Containing more than 150 beautiful full-page botanical illustrations, most set in sweeping fantastic landscapes, this sixteenth-century manuscript was created by the Italian botanist Gherardo Cibo. Reflecting the new naturalism of the Italian Renaissance, the images are highly detailed and exacting, depicting each plant in color with its root system. These are accompanied by descriptive inscriptions on the opposite page taken from the Discorsi by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian herbal that provides commentary on the herbal of the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides, known to Western Europeans as De materia medica.
The manuscript is written in Italian in Humanistic Cursive and is datable around 1564-1584 with some later additions. With its companion volume, it provides an insight into the practice of botany in an age in which Europeans were discovering plants from around the world. It is a sublime combination of science and art, a unification of observation and expression.
Exquisite Full-Page Illustrations of Plants
Cibo's illustrated herbal follows from the late medieval tradition of botanical manuscripts that themselves departed from earlier, moralizing texts to take a more scientific approach. Here, the plants are drawn from nature, rendered as if they had been uprooted and placed in the center of the page complete with delicate shading and structural details. This manuscript departs from the medieval tradition further by incorporating plants from Asia and the Americas.
Glorious Italian Landscapes
Of the more than 150 illustrations, 131 are full-page framed compositions of the subject plant placed centrally over a sweeping, often fantastic landscape based on the lands of central Italy. Verdant hills and mountains, rolling streams with waterfalls, and broad glades all feature prominently, often with castles, bridges, and other architectural works nestled along seashores or perched on craggy escarpments. Often cloudy skies of pink and blue offset the plants in the foreground.
A Unique and Personal Masterpiece
In the details of the expansive landscapes, Cibo often depicted the botanist at work in the field, lending a personalized air to the manuscript. Additional personalization is found in the painted sketches of flowers and color swatches mostly of pinks and yellows accompanied by a sorrowful quatrain (fol. 184v). A companion manuscript, also in the British Library (MS Add 22333), contains more paintings and a personal letter from Pietro Andrea Mattioli to Cibo praising his work. The manuscript likely remained in Italy for much of its life. It was purchased by the British Museum in 1850 from Giovanni Battista Constabili Containi.