‘It has the most unassuming title that ever adorned the initial page of a very great book; that could give no hint of its incalculable importance or of its great destiny, as marking the beginning of the epoch of Systematic Botany’.
Edward Lee Greene (1843-1915) Part II, p 808.
Andrea Cesalpino, De plantis libri xvi (Florence, 1583), title page.
Andrea Cesalpino (1524/5-1603) studied botany at the University of Pisa as part of his medical training under Luca Ghini (1490-1556) and lectured in philosophy, medicine and botany in the university after qualification. He became Director of the Pisa Botanic garden in 1554-1558, succeeding Ghini who had set it up in 1547, one year after the first Botanic Garden in Padua. His lasting fame rests on his De Plantis Libris XVI (1583), dedicated to the Grand Duke Francisco I de Medici (1541-87), the fruit of nearly forty years of teaching and practical experience combining philosophy, medicine and botany.
The first of the sixteen books, consisting of 30 pages divided into 14 chapters, sets out the principles of botany as Cesalpino understood them. It covers nutrition of plants, germination and the structures of the flower, fruit and seed. Fascinatingly, in his chapter on plant nutrition (Ch 2), he says the animal system of food being brought by the veins to the heart where it is perfected in the heat of the heart’s laboratory (officina) and distributed by the arteries is mirrored in the cooler physiology of plants, although their veins are too small to see. He used the example of the milky sap of Euphorbias or the Fig when their stems are bruised or broken as evidence to support this. This comment on the function of veins and arteries is a reflection of Cesalpino’s work on the anatomy of the great vessels and heart and there is ongoing discussion among scholars as to his place in the discovery of the circulation of the blood (Fye, 1996). With his philosophical and botanical background, he used his knowledge of Aristotle’s thoughts on biological classification and Theophrastus’ criteria for plant classification. The remaining 15 books describe about 1500 plants arranged according to his system. He divided plants into two main groups rearranging Theophrastus‘ four groups down to two, Trees and Shrubs and Undershrubs and Herbs. Each group was then divided by reference to the fruit and flower leading to 32 groups of plants (Bremecamp, 1953) beginning with trees and ending with ferns, mosses, fungi and seaweeds. He describes the plants succinctly: his description of the Arbutus ( Book II Ch XIX p103), for example, reflects accurately its habit, flowers and fruit, mentioning the characteristic feature of flowers and fruits being present at the same time during winter and he also mentions different species of Arbutus. Some of the plants have their medicinal applications mentioned; this is usually if they have not previously been described. Many of the groups are still recognisable as families today such as the Coniferae, Leguminosae, Umbelliferae, and Brassicaceae (or Crucifera) and Compositae. His herbarium which he gave to his patron Bishop Tornabuoni is said to be one of the oldest herbarium in existence and arranged according to his principles. It is now in the Museo_di_Storia_Naturale_di_Firenze, the Museum of Natural History in Florence.
This book would have been challenging even for contemporary readers with its dense prose which relied heavily on Aristotelian principles relating to the soul of plants but left much only implied and not fully stated. It had no illustrations or tables to help explain his system which indeed he did not follow in his book divisions. Probably as a result, it did not receive the attention it deserved either on publication or for a century afterwards. It may also be a result of the dominance of Dutch botany in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Morison’s rediscovery of Cesalpino’s ensured that botanists of the late seventeenth and eighteenth century were alive to the importance of Cesalpino’s book. Although not a botanist, Worth would have been aware of its significane both for his collection and for its place in contemporary botany. Dr John Rutty (1698-1775), the Dublin physician, keen botanist and bibliophile, obtained a copy in 1732 through his cousin William Clark in London, although he exclaimed at the price he had to pay.
Andrea Cesalpino, De plantis libri xvi (Florence, 1583), colophon and printer’s device.
Bremekamp, C. E. B. (1953), ‘A re-examination of Cesalpino’s classification’ in Acta Bot Neerl 1(4) pp. 580-593.
Fye, W. B. (1996) ‘Andrea Cesalpino’ in Clin. Cardiol vol 19, pp. 969-970.
Greene, E. L. (1983), Landmarks in Botanical History, edited by F. N. Egerton (Stanford University Press), Part II.
Harrison, R. S. (2011) Dr John Rutty (1698-1775) of Dublin: a Quaker Polymath in the Enlightenment (Original Writing, Dublin).
Nepi, C. (1997) The historical collections of the Botanical Museum of Florence and their scientific value in The Value and Valuation of Natural Science Collections (Bath : The Geological Society).
Morton, A. A.G. (1981) History of Botanical Science (London and New York).
Ogilvie, B. W. (2008) The Science of Describing (Chigaco University Press).
Vines, S. H. (1913), Robert Morison 1620-1683 and John Ray1627-1705 in Makers of British Botany: A Collection of Biographies by Living Botanists, edited by F. W. Oliver (Cambridge University Press).by