Mattioli, Pietro Andrea Gregorio

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(b. Siena, Italy, 12 March 1501; d. Trento, Italy, January/February 1577)

medicine, botany.

Mattioli was the son of Francesco Mattioli, a physician, and Lucrezia Buoninsegni. After moving with his family to venice, where his father practiced medicine, Mattioli was sent to Padua and began the study of Greek and Latin, rhetoric, astronomy, geometry, and philosophy. He soon developed an interest in medicine and natural history, his main concerns until he received a degree in medicine at the University of Padua in 1523.

After his father’s death Mattioli returned with his mother to Siena, which was then experiencing civil unrest. He therefore left Siena and, wishing to improve his skill in surgery, moved to Perugia, where he studied under Gregorio Caravita. About 1520 he moved to Rome, where he attended the Santo Spirito Hospital and the San Giacomo Xenodochium for incurables, where he frequently dissected cadavers of syphilis victims. Mattioli also continued his interest in natural history and botany, making direct observations of herbs and plants. Following the sack of Rome in 1527, he moved to Trento.

In 1528, at Cles in Val di Non, Trentino–Alto Adige, Mattioli married a young woman named Elisabetta; in 1545 they had a son, Paolo (Pavolino), who died in childhood. During his stay in Trentino, where he began to practice medicine, Mattioli became an intimate friend, adviser, and physician to Cardinal Bernardo Clesio, bishop of Trento, who developed a great esteem for Mattioli. While in Trentino, Mattioli continued his observations of plants and wrote his first book.

After Cardinal Clesio’s death in 1539, Mattioli moved to Gorizia, apparently at the request of the inhabitants of that city, to practice medicine. His medical and natural history interests had increased and had developed particularly in phytology, both through the study of books and through direct observations of plants; in 1544 he published Di Pedacio Dioscoride anazarbeo libri cinque, which, through revisions and expansions, made him famous. In 1554 Mattioli was called to Prague, where he served first at the court of Ferdinand I and then at that of Maximilian II.

After the death of his first wife in 1557, Mattioli married Girolama di Varmo, of a noble Friuli family; they had two sons, Ferdinando and Massimiliano. In 1570 he married his third wife, Susanna Cherubina, of Trentino, by whom he had three children—Pietro Andrea, Lucrezia, and Eufemia.

In 1570, after visiting Verona, Mattioli left Prague and returned to the Tirol. He died of the plague at Trento apparently in January or February 1577. Buried in the cathedral, he is commemorated by a monument bearing his effigy in bas-relief.

Endowed with a wide-ranging knowledge, Mattioli concerned himself with a great variety of subjects, most of them involving botany and materia medica.

De morbi gallici curandi ratione, dialogus (Bologna, 1530), written in 1528 during his stay in Trentino and reprinted several times, was Mattioli’s first work. A traditional examination of the origins and treatment of syphilis, it deals with the modes of propagation and symptomatology, including buboes in the groin, which, according to some authors, Mattioli was the first to describe. The discussion centers on the efficacy of the potion obtained from guaiacum, or holy wood. In view of the large number of works dealing with holy wood, it is difficult to recognize any original contribution that Mattioli may have made.

Magno palazzo del cardinale di Trento (Venice, 1539), an elegant poem of some 450 octaves, is a description in verse of the cultured and humanistic environment of the palace of Cardinal Clesio.

Geografia di Claudio Ptolemeo Alessandrino(Venice, 1548), another nonmedical book, is an Italian translation of Ptolemy’s Geography and one of the earliest Italian translations from Latin of classical scientific writing.

Apologia adversus Amathum Lusitanum cum censura in eiusdem enarrationes (Venice, 1558) is a short work mainly polemical in content.

Epistola de bulbocastaneo…(Prague, 1558) illuminates Mattioli’ scientific personality through his new botanical methods and his contributions regarding the identification of plants mentioned by the ancients, their synonyms and proper names, and their spelling.

Epistolarum medicinalium libri quinque (Prague, 1561) contains the names of celebrated contemporary scientists, notably Konrad Gesner, Ulisse Aldrovandi, Francesco Calzolari, Giacomo Antonio Cortuso, and Gabriele Falloppio. It is a series of writing on various medical subjects, including alchemy, magnetism, pharmacology, and the causes and symptoms of diseases. Mattioli deals fully with plants in general —identification, curative powers—and with medicinal plants in particular, listing properties and habitats, and outlining methods for collecting and preserving samples.

Commentarii a Dioscoride is the work with which Mattioli’s name is chiefly linked. The first edition, Di Pedacio Dioscoride anazarbeo libri cinque. Dell’ historia, et materia medicinale tradotti in lingua volgare italiana da M. Pietro Andrea Mathiolo Sanese medico. Con amplissimi discorsi, et comenti, et doctissime annotationi, et censure del medesimo interprete… (Venice, 1544), is an Italian version of Dioscorides’s De materia medica (Περὶ ΰγης ἰατριкη̂ς). Mattioli’s original purpose was relatively modest: it was to provide doctors and apothecaries with a practical treatise in Italian with a commentary that would enable them to identify the medicinal plants mentioned by Dioscorides. This first edition, without illustrations, probably had a limited circulation. The highly successful Venice edition of 1548, also in Italian and with a new commentary, was entirely rewritten and was reprinted in 1550 and 1552.

It was probably this success that induced Mattioli to publish his first Latin translation of Dioscorides’ Commentarii, in libros sex Pedacii Dioscoridis anazarbei, De medica materia. Adjectis quam plurimis plantarum et animalium imaginibus, eodem authore (Venice, 1554), an edition of broader purpose than the previous ones. Unlike the Italian versions, this Latin edition —enriched by synonyms in various languages, provided with a special commentary, and accompanied by numerous illustrations valuable for the reader’s identification of Dioscorides’ simples—rendered the work accessible to scholars throughout Europe. From then Mattioli’s name was linked with that of Dioscorides. Further editions and reprints of the Commentarii continued practically without interruption until the eighteenth century. There were versions also in German, French, and Bohemian.

A critical examination of the features and the sometimes complex vicissitudes of the Commentarii would constitute an interesting chapter in the history of bibliology. Fundamental to the work’s success is its conception and execution as a practical scientific treatise. It was intended for daily use by physicians, herbalists, and others, who could find descriptions and notes on medicinal plants and herbs, Greek and Latin names and synonyms, and the equivalents in other languages. The work made it possible to identify and compare its plants and herbs with those mentioned by Dioscorides and also with those found in nature.

The Commentarii thus differed profoundly from translations by other authors, who generally insisted on lexical and grammatical aspects rather than on medical and botanical aims. Mattioli supported his work with new information, partly derived from his direct observation of plants and herbs and partly obtained from other authors. Many of the illustrations were reproductions of his own drawings or elaborations of drawings made by other authors; the rest were derived from original drawings placed at his disposal by other scholars.

From the scientific point of view, Mattioli’s work did not always win approval. Sachs, for example, asserted that Mattioli’s study of the medicinal effects of plants took priority to the observation of their morphgological characteristics. Certainly Mattioli’s interest in botanly was not primary but proceeded from his interest in therapy, and it was medicine the led him back to the observation of nature. Mattoli’s commentary on Dioscorides’ text was aimed largely at the practical purpose of medicinal phytognosis and acquired intrinsic value both through the wealth of its descriptive details of each plant and through its accurate drawings. Mattioli may therefore be considered a member of the Vesalian school of morphological observation.


The following works, which were consulted in the writing of this article, are also of value as sources concerning Mattioli’s writings, letters, MSS, and iconography, as well as the literature on him: Vincenzo Cappelletti, “Nota sulla medicina umbra del Rinascimento: Pietro Andrea Mattioli,” in Atti del IV Convegno di studi umbri (Perugia, 1967), pp. 513–532; Jerry Stannard, “P. A. Mattioli: Sixteenth-Century Commentator on Dioscorides,” in University of Kansas Libraries, Bibliographical Contributions, I (Lawrence, Kans., 1969), 59–81; Giovanni Battista de Toni, “Pierandrea Mattioli,” in Aldo Mieli, ed.,Gli scienziati italiani dall’inizio del medio evo ai giorni nostri…, I (Rome, 1921, 382–387; and La vita di Pietro Andrea Mattioli, collected from his works by Giuseppe Fabiani,edited with additions and notes by Luciano Banchi (Siena, 1872).

Bruno Zanobio