Composed by Greek surgeon Pedanius Dioscorides in the 1st century AD, the Codex Neapolitanus is among the most ancient manuscripts of Materia Medica, the most popular medical work of Greco-Roman times. Apart from its contents, the codex is extraordinary due to the vast number of botanical illustrations and extremely detailed plant descriptions.
The Dioscorides Neapolitanus: a Medieval Best-Seller
Dioscorides was a major authority in his field, as witnessed by the widespread use of his works in time. During the 6th century the opus was translated into Latin; since the 9th century Arabic, Syrian and Hebrew versions also apperad. Materia Medica was thus the medical point of reference for doctors throughout the West and East and was read by physicians and botanists alike. The Dioscorides Neapolitanus dates back to the early 7th century, even though scholars are still unsure if it was composed in Italy or Byzantium. Professor Cavallo sees the manuscript's illustrations as the obvious product of Greek artists in Italy.
The Miniatures: Tradition Renewed
In the opinion of some scholars, the 403 botanical and pharmaceutical miniatures of the Dioscorides Neapolitanus are not 'originals': rather, they could be copies of more ancient models. Among them Dioscorides might have used the herbal of Crateuas, a text that falls in the field of Alexandrian or Pergamene textbook illumination of the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. One, two or three depictions of plants occupy the upper half of each page, the lower half containing explanatory text. The verso pages are mostly blank or only bear brief text, thus avoiding writing over the colour that shows through the parchment.
Legibility and an Aid to Readers
The script used in the Dioscorides Neapolitanus the so-called Biblical majuscule, an extremely readable Greek book hand. Each botanical illustration is flanked below by the name of each plant in red ink, another aid to legibility. Several annotations and marginalia in the codex witness that the Neapolitan manuscript was extremely popular and used throughout the centuries.
A Textbook for Physicians and Surgeons
In each chapter, Dioscorides describes a single plant. The latter's name is first defined (with many synonims); then, its properties are described together with its pharmacological use in curing specific diseases. Thus, the Dioscorides Neapolitanus is both a botanical and pharmacological work, which was conceived as a textbook on drugs to be used by doctors and surgeons. The order in which each plant appears in the text is purely alphabetical: a systematic order based on the therapeutic properties of each specimen was forced out in favor of a an easier method for users to find their way round the book as fast as possible.
A Mysterious History
Little is known about the history of the Dioscorides Neapolitanus. Up to the 18th century, it was preserved in the Augustinian monastery of S. Giovanni a Carbonara in Naples. In 1718, the Habsburg family moved it to the Viennese Court Library: in 1919, after the peace negotiations following WWI, the codex was retaken to Naples, this time to the Biblioteca Nazionale, where it is still preserved among its greatest treasures.