Here for you a smiling garden of everlasting flowers. This sentence, inscribed in Latin in the 16th-century En Tibi herbarium, invites readers to enjoy a book of roughly 500 dried plants that is one of the oldest surviving botanical collections in the world. Bound in Italy during the Renaissance, the book contains some of the earliest herbarium records of oregano, thyme, and hot pepper, and has contributed to historians’ understanding of the origins of botany even as the identity of its maker remained a mystery for centuries.
“It’s like having a painting by Leonardo da Vinci and not knowing that it’s he who made it,” Anastasia Stefanaki, a botanist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, tells The Scientist. Hundreds of years ago, Dutch scholar and manuscript collector Isaac Vossius got hold of the En Tibi, and a year after his death in 1689, the book became part of Leiden University’s collection. To better understand the historical and scientific context of the book, a group of scholars recently asked Stefanaki, an expert in Mediterranean plants, to identify the specimens in the book. As she reviewed the plants pressed within the herbarium’s pages, she began to wonder if she and her colleagues could determine the origin of the iconic collection.
At the time the book was made, scholars recognized that apothecaries and physicians were dispensing sometimes-dangerous treatments based on the vague descriptions and illustrations in repeatedly reproduced editions of ancient herbal books. In an attempt to standardize such treatments, botanists started collecting, pressing, and preserving medicinal plants, as well as many others, in book pages. “That was a renaissance in botany that started in the sixteenth century in Italy,” Stefanaki says. She and her colleagues wanted to give credit to the creator of the En Tibi and others who had helped spark this revolution.
A professor of medical botany at the University of Bologna, Luca Ghini, who lived from 1490 until 1556, is considered one of the founding fathers of the herbarium, though no known examples of his books of pressed plants have survived. Many of Ghini’s students also created such books, and historians have speculated that maybe one of Ghini’s students was responsible for the En Tibi.
Comparing the plant species in the book with other famous herbaria from 16th-century Italy, Stefanaki and her colleagues found many similarities, and concluded that the collection probably did come from someone who been influenced by Ghini’s teachings, possibly whoever created the Erbario Cibo, another classic book of plants from the time. Because the authorship of the Erbario Cibo was also debated, attributed either to Ghini’s student Gherardo Cibo or to Francesco Petrollini, Ghini’s contemporary, the team examined the handwriting in that book and the En Tibi, along with writing samples from Cibo and Petrollini. The analysis yielded hints that Petrollini created both the En Tibi and the Erbario Cibo (PLOS ONE, 14:e0217779, 2019).
“It seems to me that they have done pretty careful detective work,” says Paula Findlen, a professor of Italian history at Stanford University who was not involved in the work, calling the authors’ conclusion “a really well-informed possibility.”