Books: The latest volumes of the Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo reassemble the collector’s botanic illustrations

Visual reproductions to capture nature


Federico Cesi (1585–1630), Prince of Acquasparta, founded Europe’s first scientific society, the Accademia dei Lincei (Italian for “of the Lynx-like”, because of their acuity of vision), in Rome in 1603. In due course its members included Galileo and Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657). This was an age of empirical investigation: antiquaries and plant-collectors were building up collections in “cabinets of curiosities” (precursors of museums) and botanic gardens as firm evidence of irrefutable facts, in sharp contrast to the medieval acceptance of ancient authorities, superstitious credulity and the contradictory passions of contemporary religious conflicts.

Prince Cesi began to commission accurate paintings of plants and fungi; when he died in 1630, these were bought as part of the prince’s library by Cassiano, who continued to build up what he called his Museo Cartaceo (Paper Museum) until it comprised more than 7,000 items at his death. In 1703 this passed from Cassiano’s great nephew to Pope Clement XI and in 1714 to his nephew, Alessandro Albani, joining his already large collection of drawings and prints. In 1762 the greater part of Cardinal Albani’s collection, some 200 folio volumes, was purchased by King George III; since 1834 most of it has been housed at Windsor Castle as part of the Royal Library. Eight volumes of botanical and mycological (fungus) drawings remained in Rome till they were requisitioned by the French in 1798 and these are now at the Institut de France in Paris. In all, nearly 2,800 natural history drawings are known to survive.

In the mid-1980s an ambitious plan was hatched to produce a fully illustrated catalogue raisonné of the entire Paper Museum in two series, Antiquities and Architecture (Series A) and Natural History (Series B). The two volumes reviewed here are the sixth and seventh to be published of the 16 planned in Series B.

The 211 plates of the surviving third volume of the Erbario Miniato and a further 67 believed to be from a dismembered second volume were part of Cesi’s earliest collection of drawings; a putative first volume has been totally lost. Their authorship is unknown, though in the opinion of the authors nearly all are by the same hand (although this is debatable). “Most…were constructed from quick outlines in black chalk or graphite, over which watercolour and bodycolour were applied in a rapid, fluid manner, sometimes with touches in more intense tones to emphasise a particular quality such as the fleshiness of a leaf.” Many are of Italian wild plants, usually those with supposed pharmacological properties, but there are also exotic species, ornamental garden plants, cultivated fruits and vegetables and a few fungi.


There is internal evidence that the material was built up over time, but Cesi himself seems to have been responsible for arranging it in its present order and the vellum binding dates at least from the Albani Collection and very probably from Cassiano’s time. Cesi annotated the illustrations, often with reference to what he called “mio matiolo grande”, his own copy of the 1568 richly illustrated Italian edition of Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s commentary on the De Materia Medica of Dioscorides; the order of the species in Mattioli’s text determined the arrangement of the Erbario Miniato. Pedianos Dioscorides was a surgeon in Nero’s armies, whose treatise, originally written in Greek around AD 60, was regarded for centuries as the most authoritative work on plants and their medicinal uses.

Scientific purpose

Although Cassiano was an art patron who commissioned more than 40 paintings by Poussin, the purpose of his collection of plant paintings was strictly scientific: the Lincei saw “visual reproduction as a means of analysing and classifying the creations of nature”, far superior to verbal description in distinguishing between different species. Presumably Prince Cesi had commissioned watercolours because he considered that the woodcuts in his “matiolo grande” were inadequate for this scientific task; nevertheless he showed a fairly uncritical acceptance of Dioscorides’ descriptions of the medical benefits of the plants illustrated.

Later drawings commissioned by Cesi, such as the 1,900 or so now at the Institut de France, and by Cassiano or his brother Carlo Antonio, reveal a shift from an interest in medicinal properties to a fascination with the complexities of plant structure and reproduction, often as revealed by the microscope; they “employ a virtuoso technique quite unlike that used in the Erbario Miniato, which instead had adopted an economical approach intended to capture the most obvious identifying characteristics of the plants”. Executed as they were before this shift of emphasis, the paintings of the Erbario often fail to show clearly the sexual organs of the flowers depicted.


Although the Erbario plates are more life-like than the woodcuts of most herbals, they fail to attain the fluid naturalism of the 77 surviving watercolours by Hans Weiditz dating from 1529. The majority appear rather flat and many of them show a disappointingly small proportion of the plant, though a few, such as the paintings of a pink cultivated snapdragon (Plate 98), the crown imperial (200) reproduced on the jacket of Volume 1, the deep pink foxglove (201), the wild tulip (209), the bee orchid (246) and the wild peony (253) reproduced on the jacket of Volume 2, are more elaborate and look less two-dimensional. The illustrations of fungi (33-51) are also lifelike. Most of the paintings could be described as reasonably competent but not outstanding plant portraits reminiscent of many a Victorian lady’s sketchbook. One has only to turn to the last 16 illustrations to see what more talented artists of the period were capable of: the painting of a fruiting twig of a rare variety of pear (278) with a longitudinal and cross-sections is as faithful a representation as similar ones in the 19th-century Herefordshire Pomona.

The Lincei were especially intrigued by the challenge presented to any tidy taxonomy— by anomalous forms of some species, but they were “rigorous in excluding the fabulous and the fantastic that until then had so bedevilled the study of nature”. Among several examples at the end of Volume 2 is the finely executed Siamese-twin melon (281), attributed to Vincenzo Leonardi and reproduced on the back jacket.

The introductory chapters in Volume 1 are scholarly but eminently readable, skilfully setting the Erbario Miniato in its historical context and relating it to earlier and contemporary developments in herbals. Each painting is accompanied by a (usually) facing commentary, with modern English and scientific names, its location, numbering and sometimes watermark details, interpretation of Cesi’s original Italian name and other annotations, and description and discussion of the species portrayed. One could quibble about some of the English names (for example, Geum urbanum is wood avens rather than cinquefoil, Potentilla reptans is cinquefoil rather than tormentil and couch grass to British gardeners is certainly not Cynodon dactylon) and it is depressing that even the best printers cannot now be relied on to reproduce ancient Greek names correctly, but these are small complaints.

The Erbario Miniato was not well known until the publication of these two volumes. In 1979 Wilfred Blunt and Sandra Raphael described it in their fine monograph, The Illustrated Herbal, as a “little-known book” and its paintings as “decorative if at times rather crude”, although the revised edition of 1994 mentions Cassiano, his “museum on paper” and “the scholarly intent of the herbal”; in both editions the colourful painting of foxglove already referred to is reproduced in unexciting sepia. The instigators, sponsors, authors, editors, publishers and printers of this magnificent series are to be warmly congratulated on providing such a splendid visual record of and lucid commentary on these paintings.

Editor of Sedges of the British Isles: (Botanical Society of the British Isles) £12.50 (pb) ISBN 9780901158055

o Fabio Garbari and Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi, The Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo: a Catalogue Raisonné. Series B: Natural History, Part Six: Flora: The Erbario Miniato and other drawings, Volumes 1 and 2 (The Royal Collection in association with Harvey Miller Publishers), 697 pp, £150 (hb) ISBN 9781905375202 (Vol.1), ISBN 9781905375209 (Vol.2), ISBN 9781905375189 (the set)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Visual reproductions to capture nature'