The world in Padua’s botanical garden

corrections – (8th. May 2017). A correspondent informs me that ‘St.Justin’ is an error in the English-language website linked in my post.  I have added details to the footnote, with thanks.  (23rd. June 2017).  Apologies to Menno Knul, who first mentions the patron of St.Giustina in Padua in a comment added to the page ‘Voynich Theories’ at Menno says that he identifies one of the calendar’s crowned figures as St.Justina of Padua.  comment dated October 13, 2014 at 7:08 pm.

In previous posts I’ve spoken generally about my opinion that the Voynich manuscript was made in ‘the Veneto’. Having now said plainly (at that I think it likely taken from materials then in the University of Padua, I’ve decided to add a note here about the University, its history and its botanical garden.

Though I  add a couple of illustrations from the Voynich manuscript, the post is not about my opinion, nor specific evidence and reasons for it. Nor is it, I regret to say, an account of the University’s historical records. It’s not particularly short but like most of these posts intended as convenient background notes for those working on the text.

Padua’s university began as a centre for the study of civil and of canon law, established in 1222 by a group of rebel scholars and teachers from the University of Bologna. It is thus the second oldest university in the Italian peninsula. Among its early distinguished graduates was Peter of Abano (Pietro d’Abano) credited with knowledge of the Egyptian decanal stars.[1]

At that time, a script was used in legal documents set down by clerics and by scribes in papal service (chancery hand) which used elongated ascenders that have been compared with some Voynich glyphs. Jim Reeds first drew attention to this example (below) in a charter from twelfth-century Piacenza, finding it illustrated in Cappelli’s Dizionario di Abbreviature Latini ed Italiani (1912).  [2]

illustration from Capelli’s Dizionario. A 12thC charter from a monastery in Piacenza. For more, see ‘Who wrote the “gallows”?‘, (Oct.7th., 2015)
a few of the Voynich ‘gallow’ glyphs. – image courtesy Nick Pelling, ciphermysteries. com (9th. March, 2009)

In 1350, study of medicine was introduced to the curriculum, the courses then being divided a few decades later (1399 AD) into two separate faculties (as it were).

The Universitas Aristarum  offered the standard ladder of medieval education: from grammar, through rhetoric, dialectics, philosophy and astronomy, to a choice between the two highest qualifications in Latin  learning: the degree in medicine or in theology, the latter being considered the more eminent. No physician in Latin Europe might be a theologian and no cleric a physician, and it was for his attempting to maintain both roles after ordination as a priest that Marsilio Ficino was twice indicted for heresy, and executed in 1499.

The other ‘faculty’ was the Universitas Iuristarum, which remained wholly a study of law:  civil- and canon.

Padua’s Botanical Garden.

botanical garden at Padua. A surprised Greek philosopher in Eden.

We presume, then, that it was after 1350, and with permission of the monks,[3] that the students at Padua began using the herbal garden in a nearby monastery to aid their studies.  Such collections of medicinal and culinary plants were commonly found within monastery gardens  known as horti simplicium.

But in 1545 –  that is, a century or more after the Voynich manuscript was made –  the then incumbent of the University’s Chair of  ‘simple medicines’ (Lectura Simplicium) ordered the garden’s renovation or re-construction together with construction of an herbarium.

His name was Francesco Bonafede and his aim, as he said, was the  better to study the ‘relationship between nature and science’.  We should suppose his ‘science’ (scientia) implied ‘higher wisdom’ rather  than science in its modern sense. Bonafede also applied the term  ‘Orto botanico’ and clearly intended (as Datini had earlier done) for his garden to become a miniature Eden in the variety of its rare and exotic plants.

One lesson in mundane wisdom was soon brought home to the keepers of the garden: that  rare and exotic plants are valuable for more than academic or medical reasons. A  surrounding brick wall was replaced by higher ones, fitted with gates, around the little world’s encircling ‘Ocean’.[4]


The garden’s fascinating design.


It could be, as most suppose, a design conceived by Bonafede or by Barbaro, but whether or not, it pays homage to the Benedictines, for such a conception of the world had been offered and described during the ninth century by another Benedictine, a former tutor to Charlemagne, Rhaban Maur. In his important and much read text, de Universo, Maur speaks of a means to reconcile the divine word with practical observation, the one speaking of the world’s ‘four quarters’ yet the other seeing a circular horizon.  Maur resolves it by construction of a figure as model of the world and ends his exposition saying:

“.. [and thus]  you make a square of earth within the aforesaid circle. How this aforesaid square (demonstrativus quadrus) ought to be inscribed within the circle, Euclid clearly shows in the Fourth Book of the Elements.[5]

So whether Bonafede and or Barbaro [6] thought up the design, or merely re-created the Benedictines’ meditative figure on a grander scale, the result is a conscious model of the world, its abstraction soon given depth by introduction of plants really obtained ‘from all quarters’.

Though the garden in Padua isn’t really ‘the oldest botanical garden in the world’ as it is so often described, its form may pre-date 1454 and it is truly described as being “the oldest existing [un-relocated] university botanical garden in the world.”[7]

..  as it is today,  with modern additions.

image reproduced from the listing in  UNESCO world heritage

Padua deserves its listing among the UNESCO World Heritage sites for reasons other than its age and its garden.

Until the seventeenth century it was, alone, a scholarly community which did not require membership in a church of the western (Latin) Christian rite. It admitted Jews. Most came to study medicine.

We have an earlier link to medicine and Jews of Padua, a Jewish physician of that city having translated Ibn Rushd’s Colliget in 1289. The translator’s  name was Jacob Bonacosta; the Latins knew Ibn Rushd as Averroes.

Even earlier, Paduan documents of 1134 and 1182 list persons named ‘Judeaus’ though some debate is seen over whether these were in fact Jews..

However such records as we have after the University’s inclusion of medical studies in the curriculum, shows a majority of Jewish graduates took their degree in medicine.  Our records are chiefly those of the Venetian archives and the earliest mention dates to  1409, just four years after the city’s control had passed from the Carrara family to the Venetian republic.  It may be that the University’s policy of acceptance had been in place earlier, since the requirements for medicine involved ten or twelve years of both theory and practice before a degree could be sought.

On the other hand it is also true that,

… medical education in Europe in the Middle Ages consisted mainly of training through apprenticeship, under the guidance of an established master. The teaching experience could be completed by the conferring of a license to practice. Besides physicians, surgeons, and barbers, the medieval patient might also consult herbalists, pharmacists, and a wide variety of female healers.. While the general licenses issued to Jewish physicians entitled them to treat only Jewish patients, this condition was not always observed.[8]

There were certain additional difficulties for Jews working towards a degree at Padua, including the statutory requirement that all teaching and all work submitted should be in Latin. This would have included the presentation, and defence, of the scholar’s final thesis which was done in those days viva voce.

Petty expressions of prejudice were doubtless everyday occurrences but in terms of formal requirements they included imposition of higher fees and additional imposts such as the ‘confetti’ payment and so on.

Nonetheless, Padua offered an opportunity that existed nowhere else in Christian Europe until the end of the seventeenth century [9] and Venetian rule during the earlier part of the fifteenth century meant relatively safe conditions for students to travel to and from Padua during the scholastic term.

The number of Jews enrolled in the University was never great and its graduates do not offer a proportional model for the number of Jewish to Christian physicians and pharmacists in medieval Europe.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries would see increasing numbers of Jews taking refuge in Padua, as the rise of nationalism released deeper hostilities between neighbours and fragmentation of the Latin church from the late fourteenth saw tensions erupt against non-Christians.  Jews now came to Padua from southern Italy, from Iberia and from central Europe. It does not seem unreasonable to suppose that those interested in medicine brought texts and practical knowledge  from those regions.

During the 1360s, families had come to Padua by permission of Venice to serve as bankers;  they came from Pisa, Rome, Bologna, and Ancona among other places, but it was during the 1380s and 1390s that their number was added to by Ashkenazi Jewish refugees escaping from Germany and Sephardis from Spain.[10]

Even the formerly accepting people of Padua began to be affected by the hysteria sweeping Europe, and “internal difficulties within the Venetian republic” forced it to enact new  discriminatory measures in Padua, both legal and economic. Sadly, two of the most prominent fomenters of such hostility were Franciscan preachers, with incitement to violence towards Jews coming to Padua chiefly from central Europe.

Twice in 1509 the city also suffered the ravages of rampaging troops. First, the Lansquenets descended on Italy under Maximilian I of Hapsburg, his Austrians singling out the Jews for property destruction.

But when the tide of war turned, as it soon did, the returning Venetian troops acted no differently. The city itself recovered slowly, but the Jewish community did not, even if – as the JVL entry says –

.. Padua remained an important center for Hebrew studies by virtue of its rabbinical academies and the fact that Jews were drawn there from all over Europe to study in its university.

In  1616 – perhaps the time the Voynich manuscript arrived in Prague,

.. the Jewish population of Padua numbered 665, chiefly engaged in the silk industry.

and in 1630-31

The community suffered gravely from a plague, 421 of the 721 Jews dying [in those years].

By 1637, Georg Baresch had been in possession of the Voynich manuscript for some time, writing in that year to Athanasius Kircher to remind him of an item sent eighteen months’ earlier via Fr.Kinner and again saying he hoped Kircher might  identify the script.  Interestingly, he did not hope, or ask, for any translation, nor for the language to be identified: just the script.

It is generally accepted that the ‘item’ he had sent was a transcription of some section or sections from the Voynich manuscript. Baresch felt it might contain ‘ancient Egyptian’ medicine.  Philip Neal’s transcription and translation of Baresch’s letter can be read here.



[1] Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods (1953) p.74 n. 119

[2] ‘first brought to notice by Jim Reeds’… For more detail see link in the caption.

[3] The Benedictine monks of St.Justin. See  Orto Botanico Università de Padova, website.

Addendum to n.3 (8th. May 2017).  The name should be Anglicised as “St. Justina”.  The Abbey is one of the oldest in Europe, its Benedictine community rule  reformed in the early fourteenth century under the guidance of Ludovico Barbo, O.S.B. (1381–1443) He  also referred to as Luigi Barbo.   Barbo has a direct and very interesting link to a group of monks I’ve considered in these posts, and who occupied the monastery of St. George in the lagoon of Venice. (see his wiki biography here).  With three canons from that monastery, Barbo went to Padua in 1408 after being appointed abbot over the Abbey of Santa Giustina in Padua, founded c.1000AD. A thesis was written on the history of the congregation. I haven’t sighted it but it has an entry in the Open Library (here):  Barry Collett, The Benedictine monks of the congregation of Santa Giustina, Padua, c.1480-c. 1568.  (published by Oxford in 1982).  There is another Santa Giustina, too, about 80 kilometres northwest of Venice and about 15 km southwest of Belluno, not an abbey but a communie of the Veneto, in the province of Belluno. very neat.  🙂

[4] World Heritage listing (824-ICOMOS-973) has,  “In 1533 Francesco Bonafede (1474-1558) was appointed to the Chair of Lectura Simplicium at the University by the Most Serene Republic of Venice. In 1543 he petitioned for the creation of a model herbarium and botanical garden, which was established by decree ..on 29 June 1545.
Work began immediately on a plot belonging to the Benedictine Order, whose monks were probably already raising medicinal plants there. Implementation of the project was assigned to Daniele Barbaro, translator of the De architectura of Vitruvius.” and .. “Barbaro’s intention was to lay the … irregularly shaped area out in the form of a tiny paradisal world surrounded by a ring of water (the Alicomo Canal) to represent the ocean. Within he planned a circular Hortus Conclusus .. which in tum enclosed a 41m square plot. The entire garden was divided into four quadrants by pathways at right-angles to one another, running to the four cardinal points. Early documents show that the Botanical Garden was enclosed by a high brick wall, whilst the four smaller squares created by the two pathways cutting the central square were embellished with geometric flower beds, bordered with stone, in each of which a single plant species was grown. This basic layout survives to the present day, though with many later additions.” On the mythic tale of Vitruvius’ “rediscovery” by Poggio Bracciolini etc. see e.g. Tessa Morrison,’Architectural planning in the early medieval era’, Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association, 5 pp. 147-163 (2009). The paper can be downloaded free through Researchgate.

[5] a reference which escaped the notice of many recent scholars treating transmission of Euclid’s texts in Latin Europe. see e.g. Menso Folkerts, ‘Euclid in Medieval Europe’, Questio II: de rerum natura (1989). html  pdf.

[6] see note 4, above.

[7] Atlas Obscura, ‘Botanical Garden of Padua – Orto botanico di Padova
The oldest botanical garden in the world that technically isn’t the oldest.’ website. And see also accounts of Datini’s botanical garden.

[8] wiki ‘Medieval Universities’ citing O. Pedersen, The First Universities – Studium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[9] Cecil Roth’s studies on this topic remain valuable.  See ‘The Jews in the English Universities’, Miscellanies (Jewish Historical Society of England), Vol. 4 (1942), pp. 102-115   and a later paper ‘The Qualification of Jewish Physicians in the Middle Ages’,  Speculum, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct., 1953), pp. 834-843,  in which he speaks of “.. one or two individuals who filled minor university positions in Renaissance Italy… [but there is no solid evidence regarding] admission of Jewish students to the universities before this period. In 1390 David Bonet Bonjorn, a Jew of Gerona, was allowed to present himself for the medical examination at the University of Perpignan, where presumably he had studied; and for the moment I can find no earlier specific instance. University training for Jewish physicians began to be a regular thing in Italy from the beginning of the fifteenth century, being formally authorized by the popes though temporarily forbidden by the Council of Basel in 1434. Later on – especially after the Counter-Reformation – the great center of medical study for Jews was the University of Padua, but the first instance of the graduation of a Jew here is recorded in 1409. In 1416, Moses Medici of Messina, son of the royal physician, went there from Sicily to perfect his medical knowledge, bringing with him a contemptuous letter of recommendation from the Infant Giovanni. Generally, however, we cannot take a university training into account in considering the intellectual background of Jewish physicians of the Middle Ages. Where, then, did they obtain their schooling?” (p.835)

[10] On this point and more generally, see Kenneth Collins, ‘Jewish Medical Students and Graduates at the Universities of Padua and Leiden: 1617–1740’, Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal, Volume 4, Issue 1 ( January 2013) pp. 1-8.  Available online as a pdf.


Additional Sources:

‘Padua’ Encyclopaedia Judaica.

Annette Freeman, ‘The First Botanical Garden’, La vie boheme 2010,
(Thursday, October 17, 2013). link. The current is a detail from one of Freeman’s photographs.

A paean to Padua, written as a nicely short history. here.


3 Replies to “The world in Padua’s botanical garden”

  1. According to “The Botanical Garden of Padua 1545-1995”, ed. Alessandro Marsilio (1995) on my bookshelf (a very fine reference on the subject), the first proposals for Padua’s “simples garden” were made in 1543. There was no trace of it on a map drawn in the 1520s (p.34).


    1. Thank you very much. Is the plan you are looking at a plan of the abbey grounds, or of the university grounds?

      The secondary sources I’ve seen say that Bonafede petitioned the Venetian government to transfer to him/the university, an area of land that was part of the monastery’s grounds, and he got what he wanted. So far, I’ve found no record of any payment or recompense to the Abbey, but that may just reflect the limits of the research so far. There is no necessity to posit that the sixteenth-century garden was built precisely over, and thus replaced, an earlier ‘simple’ monastic garden – true. The critical point is whether or not the Abbey< had a medicinal or other garden. Given the date of its foundation in c.1000AD and the usual model of Benedictine monasteries, I’d be inclined to believe those who say it did.

      If you happen to have a plan of St.Giustina’s grounds dating to before 1438 or even from 1438-1545, it might be helpful.
      btw – you do realise that I’m not suggesting the Vms was made in the sixteenth century?

      – took three Four edits to remove the shout-y looking bolding – sorry.


    2. I am particularly hunting accounts of the ‘paradise’, if your references have anything useful on that for the period c.1250-1348.

      In case you haven’t heard of the ‘paradise’ garden… this from an easily accessed site online: “A sacristan’s garden produced flowers for the altar. Sometimes this was the same garden as the paradise, which was at the altar end of the monastery church and intended to be a place of beauty that reminded the viewers of the Garden of Eden, lost to humans.”

      The Paradise was separate from (a) the vegetable garden and (b) the ‘simples’ garden, where that was present.

      You may also be interested to hear that “both the Benedictines and the Cistercians gardened and farmed, but the emphasis was different: the Benedictines were gardeners who did some farming; the Cistercians were farmers who gardened.”


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