Herbaria and contemporary creations inspired by the medicinal virtues of plants at the Marciana National Library in Venice

The exhibition “Gardens and Medicinal Virtues, Health and Beauty between Past and Present” will be open to the public from Saturday, 11 February to Sunday, 2 April 2023, at the Monumental Rooms of the Marciana National Library, Venice, Italy.
A collaboration between the Ca’ Foscari Department of Humanities and the Marciana National Library, the exhibition is curated by Sabrina Minuzzi (Ca’ Foscari) and it represents the conclusion of her research project ““MAT-MED in Transit. The Transforming Knowledge of Healing Plants” (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship (Global), G.A. 844886).

The exhibition aims to reflect on the evolution of the relationship between the individual and nature. The question it seeks to answer, across the items on display, is: can we learn something from our ancient relationship with nature that will enable us to build a better future?
In the past, many gardens were above all a resource for human health. In fact, plants and herbs, together with some animal and mineral substances, constituted the raw material for the composition of medicinal remedies. The three natural kingdoms were the materia medica, and herbs were the materia medica par excellence.
Doctors, apothecaries, but also ordinary people were driven by enthusiasm for the discovery of new plants and new therapeutic properties of known plants. Some of them cultivated their own botanical gardens, even in the narrow spaces of Venice.
We know them today through the paper gardens they left behind: manuscript and dried herbaria, intensively researched and annotated printed herbaria, recipe books compiled for personal use and letters.

On the occasion, among the documents just mentioned, the Five books of plants compiled by Pietro Antonio Michiel (1510-1576) are on display, in which the characteristics and virtues of 1,028 plants and herbs are accompanied by as many painted illustrations.The book is the fulcrum of the exhibition, the five precious volumes of the collection, covered with parchment covers in four different colors, contain the tables painted and described by Michiel and are kept by his entry into Marciana in a curious bayonet box in the form of a book. The book was restored with funding from the Ca’ Foscari University and carried out by the restorer Paola Santin.

The itinerary of the exhibition continues with virtuous examples of the use of ancient knowledge of materia medica: in the development of new drugs starting from ancient pharmacopoeias and herbaria (Aboca displays objects from the Aboca Museum and the work of the extraordinary naturalist and engraver Maria Sybilla Merian); in the artisanal production of a herbal liqueur born from an antidote patented in 1603 and the subject of a centuries-old European success (the Orvietano, with vintage ‘bugiardini’ and advertising prints); finally in three showcases of contemporary artistic creations inspired by the beauty of medical material, declined on paper and linen: engravings, plants imprinted on paper, art embroideries.

The exhibition concludes with a board game which is a collage of illustrations taken from the 1565 edition of the famous commentary on Dioscorides by Pietro Andrea Mattioli: The garden of magical plants, designed today to bring us closer to the awareness of the medicinal virtues of nature.

The research work behind these themes will be presented in the International Conference entitled ‘Materia medica and books, health and beauty in the early modern age’ which will be held from Wednesday 29 to Friday 31 March 2023 at the Marciana National Library (Monumental rooms) and which will see the participation of international keynote speakers.



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