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Renaissance Botanical and Zoological Gardens

Renaissance Botanical and Zoological Gardens


Throughout the Middle Ages, Europeans regarded plants and animals from a very pragmatic viewpoint. Plants were seen as sources of food, medicines, and wood. Animals were valued as food and as aids to mankind by providing power (oxen and horses) and help in hunting (dogs). But neither plants nor animals were studied scientifically until the dawn of the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. As thousands of previously unknown specimens poured into Europe from around the world, the science of botany began to evolve. Plants were carefully examined, classified, and exchanged between scholars. Scores of new animal species were discovered and brought back to Europe. One result of this activity was the founding of numerous botanical and zoological gardens, establishments that introduced these exotic species to the general public and helped break down many medieval myths.


In medieval Europe, botany (the science of plants) was essentially limited to the study and copying of writings from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. In particular, scholars relied heavily on the work of Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek doctor who served in the Roman army, about whom virtually nothing more is known today. Sometime around a.d. 60 he published De Materia Medica, which was basically a summary of Greek pharmacological knowledge. In it, Dioscorides discussed approximately 1,000 drugs, three-fifths of which were derived from plants. Medieval interest in plants was so narrow that for the next fifteen centuries the Materia Medica remained the authoritative botanical text in Europe. Unfortunately, its descriptions of plants were quite short, often making it impossible for the reader to distinguish one species from another.

Materia Medica was extremely influential, however, because Dioscorides repeatedly stressed the importance of plants as sources of medicines. Throughout the entire Middle Ages, scholars studied plants solely for their medicinal properties. Their books, which are known as herbals, relied on Dioscorides as their primary source of knowledge. But as the Materia Medica was repeatedly copied by hand, errors inevitably occurred and were incorporated into subsequent copies. Even more seriously, since botany relies on illustrations of plants to propagate information, copies of the original drawings degenerated to the point that they were replaced by formalized and increasingly fictitious pictures. The errors in medieval herbals seem ludicrous today. For example, they described trees whose leaves turned into birds if they fell on the ground, and into fish if they dropped into water. They also contained drawings of the Scythian lamb said to exist in Asia, which had the roots and trunk of a small tree but the body of a lamb in place of branches and leaves.

Medieval interest in animals was similarly restricted. While zoos existed in the Greek world as collections of animals for study as well as for exhibition, by the time of the Roman Empire animals were captured and brought to Europe either to be slaughtered by gladiators or as exotic food for the jaded tastes of epicureans. This declining interest continued in the millennium-long medieval period. The few animal collections that existed then were simply menageries, made with no scientific purpose in mind. Henry III (1207-1272) of England kept a menagerie in the Tower of London, which included camels, lions, leopards, and the first elephant ever seen in the country. The one medieval menagerie that did lead to some scientific knowledge was that of Frederick II (1194-1250), the king of Sicily and the Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick made several discoveries about animal behavior. For instance, he learned that the lead cranes flying in V formations switch places during their flight. Other than Frederick's work, however, the pre-Renaissance menagerie provided little scientific information.

The fifteenth century witnessed the Middle Ages finally coming to an end. One sign of this was the growing desire to explore the non-European world. A variety of motives lay behind the Renaissance's exploring zeal, among them: the search for new trade routes to Asia that would eliminate the Moslem middlemen; the desire to spread Catholicism outside of Europe after the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century split the medieval church; and the strong sense of curiosity and adventure that permeated Renaissance thought. By the early 1500s, European navigators had sailed around Africa to India and were exploring the West Indies and the American continents. China and Japan were soon reached. When the Age of Exploration voyagers returned from these far-flung lands, they carried with them new species of plants and animals never before seen in Europe. These new species triggered a huge scientific enterprise, particularly in botany.


Among the new species flooding into Europe were plants such as maize, the potato and tomato, cassava, tobacco, vanilla, chocolate, pineapples, sunflowers, rhubarb, and tulips. Newly discovered animals included llamas, bisons, turkeys, iguanas, guinea pigs, toucans, and the anaconda. Even though the Italian city-states were not directly involved in the explorations, examples of these newly discovered species were quickly purchased by individuals in the commercial cities of northern Italy, such as Venice and Florence. The merchants and bankers in these cities were wealthy enough to be able to afford these specimens and their commitment to the new scholarship was very strong. They sought to make Italy the scientific leader of Europe, hence their support of the great universities located there.

Since wealthy Italian families also sought to collect unusual plants as status symbols, the first concentrated efforts to grow the nonindigenous specimens occurred in Italy. The Medici family in Florence experimented with growing potatoes and pineapples before the end of the fifteenth century. By 1550 Italians were regularly eating tomatoes, which they called "love-apples" for their supposed aphrodisiac powers; and peppers were a common food by 1580. As the cult of the private garden spread in Renaissance Italy, the search for plants with pharmacological properties was accelerated. Plants with reputed medicinal powers became, after gold and silver bullion and spices, the most eagerly sought of the New World products.

There were two crucial results of this revival of interest in botany in early Renaissance Italy. The first was the appointment in Italian universities of special professorships to teach botany. The most important of these appointments was that of Luca Ghini in 1534 at Bologna. Ghini perfected the method of preserving plants by drying them under pressure between sheets of paper. This marked the beginning of the herbarium, a basic tool in establishing botany as a science. Dried specimens could be preserved almost indefinitely; they could be stored and examined at will and could easily be exchanged between scholars. The second result of this fascination with botany was the founding of the first botanical gardens, which were established as branches of universities or other institutions of higher learning. They served the dual purpose of maintaining living plants for study and research, and providing educational tools for the public. Initially, both the new professors and the botanical gardens were tied to medical schools, reflecting the pervading interest in the medicinal properties of plants. But once established, these gardens were the cornerstone of the science of botany. Here plants were not only collected and studied, but botanists began to compare them to other plants and to devise systems of classification.

The first botanical garden was founded by the Venetian Senate in July 1545 at Padua. Almost immediately, a second one was set up in Pisa. Others rapidly followed, the most important being those of Florence and Ferrara (1550) and one in Bologna (1567). Soon botanical gardens were established outside of Italy such as those in Leipzig (1580), Leiden (1587), Montpellier (1593) Heidelberg (1593), Paris (1620), Jena (1629), Oxford (1632), Amsterdam (1646), Uppsala (1655), and Edinburgh (1670). Since the acclimatization of tropical plants was a very difficult undertaking, vast heated glass buildings (greenhouses) were constructed. By the end of the seventeenth century, the botanical gardens of Italy had been equalled by French gardens, especially by the one at Montpellier, where research was predominant, and at Paris (the Jardin du Roi, or King's Garden), where displays for the public took precedence. But the expansion of all these "living encyclopedias" was impressive. At Oxford, for example, the catalogue of 1658 listed about 2,000 plants, no more than 600 of which were indigenous to the British Isles, and this after only 26 years of the garden's existence.

The treatment of the newly discovered animals that were being imported into Europe was rather different from that accorded to plants. What was most dissimilar was that there was very little scholarly interest in the animals as compared to that expressed toward plants. There was, for instance, little attention paid to the establishment of zoological gardens by universities. The main reason for this was undoubtedly because while plants provided medicinal relief for many human ailments, animals did not. Foreign animals were valued for their curious appearances and differences from European animals, but they had no perceivable intrinsic value. They were expensive to buy and maintain and were often hard to keep alive; caring for plants was easy in comparison. In addition, plants were relatively simple to multiply while encouraging animals to propagate in captivity was often nearly impossible (this still remains the case with some species today). Further, a dead stuffed animal was regarded as having as much scientific value as one alive in a zoological garden. This attitude would retard the study of animal behavior for a very long time.

Although zoos did not fully assume their modern form until the nineteenth century, Renaissance nobles and monarchs did establish menageries as status symbols. These private collections were often referred to as zoological gardens, particularly when they were combined with collections of plants. They were located all over Europe; Leo X (a Medici and pope from 1513-1521) even set one up at the Vatican. One of the most notable of these early collections was founded at the Château de Chantilly in France by the Montmorency family. It often exhibited rare zoological specimens never before seen in Europe. It survived until 1792 when it was destroyed during the French Revolution. Another French zoological garden that came to an unhappy end was the royal menagerie in the Louvre in Paris, which was famous for its aviary. In January 1583, King Henry III (1551-1589) personally killed all of its animals after he had dreamed that they were going to eat him.

One of the most important of these early collections was the royal zoological garden established in Sweden in 1561. Over a period of two centuries, it evolved into a true research institution and had a strong influence on the work of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), perhaps the greatest of all botanists. There was also an important zoological garden founded outside Paris at Versailles by Louis XIII (1601-1643) in 1624. Although it eventually fell victim to the French Revolution, among the species that had their first European exhibitions at Versailles were the condor, hummingbird, toucan, cardinal, tanager, lemur, and tapir. In central Europe, three outstanding menageries were founded by Maximilian II, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1564 to 1576: at Ebersdorf (1552) and at Prague and Näugebäu (both in 1558). Descendants of the animals in these menageries eventually formed the first collection of the Schönbrunn in Vienna (1752), the oldest modern zoo in the world.


Further Reading

Croke, Vicki. The Modern Ark: The Story of Zoos: Past, Present, and Future. New York: Scribner, 1997.

Duval, Marguerite. The King's Garden. Trans. by Annette Tomarken and Claudine Cowen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1982.

Fisher, James. Zoos of the World: The Story of Animals in Captivity. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press, 1967.

Minelli, Alessandro, ed. The Botanical Garden of Padua, 1545-1995. Venice: Marsilio, 1995.

Morton, A.G. History of Botanical Science: An Account of the Development of Botany from Ancient Times to the Present Day. London: Academic Press, 1981.

Prest, John. The Garden of Eden: The Botanic Garden and the Re-Creation of Paradise. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

Thacker, Christopher. The History of Gardens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

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