5 The herb garden

In other respects, known as herb gardens, specialised medicinal gardens have been created at least since the Middle Ages, especially in monastery courtyards. During the European Renaissance, with the advance of medical and botanical sciences, monastic herb gardens developed into botanic gardens. Thus, the original function of these gardens was to display plants for medicinal use. The section where herbs were grown became the “Garden of Simples”, a ‘simple’ being an herb used on its own in medical treatment.

Even since the 16th century, the University of Bologna was one of the most important centers of Italian Botanical culture. Luca Ghini (1490-1556), well-known scholar of this University, held the chair of Botany, at that time known as Chair of Herbs. In medieval terminology “herbs”, or rather “herbal principles”, were the drugs directly extracted from the plant. The Chair of Herbs was, in fact, intended for medical students and for a long time these two disciplines – medicine and botany – remained united. After the departure of Luca Ghini, one of his pupils, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), succeeded him. He was an excellent naturalist and one of the most eminent scientists of the late 16th century. In 1568, Aldrovandi obtained from the Senate the permission to establish the Botanic Garden, which he himself directed for 38 years, until his death. The original site of the Botanic Garden was located in the city centre, in the courtyard of the Public Palace (Palazzo Pubblico) near the hall where Aldrovandi gave his lectures. This first “botanic courtyard” has been rebuilt as a modern “Garden of Simples”, where plants are associated in sectors according to their main use. Sectors are identified by different colours, whose meaning is as follows:

Blue – plants active on the digestive apparatus

Brown –  plants active on the cutaneous system

Yellow  – plants active on the nervous system

Orange – anti-parasitic and insecticide plants

Green – plants active on the vascular system

Red – plants active on the muscular system

Pale blue – plants active on the urogenital apparatus

Purple – plants active on the respiratory apparatus


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