The Vault

Beautiful Watercolors of Helpful Plants, from a 16th-Century Book of Herbal Medicine

These watercolors of herbs and plants useful to doctors are from an Italian edition of ancient Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, reissued with commentary, additional material, and new illustrations sometime between 1564 and 1584. The Public Domain Review posted some of these earlier this week; the images come from the British Library, which hosts digitized versions of 24 of the book’s 131 total illustrations on its website.

These illustrations come from the new version of the book authored by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, a physician living in Siena who had interests in pharmacology and botany. Dioscordes’ work cataloging and describing plants with medical utility had been a standard reference for physicians and doctors in training and was reissued many times between its first publication, in 70 A.D. and the time this version was created.

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Historian Richard Westfall writes that Mattioli had published several other commentaries on pharmacological topics before he turned to this edition of Dioscorides, including “a traditional examination of the origins and treatment of syphilis (in which he was either the first or one of the first to recommend mercury as a cure).”

For this edition of the classic reference work, Mattioli added a new group of 100 plants to Dioscorides’ canon, and artist Gherardo Cibo contributed these watercolors. Cibo’s backgrounds are particularly interesting, offering small landscapes and scenes; often, Cibo includes the figure of a wandering botanist, contemplating plant samples in a rustic setting. 

Polygonatum or Elleboro bianco (Solomon’s seal). 

The British Library 

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Iris (now considered primarily a decorative plant; its root was formerly used as a cathartic.)

The British Library 

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Euphrasia officinalis or “Eringio” (Eyebright). 

The British Library 

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Asarum europaeum or “Assaro” (Hazelwort). 

The British Library 

Mercurialis annua or “Mercorella basillico” (Annual mercury). 

The British Library 

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Paeonia mascula or “Peonia Rossa” (Wild Peony). 

The British Library 

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