Gardoni Herbarium - Part Two

Revalenta arabicaSistema Museale Università di Parma


As pharmacists are used to do in this time, Gardoni keeps the newspaper clippings regarding medicinal products advertising: some of these very effective, others endowed with miraculous healing properties, such as "Revalenta Arabica", the fictitious name given to common lentil flour and sold as an exotic corroborant. At the time, the botanical name of the lentil was Ervum lens, from which "Ervalenta" and then “Revalenta”.

Coca bolivianaSistema Museale Università di Parma

Some proposals found in newspapers ads might sound bizarre to contemporary people. The list is endless: miraculous arsenic-ferruginous water, ferrate proteins, iodized horseradish syrup replacing cod liver oil, citron water against seasickness, potassium iodide depurative pills, bronchitis pine syrup, secret recipes of biscuits that cure every disease, watermelon ointments and finally also psychic sleepwalkers are suggested.

SmarritaSistema Museale Università di Parma


The herbarium is compiled in a very personal way, without following the rules of taxonomy. Gardoni uses to create the folder with the name of the species first, inserting then any useful information, regardless of the actual availability of the plant sample. Some paper tags with the words “missing, lost” reveal that diverse plants were not found.

Cistus creticusSistema Museale Università di Parma

Exotic plants

Labdanum – an oil-rich resin extracted from Cistus creticus in the Aegean Sea - is still one of the main fixatives in perfumery. Gardoni uses it in medicine for external use as a resolving drug and for internal use as a tonic and astringent. The presence of labdanum testifies to his exchanges with distant suppliers and to foreign contacts as to complete his collection. Gardoni has decorated the card with a sort of decoupage illustrating the original plant.

AconitoSistema Museale Università di Parma

Naturalistic drawing

In the nineteenth century the only way to show the salient characteristics of a plant was drawing, to the point that each botanical expedition included among its participants an expert draftsman.

IllustrazioneSistema Museale Università di Parma

Some folders contain illustrations drawn in pencil or with Indian ink, in black and white or with watercolors, prints and woodcuts taken from different books or handmade, with the purpose of providing a reference in case of lacking of the plant specimen. Some folders have been watercolored later, perhaps by Gardoni himself.

Nature printingSistema Museale Università di Parma

Nature printing

Nature printing flourishes in the mid-800s and consists in the transformation of leaves and flowers into images through sophisticated techniques based on inks and electrolytes. Gardoni applies this technique to his work and so, after reducing leaves to their veins only, he uses them as a stamp to reveal hidden structures to the sight.

Viola tricolorSistema Museale Università di Parma


Collector, improvised cataloger, apothecary expert, passionate botanist, compulsive accumulator: Luigi Gardoni was not only this. Every now and then he was seized by the desire of transmitting beauty and sharing the love for the species most dear to him.

Viola tricolorSistema Museale Università di Parma

Gardoni’s fascination for the genus Viola is such that a whole cardboard folder is dedicated to all the relevant material. Many samples are elegantly and accurately fixed using a golden string. There are also numerous flowers with loose petals, possibly preserved for making new floral arrangements.

Capparis spinosaSistema Museale Università di Parma

Specimens in gold

His taste and aspiration to beauty can be found in certain arrangements in which he fixes on fine paper some specimens dried in a much more refined way than others, through the use of precious strips in pure gold. The result is such that at first glance they might be confused with beautiful naturalistic illustrations.

Malva sylvestrisSistema Museale Università di Parma

Malva sylvestris written backwards

Cataloguing the Gardoni herbarium is not limited to knowing plants and deciphering calligraphies, but it forces you to enter the mind of the man who conceived and organized it, and so you discover that certain sheets should be read in the mirror. For example Avlam sirtsevlys.

Anice stellatoSistema Museale Università di Parma

Boxes (flax, cotton, poppy, anise…)

The vegetable specimens belonging to the category of the so-called "drugs" cannot be stored between two sheets of paper because of their larger size. These materials are well known to those who practice the profession of pharmacist. For their storage Luigi Gardoni makes use of wooden boxes that transform the exsiccata into an open book, both figuratively and literally.

Sinapis albaSistema Museale Università di Parma

Mustard paper

In that time the themes of communication are the same as today: the purity of materials, the effectiveness explained through accreditation and emulation, little distinction between symptoms and causes. In modern pharmacies mustard is no longer present in pharmaceutical equipment: as a result of repeated applications, a high quantity of mustard is needed to observe a tangible effect, so new drugs and more effective remedies have replaced this product.

Sinapis alba DettaglioSistema Museale Università di Parma

In that time the themes of communication are the same as today: the purity of materials, the effectiveness explained through accreditation and emulation, little distinction between symptoms and causes. In modern pharmacies mustard is no longer present in pharmaceutical equipment: as a result of repeated applications, a high quantity of mustard is needed to observe a tangible effect, so new drugs and more effective remedies have replaced this product.

Cardamine matthioliSistema Museale Università di Parma

Cardamine matthioli

Luigi Gardoni wrote on 6th May 1878: “It was possible to find this seedling only in one place and also in a very limited number. During our botanical excursion in a beautiful and very hot day, having lost the train of 11, we walked around those large grasslands looking for this seedling until the train of 7.25 in the evening, without being able to find neither one specimen. Cardamine Matthioli must be a very rare plant at least in those locations.”

Cardamine matthioli DettaglioSistema Museale Università di Parma

So Gardoni describes with ease the outing during which he collected a plant in the area of Castelguelfo near Parma, while noting its rarity. In recent years, new measures have been taken to safeguard the wild flora, establishing a list of rare species to be protected throughout the country, by forbidding their collection. Gardoni would be happy to know that the plant he was so proud of is not on the list.

Bixa orellanaSistema Museale Università di Parma

Botanical merceology

However, Gardoni’s real interest is "botanical merceology". The characteristics of use and the trade of each plant product are for him a reason of careful study. This card dedicated to Bixa orellana, a tropical plant known as annatto, bears witness to this. The complex calligraphy illustrates some eclectic uses: preparation of drinks in Java, red cosmetic dyes, pigments for English cheese and Brazilian chocolate, lacquers for Caribbean pottery, production of ropes in America.

Specimen Viola da Erbario JanSistema Museale Università di Parma

Loans from Jan’s herbarium

Among the diverse collections stored at the School of Botany in the Botanic Garden stand out the herbaria of other illustrious scholars, such as Giorgio Jan’s. Eager to acquire as many species as possible, Luigi Gardoni sometimes goes to remove the plants of his interest directly from these scientific herbaria such as that of Jan. Other times he rather inserts tags as a reminder.

Spezialina GardoniSistema Museale Università di Parma

Poetry and mythology

Gardoni does not omit any field of knowledge and also covers both humanistic and historical topics. He often quotes mythological references as well as passages from contemporary poems. Furthermore, on many occasions, he writes some lyrics himself addressed to violets, to his mother and, as in this case, to a woman who perhaps worked with him in the pharmacy.

Polygala flavescensSistema Museale Università di Parma

Giuseppe Riva di Montese

We find frequent mentions of doctor Giuseppe Riva di Montese, presumably a friend of his. The professional profile of the two experts is profoundly different: a chemist engaged in an impressive work and a botanist who takes note of the collection date and place of each specimen with a more scientific approach. His data collection activity takes place between 1875 and 1879 in the territories of the Emilian Apennines. It is therefore assumed that he works in place of Gardoni himself, presumably no longer able to herbalise on-site.

Vado a casaSistema Museale Università di Parma

I’m going home since it is 3 p.m.

Beyond his epic enterprise, in fatigue and perhaps even in suffering, Luigi Gardoni’s humanity shines through a small note close to a sinapis arvensis, maybe left to one of his assistants: “I’m going home since it is 3 p.m.” These few words tell us not only his commitment, but also the eventuality of a work destined to remain unfinished.

Credits: Story

The cataloging of the Gardoni Herbarium is supported by Davines Italia - Progetto Pharmacopea.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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