and Folklore (Cork: The Collins Press Cork), pp 34-35.

Mitchell, F. J. H. (2013), ‘The Arrival of the First Forests’ in  Secrets of the Irish Landscape edited by M. Jebb and C. Crowley (Cork University Press), pp 57-64.

Morton, A. G. (1981), History of Botanical Science (London and New York), for Brasavola quote: p. 118.

Ogilvie, Brian W. (2006), The Science of Describing (University of Chicago Press).

Palmer, Richard (1985), ‘Medical botany in northern Italy in the Renaissance’ in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine vol 78, pp. 149-157.

Reeds, Karen Meier (1976), ‘Renaissance humanism and botany’, in Annals of Science 33 no 6, pp 519-542.

Stannard, Jerry (1969), ‘P.A. Mattioli: Sixteenth Century Commentaro on Dioscorides, in Herbs and Herbalism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance edited by Katherine E. Stannard and Richard Kay (Ashgate Variorum, Aldershot), no. XIV, pp. 59-81.

Touwaide, Alain (2008), ‘Botany and Humanism in the Renaissance: Background, Interaction, Contradictions’ in The Art of Natural History: Illustrated Treatises and Botanical Paintings 1400-1850 edited by Therese O’Malley and Amy R. W. Meyers (Yale University Press), pp. 33-62.

Webb’s (2012), An Irish Flora 8th edition,  edited by John Parnell and Tom Curtis (Cork University Press).

Zanobio, Bruno (1974), ‘Mattioli, Pietro Andrea Gregorio’, in Charles Coulston Gillispie (ed.) Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York), vol IX, pp. 178-180.

Global Invasive Species Database: Ecology of Typha Llatifolia

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