Plant records: Most overdue library book?

Name: the ‘En Tibi’ herbarium
Scientific name: ‘En tibi perpetuis ridentem floribus hortum‘ [‘Here for you a smiling garden of everlasting flowers’]
Known for: not being of known origin
Record broken: Most overdue library book?

If you ever want to start an argument between two historians of science, ask them when a scientific field started. The problem is that creating a line between science and not-science is imposing a simple division on a fuzzy process. In the case of Botany, classification is important, and Linnaeus is the foundation for modern work, but there was plenty that came before that helped shape the discipline.

The En Tibi Herbarium. Source Stefanaki et al. 2019.

One of the books that helped make Botany a science is the En Tibi herbarium. This is a book with 473 dried plants is named after its opening description: En tibi perpetuis ridentem floribus hortum (Here for you a smiling garden of everlasting flowers). The En Tibi was part of a Renaissance revolution in writing about plants. Many of the books before this period were copies of copies of copies of classical texts by authors such as Pliny. 

“Renaissance Italian scholars radically changed this state of affairs, giving birth to the discipline of botany as we know it today: the plants mentioned by the ancient authors were no longer illustrated through obscure descriptions but by reference to actual plant specimens,” write Anastasia Stefanaki and colleagues in a recent PLOS One article. “More than that, the idea that the ancients had described all existing species was abandoned, and an increasing interest in plant taxonomy triggered the first botanical expeditions and the discovery of new species. The collected plants were no longer air-dried but pressed-dried among paper sheets, mounted and bound into books–the first herbaria.”

The origin of the En Tibi herbarium is a mystery. The first historical record is from its appearance in Prague, in the art cabinet of Emperor Rudolph II. Bavarians looted it during a war and then the Swedes captured it in 1632. Queen Christina of Sweden gave it to the Dutch librarian Isaac Vossius and when he died Leiden University purchased it, where it stays till today. But the title of book suggests it was intended as a gift, so there’s not much reason to assume it started in Prague, especially as northern Italy was where the early herbaria were made.

Trying to identify where the book has come from has been a puzzle for centuries, but Stefanaki and colleagues may have solved it.

They started by looking at the plant taxa in the book. It’s not a case of finding a plant that is only found in one region and using that as The Clue. The herbarium includes tomato and hot pepper, so you’d end up arguing for an American source on that basis. Instead the team examined the book as a whole and looked to see where plants were most likely to come from. In the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society they write, “Considering the geographical distribution of the plants in the Italian territory, we see that the En Tibi contains mostly common taxa that are widespread in the country. However, there seems to be a higher density of native taxa to central and north-central Italy.”

Solanum lycopersicum var. lycopersicum. Source: Image: Naturalis Biodiversity Center / Wikipedia

“Also of interest is the presence in the En Tibi of Origanum dictamnus (‘Dictamus cretensis’), a Cretan endemic aromatic species used by ancient Greeks and Romans for healing wounds and as a poisoning antidote… The island of Crete, which was under Venetian rule during the 16th century, was a popular destination of contemporary Italian botanical explorers…, and perhaps the use of this stenoendemic species in the preparation of the Italian drink Martini finds its roots in these early explorations.”

This year’s article by Stefanaki and colleagues expands on the work, by comparing the En Tibi with other Italian herbaria, examining the paper and watermarks of the book and looking closely at the handwriting. They also subjected some hairs found in the book to DNA analysis.

The analysis of the plants places the En Tibi very close the Rome herbarium, and also another book called the Aldrovandi herbarium. “Despite the notable similarity of the En Tibi with the Aldrovandi herbarium, we consider it unlikely for Aldrovandi to be the maker of the En Tibi herbarium, given the very detailed record about his life and a striking difference with the En Tibi in respect to the authors cited in the plant names. Aldrovandi was not only a rigorous collector of plants, but also a scrupulous reader of botanical authors. Only in the first volume of his collection, a plethora of authors are repeatedly cited; besides the authors mentioned in the En Tibi, we also frequently find Mattioli, Apuleius, Tragus, Anguillara, De Lobel, Tabernaemontanus, Dalechamps, Oribasius, Cordus and Galen, while some more authors are few times mentioned, namely Clusius, Gesner, Oribasius and Guilandinus.” write Stefanaki and colleagues in PLOS One.

They conclude on the species, the names and the arrangement of the plants in the book that the En Tibi and the Rome herbarium share an author. Comparing with other works, they narrow the author down to Francesco Petrollini. “Not much is known about him, besides that he was born in Viterbo, studied medicine in Bologna, where he graduated in 1551, two years before Aldrovandi, and that he worked as a physician in the nearby town of Cotignola,” say Stefanaki and colleagues “Petrollini is referred to as the “mentor” of Aldrovandi; although Aldrovandi regarded Luca Ghini as his academic teacher, it was Petrollini who took young Ulisse to the field and showed him the plants in the wild. Petrollini possibly shared specimens with Aldrovandi, they visited together botanical gardens, and possibly also carried out joint fieldtrips.”

The watermarks in the book match watermarks known to be in use in Bologna around the 1550s, and this is around the time that Petrollini was in the city.

Hammer-and-anvil watermark. Source Stefanaki et al. 2019.

The article authors also show how the source of the En Tibi has remained unknown for so long. Handwriting suggests that multiple hands helped with the work. The DNA analysis of the hairs also points to at least four people being in close proximity to the book as it was being made. The conclusion is that a book of unknown origin originally came from Bologna around 1558. There have been 168,358 days since December 31 1588. While I haven’t been able to find out what Bologna’s late fees are, Oxford’s are around 20p per day, which would lead to a fine of £33671.60p which was €40,000.43 when I checked the exchange rate. If the book is overdue from a library in Italy, that might be the biggest overdue fine for a botanical textbook.