Mattioli's Commentarii

Books act as agents of change, revolutionizing the ways in which we think, act, and know. They can cross the borders of language and time, providing insight into the past and direction for the future. One type of book that has advanced our collective knowledge through history is the herbal.

Limonium from the Commentarii (1565) by Pietro Andrea MattioliOak Spring Garden Foundation

Often intertwining written word with visuals, herbals are records of the medical knowledge of plants. They were written to disseminate the knowledge and usefulness of plants, while contextualizing this knowledge with visual aids that emphasize plant morphology. They helped shape the ways in which we created, sourced, and applied medicines, while providing a way for people to systematize and engage with nature.

This herbal, Commentarii, represents the work of Pietro Andrea Mattioli, a botanist and physician hailing from Siena, Italy. This edition, published in Venice in 1565, is one of two printed on blue-grey paper. It contains 900 woodblock prints, designed and engraved by Giorgio Liberale and Wolfgang Meyerpeck.

Tilia foemina from the Commentarii (1565) by Pietro Andrea MattioliOak Spring Garden Foundation

The advent of the printing press in the 15th Century began a revolution that made books accessible to the general masses. Still, books like herbals that contained illustrations were expensive to produce, and were desirable as objects beyond the information that they contained.

This print of Tilia foemina, or lime tree, exemplifies Liberale and Meyerpeck’s use of silver and gold to highlight the illustrations, an innovative technique Mattioli described as “the most rare thing of this kind that has ever been seen.”

Woodcut Block of Limonium (1562) by Giorgio Liberale and Wolfgang MeyerpeckOak Spring Garden Foundation

Produced from large planks of pear wood, Mattioli’s woodblocks have been praised for their extreme detail and shading. These place among the finest and latest existing examples of botanical woodblock prints. In the 1580s, technologies in metal engraving went on to replace wood as a medium.

This woodblock represents “Limonium,” or sea lavender, a coastal plant with thin flowering stems and purple blooms. This woodblock exemplifies the tendency of the artists to fill the full perimeter of the rectangle, stunting the lavender blooms at the very top of the block.

Limonium from the Commentarii (1565) by Pietro Andrea MattioliOak Spring Garden Foundation

The prints in Commentarii have earned the charge of having a “chintz” or uniform depiction of the plant that emphasizes formal symmetry rather than the natural shape of the specimen. This kept the size and dimensions of the illustrations consistent throughout the book, which would appear as a mirror-image of the woodblock when printed, as seen here.

Aconitum from the Commentarii (1565) by Pietro Andrea MattioliOak Spring Garden Foundation

The first edition of Mattioli’s work, published in 1554, instantly gained universal praise for its texts and illustrations. Commentarii established him as an international authority on specimens that would revolutionize European medicine, culture, and trade.

As Mattioli’s fame rose in Prague in the 1560s, he gained notoriety for his vicious retaliation against colleagues who questioned his classifications, as well as his questionable practices in pursuit of knowledge.

Woodcut Block of Aconitum, Giorgio Liberale, Wolfgang Meyerpeck, 1565, From the collection of: Oak Spring Garden Foundation
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“Aconitum,” or wood cranesbill, is native to Europe and northern Turkey and blooms purple-bluish flowers in the summer. The “Aconitum” block belongs to a series of three illustrations of the genus printed in the Commentarii. One of its species, monkshood, was used by Mattioli in a notorious experiment that tested the effect of its poison on condemned prisoners.

Tilia foemina from the Commentarii (1565) by Pietro Andrea MattioliOak Spring Garden Foundation

Popular herbals were often translated into many languages to broaden the audience for botanical knowledge. The publications of new editions of an herbal also provided the space to add to the evolving body of botanical knowledge. From 1544 to 1744, forty-five editions of Commentarii were published in many different languages.

Mattioli's Commentarii (1565) by Pietro Andrea MattioliOak Spring Garden Foundation

As the technologies surrounding books and art-making evolve, so does our accessibility to this knowledge. New art practices, translations of texts, and improved editions of books create a fluid and dynamic exchange of knowledge. The digitization of Mattioli’s herbal also allows the Oak Spring Garden Foundation the opportunity to share this rare, cherished text with a global audience, further disseminating this work of botany and history from the past to future generations.

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All images are the property of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation. All text was provided by staff, interns, and volunteers of Oak Spring Garden LLC, who also curated the exhibit.

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