Renaissance Traditions

During the Renaissance period, a variety of intellectual and historical developments shaped natural history as a discipline. At the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century, the rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman texts prompted critical study of ancient and contemporary knowledge about the natural world. Humanist scholars also studied the language and transmission of these ancient texts, comparing different manuscript versions to derive the most accurate version. As a result, scholars began to question the accuracy of the text of Pliny’s Natural History. Several Italian humanists published treatises revealing its factual and textual errors in the 1490’s. Over the next two centuries, scholars would come to reject the Natural History as a scientific work, although it was (and is) still studied for its historical and literary merits.

Scholars in medicine were especially interested in ancient works on the pharmaceutical properties of plants; Italian physicians in particular could study descriptions of local plants described by classical authors. Interest in ancient works about the medical properties of plants was not confined to Italy, but Northern European scholars found that the species described in classical Greek and Roman texts did not grow in their locales. Many of these scholars began to study local species, travelling throughout Europe to identify and describe plants and animals not mentioned by the ancients. By the end of the 16th century, so many descriptions of plants and animals had been published that scholars came to realize the importance of taxonomies to systematically organize and standardize descriptive information about known species.

Though European explorers travelling in Asia, Africa, and the Americas encountered new species of flora and fauna, few of them were interested in describing them for the scholarly community. Rather, explorers’ writings described the commercial or medical value of natural resources in colonial lands. Scholars in Europe were hesitant to accept works about plants and animals on other continents, since they were unable to verify descriptions through their own observations. Expeditions of later centuries would scientifically describe and classify organisms outside Europe.

Selected resources at L. Tom Perry Special Collections

Ermolao Barbaro. Castigationes Plinii (Corrections to Pliny). Venice: “Printer of Barbarus,” 1493 or 1494.

The author of this work claims to have identified and corrected some 5,000 textual errors in Pliny’s Natural History.

Call number: Vault Collection Quarto 093 Ve558 1493

Garcia de Orta. Aromatum, et simplicium aliquot medicamentorum apud Indos nascentium historia (Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India). Antwerp: Christopher Plantin, 1579.

This is the third edition of a work by a Portuguese physician which discusses the medicinal plants of India. The first edition was published in the Portuguese colony of Goa on India’s western coast. Carolus Clusius, a Flemish physician and professor, acquired a copy of the work during a natural history trip through the Iberian peninsula, and he edited Orta’s text for wider European publication.

Call number: Vault Collection 094.2 P69 1579 no. 6

Joannes Jonstonus. Thaumatographia naturalis (The wonders of nature). Amsterdam: William Bleau, 1632.

An pocket-sized encyclopedic work by a Polish-born naturalist, covering all aspects of contemporary scientific knowledge, including botany, zoology, and astronomy.

Call number: Rare Book Collection 500 J739t 1632