Let us away from Chelsea, that foul and feckless temple to Mammon, away from esurient financiers and hoggish merchants, away from all corporate Champagne and amalgamated sponsorship. This week join me in simpler times; come and meet the next great gardener of history – founder of the first botanical garden, creator of the herbaria and the finest plant collector since Theophrastus. Let’s lose ourselves in his scholarly Eden, marvel at his Jerusalem artichokes and gasp as he conjures sunflowers before our under-stimulated European eyes. Let’s stick fingers in our ears and for these moments ignore the shadow of his patron, deep-pocketed and long-knifed Cosimo I die Medici – we know there’s no place for bankers in gardening.
In 1543 Luca Ghini created the world first botanical garden at the University of Pisa. After the Middle-Ages’ one and half millennia of horticultural stagnation, he removed plants from the pages of the illuminated manuscript and placed them where they belonged and have remained ever since, in the ground. Natural intellect, flair and Medici money combined to leave us a legacy that we all enjoy today.
Before Ghini started his garden, horticulture was in a sorry state. The ancient Greeks and Romans had undertaken intensive studies of their native flora, and recorded their findings in magnificent books, such as Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica. These pagan savants gifted their learning and illustrations to their Christian progeny, who spent 1500 years slavishly copying copies of copies (more to curtail monastic masturbation that for a love of learning) until all diagrams resembled either blobs with leaves or leaves with blobs.
But a good Renaissance will do wonders for a peoples’ self confidence, and by the 16th century, Western Europe, having already challenged the ancients in sculpture, music and architecture, finally got around to the greatest art – gardening. Ghini was our standard bearer. Such was his confidence that shortly after founding the garden he wrote to a correspondent:
of horminum I have two species, cultivated and wild. I am sending you both plants dried and glued to cardboard. It does not matter that Dioscorides mentions only one because in many other cases he does not mention all the species that could be described. I think my dear sir, that you yourself have observed many more Tithymala, ranunculi, polygonata, and so on, than are enumerated by Dioscorides. In my own garden I have three species of hastula regia besides the one described by Dioscorides.
It does not matter what Dioscorides thought! Shocking yet brilliant – stuff Copernicus and his bloody sun – this is the real scientific revelation of the 1540’s. Ghini quickly gathered a circle of apprentices, wowed by his empirical approach and his insistence that plants should be viewed in their natural state. Soon these new creations, “botanical gardens”, spread to Pisa, Florence, Padua and Venice, and from there to the rest of the world. Wikipedia tells me there are nearly 2000 registered today.
In the1540’s extravagant mercantile wealth and gardening came together to create something of self evident benefit to horticulture and to mankind. Without botanical gardens hundreds of thousands of people’s appreciation of the natural world, and even of life itself, would be hugely diminished – naysayers may scoff, but I’m sure in 500 years time they will say the same thing about pink flying gardens.