The Casanatense Tacuinum Sanitatis is a manuscript treatise on health, describing and illustrating hundreds of plants, animals, and minerals with curative properties. It was created at the behest of Giangaleazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, at his court in Milan at the end of the fourteenth century for presentation to Wenceslas IV, King of Germany and Bohemia. Its hundreds of illustrations, attributed to Giovannino de' Grassi and his son Salomone, include unframed paintings of specimens and scenes of daily—primarily rural—life. All are executed in delicate washes in a palette dominated by brown, green, and blue.
The manuscript's text, the Tacuinum sanitatis, is a thirteenth-century Latin translation of an eleventh-century Arabic treatise by Ibn Buṭlān, which presents the information in a series of tables. The Latin text takes its name, Tacuinum, from the Arabic word taqwim, meaning "tabular register."
A Diplomatic Gift
The manuscript opens with a frontispiece miniature that shows the crowned Wenceslas enthroned, holding a scepter and orb, and flanked by six Electors of Germany before a glittering diapered ground (fol. 1r). Personifications of the cardinal and theological virtues are pictured around the miniature. The coat of arms of Germany—a black eagle with outstretched wings on a gold ground—occupies the manuscript's other large miniature (fol. 21r).
Stalks, Leaves, and Roots
Most of the illustrations in the Casanatense manuscript depict plant specimens. The plants are customarily presented in their entirety, including the root structure. Some of the miniatures include landscape settings. For example, the image for balsam shows a tree—jars for collecting resin hanging from its branches—within the walled city of Babylon, with three guards stationed at the gate (fol. 33v).
Animals Domestic and Creatures Wild
Most of the depicted animals are domesticated, sometimes shown with their domesticators: for example, the sheep is pictured being shorn (fol. 142v). But there are also illustrations of animals in their natural settings, such as the sea sponge (fol. 250v). Few words are devoted to the dragon, but the illustration is large and renders the beast in great detail: a scaly green hybrid with enormous wings, taloned claws, a long tail, pointed ears, and long sharp teeth (fol. 92v).
Picturing Rural Life
The Casanatense manuscript's miniatures with human figures provide fascinating glimpses into contemporary rural life, such as a shepherd leading goats to a watering hole (fol. 57r) and a farmer harvesting squashes (fol. 86r). The mundane activity of cleaning out wine barrels and oil vessels is pictured (fol. 106r), as are milk vendor (fol. 143r) and a fisherman (fol. 208v).
The Tacuinum was written in two columns by two scribes employing an Italian version of Gothic Rotunda script associated with Petrarch (with a very small head on a). The entries are arranged alphabetically, except for the opening two pages devoted to gold, silver, and mercury. The alphabetical division of the text is articulated by the historiated initials, most containing a portrait bust of a generic ancient scholar. These are rendered in opaque paints in a palette that includes gold leaf.
In the Library of the King of Hungary
The manuscript was in the renowned Bibliotheca Corviniana of Mattias I (1443-1490), King of Hungary. His coat of arms was painted over Wenceslas's in the lower margin of the first page. The manuscript has many marginal annotations. Some are simple crosses; others are prose comments in both Latin and Hungarian, presumably made at the time the book was in the Corviniana.
The manuscript entered the Biblioteca Casanatense before 1744, probably in 1733. The current binding of green velvet with silver clasps dates from the end of the twentieth century.