A Historic Herbal

A Historic Herbal

Andrea Mattioli's Commentarii in Sex Libros

The 'herbal' – or a book cataloguing, describing and categorising plants – is a particularly ancient form of text.

The Roman historian and philosopher, Nicholas of Damascus, wrote his work On Plants (occasionally attributed to Aristotle) in the first century BCE. In China, the Shennong Bencao Jing (The Great Herbal) is believed to have been written around 4700 years ago, with the oldest surviving copy of the work dating from c.500 CE. As with many texts, ancient herbals were copied and translated into Arabic, preserved by Muslim scholars and 'rediscovered' during the European Renaissance. Arber writes, in her important 1912 guide to the history of Herbals: " ͞The Arabic translations of classical writings were eventually rendered into Latin, or even sometimes into Greek again, and in this guise found their way to western Europe."

 

 MATTIOLI, PIETRO ANDREALOT 227 | MATTIOLI, PIETRO ANDREA | COMMENTARII IN SEX LIBROS |
VENICE: VINCENZO VALGRISI, 1565 | £4,000-6,000 + fees


In the grand history of herbals, therefore, Andrea Mattioli's Commentarii in Sex Libros, first published in 1544, is a relatively modern production – yet it came into being a mere 100 years following the invention of Gutenberg's printing press. The copy to be offered by Lyon & Turnbull in October 2018 was produced 21 years later, in 1565, and includes an impressive array of beautifully produced woodcuts. These illustrations, along with the sheer size of the book, have led this edition of the work to be termed the 'preferred edition'.1 Mattioli has illustrated both plants and animals, including a cactus and frolicking hares. In its early years of publication, up to the 1560s, 32,000 copies of Mattioli's Commentarii in Sex Libros are thought to have been sold.

The author of the work was born in Sienna in 1501, became the physician to both Archduke Ferdinand and Emperor Maximillian II and, as befell many of his contemporaries, succumbed to the plague at the ripe old age of 76. Arber points out that many of the authors of herbals were medical practitioners, perhaps bringing them all the more often into contact with plague sufferers. Mattioli's chef d'oeuvre contains a detailed explanation of the theories of the Greek physician Dioscorides and a full inventory of all the plants Mattioli had encountered, including several he first recorded himself, discovered in Tirol.

The author of the work was born in Sienna in 1501, became the physician to both Archduke Ferdinand and Emperor Maximillian II and, as befell many of his contemporaries, succumbed to the plague at the ripe old age of 76. Arber points out that many of the authors of herbals were medical practitioners, perhaps bringing them all the more often into contact with plague sufferers. Mattioli's chef d'oeuvre contains a detailed explanation of the theories of the Greek physician Dioscorides and a full inventory of all the plants Mattioli had encountered, including several he first recorded himself, discovered in Tirol.

The original aim of the work was to better acquaint contemporary physicians with the medical herbs and plants described by Dioscorides.2 The number of copies produced shows that this was an extremely popular publication, although the man who is often credited with producing Renaissance Italy's best loved herbal is considered to have been somewhat unpleasant. Arber writes: "He engaged in numerous controversies with his fellow botanists and hurled the most abusive language at those who ventured to criticise him."


COMMENTARII IN SEX LIBROSLOT 227 | MATTIOLI, PIETRO ANDREA | COMMENTARII IN SEX LIBROS
VENICE: VINCENZO VALGRISI, 1565 | £4,000-6,000 + fees

 

It is easy to see why Mattioli's work has endured in popularity, and can now fetch very high prices at auction. The woodcuts by various artists are endearing and full of character. One image shows insects swarming across a bed, whilst surprised fish and chubby exotic plants feature elsewhere. The copy to be offered in October, with its contemporary vellum binding, is a fine example of one of history's best known works on plants.

 


 

Notes

1 Brunet III
2 DSB IX, p.179

MATTIOLI, PIETRO ANDREA LOT 227 | MATTIOLI, PIETRO ANDREA | COMMENTARII IN SEX LIBROS |
VENICE: VINCENZO VALGRISI, 1565 | £4,000-6,000 + fees

 


 

Dates for your Diary

 

VIEWING | Sun 30th September, 12 noon to 4pm | Mon 1st October, 10.00am to 5pm | Morning of sale 9am to 11am
AUCTION | Rare Books, Manuscripts, Maps & Photographs | 2nd October 2018 | 11am in Edinburgh
LOCATION | 33 Broughton Place, Edinburgh, EH1 3RR

 

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