Giacomo Zanoni, the most prominent botanist at the Bologna University during the XVII Century, was born in 1615 at Montecchio, a small town in the province Reggio Emilia. His father was an apothecary, hence it was quite natural to him to direct his skill to investigate the plants and their curative properties. He wasn’t yet twenty years old when his family sent him to Bologna, to increase and to broaden his knowledge.
A major botanical school was active in Bologna at that time, as a heritage of the XVI Century masters Luca Ghini and Ulisse Aldrovandi. At the time of Zanoni’s arrival, the chair of Botany was hold by Bartolomeo Ambrosini, a highly estimated physician and scientist; he was the mentor of the young botanist, who attained very early, in 1642, at the position of conservator (“Sovrintendente”) of the Botanical Garden, an office that Zanoni was to maintain during forty years, until his death in 1682.
Although botany was his main interest, his never abandoned his apothecarian family tradition, so that he obtained by the City Senate, in 1668, the licence to open a pharmaceutical laboratory and shop in town.
During his multi-year management of the Botanical Garden, Zanoni was able to enrich it with a great deal of new species, both domestic and exotic, some of them being new to science. An accurate and learned scholar, he performed some travel of botanical exploration in Italy; yet, most of the new introductions yo the Garden came from abroad, mainly from the near and far East, being sent to him by travellers, in particular catholic missionaries directed to India. His conspicuous herbarium, containing all species described in his works, results to be lost, apart from some hundred specimens presently preserved by the City Museum of Reggio Emilia.
Zanoni’s masterwork is the Istoria Botanica published 1675. It is a weighty treatise illustrating a great deal of new or rare species, both native to Europe or to exotic countries: it is basically the catalogue of the plants cultivated in the Botanical Garden, all of them described in their morphological characters and pharmaceutical properties, and illustrated by original drawings taken ex vivo: the 105 excellent engravings due to Francesco Curti and to his pupil Francesco Maria Francia make the volume invaluable. The Istoria botanica was highly considered and estimated even many years after Zanoni’s death, so that Gaetano Monti, “Prefetto” (Director) of the Botanical Garden and influential botanist of the XVII Century, published in 1742 a second edition (“Jacobi Zanonii Rariorum Stirpium Historia”), augmented and translated into Latin, in order to enhance its international diffusion.
Giacomo Zanoni doesn’t number among the most celebrated botanists, nevertheless he gave a remarkable contribution to the establishment of plant science in a time of deep cultural renovation and of rapidly increasing scientific knowledge: his part in the progress of Botany was witnessed by Linnaeus, who named after him the genus Zanonia (Cucurbitaceae), as a tribute to a predecessor deserving to be honoured.