On Plants


Historia Plantarum (On plants) is a natural science encyclopedia, in which animals, plants, and minerals are illustrated and described for their medicinal properties, in keeping with the medieval tradition of the tacuina medievali (medieval health handbooks), and from which the codex derives its most common name, Tacuinum sanitatis. The work was first compiled as Taqwim al-Sihhah (The maintenance of health) by the 11th-century Baghdad physician Ibn Buṭlān, and chief among his Greek sources was Dioscorides, a physician in the first century. The court in Sicily commissioned a Latin translation in the mid-13th century. The work is divided into sections ordered alphabetically, each of which is decorated with precious architectural motifs that intersect like branches stippled with gold. The text is illustrated with splendid miniatures that were executed in the Northern Italian Lombard style predominantly used by Giovannino and Salomone de’ Grassi. The illustrations show animals, plants, minerals, and utensils, painted in watercolors or simply drawn, located at the top of the manuscript pages. The first entry of each alphabetic section is adorned with a decorative first letter that usually includes in its center figures of learned men or physicians. These are represented in half-length figures, framed with ornamental friezes and architectural motifs as well as figures of animals and humans. The initial letters of each chapter are illuminated in gold on a blue background; plain initial letters and paragraph signs are painted in red and blue. Many pages are decorated with phytomorphic and zoomorphic motifs. The codex was created at the Visconti court in Milan for King Wenceslas IV, who was born into the House of Luxembourg, ruled Bohemia from 1378 until his death in 1419, was king of Germany 1376–1400, and was emperor-elect (but not emperor) of the Holy Roman Empire. Duke Giangaleazzo Visconti gave it to Wenceslas circa 1396–97. On folio 1r, on a mosaic blue background, a rather large portrait depicts Wenceslas among the six electors of the Holy Roman Empire, surrounded by the three theological and the four cardinal virtues. At the center of the bottom margin on the same page, an illumination of the coat of arms of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (reigned 1458–90) is superimposed on the original coat of arms of the House of Luxembourg. Corvinus inherited the codex and added it to his library in Buda, which became known as the Bibliotheca Corviniana, and had his own workshop of miniaturists insert his coat of arms. Of the original binding, executed in the workshop of Buda’s scriptorium at the end of the 15th century, only a few traces remain. When the Corvinus herbal was acquired by the Bibliotheca Casanatense is not known. There is no catalog of the original collection of manuscripts that belonged to Cardinal Girolamo Casanate. However, the total absence of a history of the Tacuinum from the death of Casanate in 1700 until 1744, the year in which it first appeared in the index of Casantense manuscripts compiled by the Dominican fathers, could indicate that it came from the cardinal’s collection.

Last updated: October 17, 2017