BHL and Our Users: Alain Touwaide, Emanuela Appetiti and PLANT

Happy Valentine’s Day! We couldn’t think of a better day to feature devoted couple and colleagues Dr. Alain Touwaide and Emanuela Appetiti and their work on the PLANT project. Touwaide and Appetiti founded and continue to grow and support the PLANT website, which Dr. Touwaide presented about at the Life and Literature Conference in Chicago, IL, 14-15 November 2011. Conference attendees expressed great interest in the PLANT project – a project with goals and objectives not unlike BHL – and several requested that we feature the project on our blog. We thank Alain and Emanuela for sharing their expertise and experiences with us.

The PLANT website is a digital encyclopedia of historical botanical illustrations, with representations of plants from herbals, books on botany and medicinal plants printed between 1481 and 1650 and usually addressed to doctors and apothecaries. CLICK HEREto read more about Renaissance herbals. PLANT – an acronym for PLantarum Aetatis Novae Tabulae, which means in Latin Renaissance Botanical Illustrations – does not only refer to plants, but general Renaissance botanical illustration.

The website stems from the interest of couple Alain Touwaide and Emanuela Appetiti, who share not only life but also a passion for the history of botany. The site results from their desire to open this field to a wider audience and to make this patrimony accessible worldwide.

Touwaide and Appetiti contemplated such a collection for years and collected material worldwide for it in their Historia Plantarumcollection. In 2001, they submitted a proposal for funding to the Smithsonian Women’s Committee and were granted an award that allowed them to create a first prototype in order to assess the feasibility of their project and to develop a protocol.

Once the feasibility of the project was verified, Touwaide and Appetiti needed first to systematically inventory the herbals produced during the time period from 1481 to 1650, that is, from the first printed herbal to one century before Linnaeus. They then had to browse, analyse and digitize all such books, so as to create the encyclopedia they had planned, which will show the evolution (or involution) of botanical illustration and knowledge, including the possible introduction of new species or the disappearance of others. To this end, they asked and got permission to carry out this task in the holdings of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma (National Library of Rome), which, for historical reasons, has a particularly rich collection of Incunabula and Renaissance printed books (16th century and later). They also expanded their research to the Library of the Botanical Gardens of Padua to complete the collection of data. Padua has one of the most ancient botanical gardens in the world and also a valuable historical library that owns some of the rare editions not present in the collections of the National Library of Rome.

During the years 2003-2006, Touwaide and Appetiti were able to study and photograph all Renaissance herbals in the collections of the Rome and Padua libraries. In 2007, in collaboration with some 250 Earthwatch Institute volunteers who signed up to participate in this large-scale research [see 2004 field report here], they broadened their work to Washington DC. In total, they collected over 70,000 images and generated two dictionaries of plant names: one of the Medieval and Renaissance names listed in the volumes they studied (comprising 32,000 items in Arabic, Medieval Latin and vernacular languages), and the second with the names of plants in five modern languages (12,000+ items). Together with the dictionary of ancient names (Greek and Latin) that Touwaide has compiled for his Flora of Classical Antiquity, these dictionaries provide the names of all the plants mentioned in ancient texts and books from the most ancient scientific treatises to one century before Linnaeus and make it possible to link them with their current name.

Touwaide and Appetiti’s research goes beyond historical documentation, as they identify the plants according to contemporary taxonomy. In collaboration with the scientists in the Botany Department of the Smithsonian, they study the representations of the plants they collected from books and the texts that accompany these illustrations. Thus, they have been able to confirm the identifications made in previous literature or to suggest new ones, made possible due to cross-checking the representations and descriptions in a large quantity of material.

Since its very inception, Touwaide and Appetiti envisioned the PLANT website as much more than just a collection of illustrations, however beautiful they are. They provide users with an impressive collection of data, starting with a full description of the books (including publisher and place of publication) but also detailed biographies of the authors and publishers and portraits of the authors, as this information is often missing from other websites presenting ancient herbals. By researching and stuyding the bios of authors and publishers, they produced original texts based on first hand consultation of primary documentation, including searching for portraits of the authors in the collections — and with the help of — the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine and the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation.

Touwaide and Appetiti plan to provide a short bio-sketch of the publishers along with the list of the botanical books they have published, so as to highlight their contribution to the production of herbals and to follow the production of botanical knowledge throughout Europe. Geo-referencing of book production is made possible thanks to the identification of the places where books were produced. For all books on the website, place names on the title page are in Latin. When clicking on these names, a small window opens with the current name (both in the local language and in English) and country (Which is sometimes not so easy to discover, i.e. What city is Ebrodunum?).

The metadata provided on the site is more extensive than the explicit information that can be retrieved from books. Touwaide and Appetiti generate much implicit information aimed at illustrating the dynamics of an author’s production. For each ancient work on the site, they present the first edition. A link at the bottom of the page leads to an additional page listing subsequent editions and translations (listed in chronological order), so as to make it possible to see the continuity and diffusion of the work. Only subsequent editions containing pages with new or different illustrations, however, are reproduced. As a result, users can visualize the possible transformation of a work through time.

Similarly, it is possible to retrieve all the illustrations of the same plant in the Web site, displayed in chronological order, so as to visually follow the transformation of botanical drawing and knowledge. All the illustrations can be enlarged to study the plant in detail. This is an example. For each plant contained in the website it will be also possible in the future to display a digital image of a dry specimen from the US National Herbarium, and an image of the living plant in nature. Thus, users of the site will have tools to further study Renaissance illustrations: not only will they be able to appreciate the degree of exactness in Renaissance illustrations, but, by having access to the material, they can also study the methods of ancient illustrators and investigate the way ancient scientists analyzed and described plants.

Paired with the website on ancient manuscripts and texts that Touwaide and Appetiti are developing with the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions, the PLANT website will constitute a unique collection of material illustrating the creation and development of botanical knowledge from the most remote antiquity to Linnaeus (1707-1778).

BHL makes it possible to go further. When Touwaide and Appetiti became aware of it, they immediately thought to link the Linnean literature digitized and posted in the BHL to the plants presented in the PLANT website. The connection will allow users to follow plant information from its early depiction in antiquity to the 15th and 16th century herbals, to Linnaeus, and then, through the BHL, from him to the 20th century.

Thanks to all its information and navigation possibilities, the website goes way beyond an encyclopedia of botanical illustrations. It contextualizes the books and the plants, and generates a new dimension in the history of botany, showing its transformation over time. Though on a modest basis, the PLANT web site provides depth to the BHL collection of material: it introduces, in a certain sense, a third dimension to the BHL as it collects all the material that led to the literature collected in the BHL. You cannot understand Linnaeus without Dioscorides, Mattioli, Laguna or Bauhin and Dalechamps, for example. PLANT contains all the readings of Linnaeus, the scientific context of his work, and what Linnaeus probably read.

The PLANT website provides information to different audiences: from historians of medicine and botany, to historians of art and botanical artists; from classicists interested in the history and production of the book to botanists who need to trace a plant back in time, before Linnaeus. It may also appeal to curious Internet users with any background. For example, users interested in a plant of which they know only the common name will be able to locate it (together with all its other names, including the Linnean binomial designation) and start navigating through the PLANT website, the BHL or the website of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions, passing from Antiquity to the modern world, from Linnaeus to his predecessors, from books to nature, from living plants to dry specimina, in an imaginary travel that will be a journey through the construction of botanical science across centuries and cultures.

The PLANT program has been possible thanks to a consortium composed of Touwaide and Appetiti as the project authors and co-principal investigators, the libraries of Rome and Padua in Italy, and the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL). Many contributors collaborated at different levels and helped create the PLANT Website, but without the passion and enthusiasm of the Earthwatch volunteers, nothing would have been achieved. The website is dedicated to them.

Find out more about Alain and Emanuela, and their ambitious project, in these past articles:
Smithsonian Magazine
Smithsonian Science
Smithsonian Science – Tuscany Shipwreck
ArtPlantae Today

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.