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The Botanical Garden of Padua Historic Botanical Garden Created to Cultivate Medicinal Plants
The Paduan Garden, in Roberto de Visiani’s L’Orto Botanico dePadova nell’ anno MDCCCXLII (Padova, 1842, frontis).Image courtesy of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation Carnegie Mellon.

In 1545, Venetian scholars and government officials established a botanical garden at the University of Padua, Italy, for the cultivation and study of medicinal plants.1,2 This garden, which is characterized by its unique architectural design and collections, is now recognized as the oldest surviving botanical garden in the world to have retained its original setting and layout.* Throughout the centuries, it has remained an active teaching institution and has been periodically renovated and modernized in light of new technology and student needs. Recently, the property attributed to the garden was enlarged, and the acquired area is currently being developed to support further botanical cultivation and teaching programs and to buffer the pre-existing garden area against encroaching urbanization.3,4

More than a mere artifact of earlier centuries, the Botanical Garden of Padua reflects the importance of herbalism within past societies and remains relevant to modern students and visitors with continually evolving collections and facilities.

The University of Padua was founded in 1222, and it soon gained recognition for producing scholars in the fields of botany and medicine.2 To further advance and promote such studies, in 1543 Francesco Bonafede, then chair of the university’s “Lecturer of Simples,” petitioned for the establishment of a botanical garden and spezieria—a collection of genuine plant drugs used in medicine for comparison purposes, or perhaps a drugstore.1 (Note: In this context the term “simples” means medicaments of natural, usually plant, origin.) The Venetian Republic granted Bonafede’s request, leading to the creation of the garden in 1545.

The primary purpose for creating the garden was to teach students how to identify true medicinal plants.5 Many botanists in the 15th and 16th centuries would analyze the materia medica of ancient authors and attempt to match the authors’ descriptions with plants found in nature. Botanists’ opinions on what constituted a “match” were not always uniform. Moreover, observations in nature would sometimes lead to discoveries of species with morphological characters similar to those of medicinal plants, causing further confusion. The chaotic state of pre-Linnean botanical nomenclature also impeded the proper identification of plants. All such identification problems occasionally resulted in incorrect—and sometimes even toxic—administration of medicinal plants, which the founders of the Padua Garden hoped to remedy through proper botanical study and training.

The garden was further created to serve as a center for scientific research through the introduction and acclimatization of rare and exotic plants.6 Additionally, the garden was established to promote and assist in the Venetian government’s pharmaceutical trade.1,6 The simples described by the Greek physician Dioscorides provided much of the basis for medical botany, and Venice had access to many of the plants described in Dioscorides’ materia medica through its special trade links with regions of the Eastern Mediterranean, including Constantinople, Syria, and Egypt.7 This placed Venice in a privileged position for commerce in medicinal plants. The Padua Garden’s collection of medicinal plants could also provide physicians and herbalists with benchmarks for the testing of drugs, allowing the Venetian Republic to guarantee certain standards in the quality of their pharmaceuticals.6

The garden was erected on a plot of land belonging to monks of the Benedictine Order, who had likely already initiated herbal cultivation on the property.2 It was designed as a circle enclosing a square plot of land, which in turn was divided into 4 quadrants by intersecting paths. The quadrants contained flowerbeds, arranged in various elegant geometrical patterns. The garden’s unique design and layout have been attributed to a number of factors and explanations. The garden’s size and shape reportedly stem from the irregular shape of the plot of land obtained from the Benedictine monks.1,2 It has been stated that the garden was designed to represent a microcosm or small paradisal world surrounded by a ring of water, indicative of the ocean.1,2,4 The garden’s design could also have been inspired by the layout of ancient gardens.6 The 4 quadrants have been said to represent the union of medicine and mathematics, particularly as botanists considered there to be 4 grades of curative properties within plants. The 4 quadrants design element was also employed by the contemporaneous Botanical Garden of Pisa.

Over the centuries, various features were added to protect, adorn, and modernize the garden.2 A circular enclosing wall was built around the garden in 1552 to prevent criminals from stealing the garden’s rare plants—a common problem of the garden in its early years that nearly caused the institution to lose its reputation and enter a state of decline.5 From the 1600s to the early 1700s, 4 huge gates and several fountains were installed.2 A marble balustrade was added to the circular wall in the 18th century, which is decorated with 5 busts—3 depicting former directors of the garden and 2 of botanists.8‡ A library was initiated around 1770, which now contains many valuable botanical works.9 The garden later expanded beyond its circular wall. In the 18th and 19th centuries, new masonry greenhouses replaced previous mobile ones, and the garden was enhanced by such features as an arboretum, an English garden, a lecture hall, and a hillock.2,9

As for its collections, an extensive array of plants have been cultivated and showcased at the garden since its establishment. By 1552— only a few years after the garden was founded—it had already accumulated approximately 1500 different specimens.4,6 Various records show that the garden’s early directors and staff made numerous trips to collect seeds and plants to fill the garden.5 Moreover, many of the garden’s acquisitions were provided by countries that the Venetian Republic governed as possessions or with which it traded, so that the garden became an important site for the introduction and study of exotic species.

There are very few records that provide any evidence as to the identity of the plants introduced to the garden by its first director.5 The earliest complete catalogue of plants in the Padua Garden was compiled in 1591, and it lists nearly 1200 plants.7 Even this catalogue presents challenges in the identification of the garden’s early collections, due to its reliance on pre-Linnean nomenclature.

Many of the plants grown in the Padua Garden at the end of the 16th century were used for food. These included various cereals, vegetables, fruit trees, ramblers, and melons. Eastern Mediterranean regions served as a main source for many of the garden’s early plants, including some of its fruits and vegetables. Some examples are the olive (Olea europaea, Oleaceae), fig (Ficus carica, Moraceae), pomegranate (Punica granatum, Punicaceae), and jujube (Ziziphus jujuba, Rhamnaceae). Plants introduced from the Americas include the tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum, Solanaceae), potato (Solanum tuberosum, Solanaceae), sunflower (Helianthus annuus, Asteraceae), and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum, Solanaceae).6,7 Attempts were also made to acclimatize plants from Africa into the garden, such as the doum palm (Hyphaene thebaica, Arecaceae) and aloe (Aloe spp., Aloaceae).7

Some of the plants cultivated at the Padua Garden were the first of their kind introduced into Italy (and sometimes the first grown in Europe, as well). One such plant is a Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodora, Pinaceae), which was established in the garden in 1828 and is still thriving on the property.8,10 Other plants that entered Italy via the Padua Garden include the Mesembryanthemum spp. (Aizoaceae), the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia, Fabaceae), Pelargonium cucullatum (Geraniaceae), Cyclamen persicum (Myrsinaceae), and Jasminum nudiflorum (Oleaceae).8

The garden’s oldest surviving plant is a Mediterranean palm (Chamaerops humilis, Arecaceae), which was planted in 1585 and was the subject of German scientist Johann Wolfgang van Goethe’s well-known essay “Metamorphosis of Plants.”10 Previously, the garden’s oldest plant was a chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus, Verbenaceae) that was dated to 1550; however, the tree expired in 1984. Remains of the tree are currently preserved in the garden.2 Other historic surviving trees include a hollow-trunk Oriental plane (Platanus orientalis, Platanaceae) from 1680 and a ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba, Ginkgoaceae) tree from about 1750.10 A southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora, Magnoliaceae) planted around 1786 is considered the oldest of that species found in Europe.

The garden currently contains over 6,000 plants, arranged according to their uses, environment, or certain themes.2,4 The garden’s systematic collection, which features primarily herbaceous species representing the principal angiosperm families, is located in the 4 quadrants in the center of the garden.3 Other collections found within the garden’s circular wall include medicinal plants, local flora, rare and endangered plants, aquatic plants, and poisonous plants. The medicinal plants showcased within the garden are periodically updated based on modern pharmacological and phytochemical research, although some space remains perpetually dedicated to famous medicinal plants of the past. Some plant species are featured in the medicinal collection for their contributions to the pharmaceutical industry, as compounds of those plants have been synthesized for drugs.11 Such plants include species of the genera Dioscorea (Dioscoreaceae) and the English yew (Taxus baccata, Taxaceae), which are used for the semi-synthesis of hormone-related and anti-tumoral drugs, respectively.

Collections found outside the circular wall include carnivorous plants, plants introduced into Italy, and a collection specifically designed for the blind, with plants’ names and characteristics noted on their labels in Braille.3 Other collections feature particular environmental themes; these include a Mediterranean marquis, a peat-bog, and an Alpine rock garden.

According to Professor Elsa Cappelletti, director of the Botanical Garden of Padua, the carnivorous plants typically serve as a main attraction for students and visitors of the garden, as does the collection of poisonous plants (e-mail, June 25, 2007). “As a rule, everyone is interested in poisonous plants because no one imagines that many widespread native and cultivated plants can be poisonous,” she explained. Prof. Cappelletti noted that university professors frequently use the garden to illustrate plants described in their lectures, and it is also commonly visited by children and secondary students and members of the public.

In May of 2002, the University of Padua purchased a 1.5 hectare plot of land to expand the garden.3 This plot, known locally as the “Tre Pini” (Three Pines) area, is intended to buffer the original historic garden from the city’s expanding development and to further the garden’s educational and scientific mission through the establishment of new facilities and cultural projects. The University of Padua announced an international competition in August of 2004, allowing designers to submit proposals for the development of this new area and for the restoration of other garden facilities. Of the submitted proposals, 15 design teams were chosen to present their projects before the selection committee. The selection of the winning team was announced in June of 2005.

“The competition victory was a grand satisfaction, as it was developed in two phases and much teamwork and effort were required to carry out our design,” said Giorgio Strappazzon, head architect of the winning design team, from the Italian firm Studio VS Associati (e-mail, June 13, 2007). “We decided to participate in the design competition as we found the theme very interesting and intriguing: the restoration project of the oldest botanical garden in the world with a unique plant heritage, together with its 16th and 19th century buildings and the extension with a new botanical museum. It was a fabulous and unique theme! It seldom occurs to design architecture and nature together, where architecture becomes nature and nature becomes architecture.”

The first phase of the restoration project was slated to begin in autumn of 2007, and according to Strappazzon, the entire project is expected to be completed in approximately 3 years.

“Our extension project is based on a question: What sort of approach is necessary to define a 21st century botanic garden in such an antique context?” Strappazzon explained. “Our answer has been to stress, represent, and explain the importance of plant biodiversity on our planet and to explain how it works. From Kyoto (and before, for many), the western world has realized the importance of nature conservation and diversity, which are very important for life on Earth and for mankind. Plant life, which gives us oxygen, must be protected and strengthened as a resource. A botanic garden, open to a large flux of visitors who are more and more environmentally aware, must transmit and explain, even with strong visual impacts, the importance of species and their environment, all over the world.”

This new extended satellite garden will be built in close proximity to the original historic garden. However, to preserve the identity of the historic garden, a boundary will be erected between them through the re-establishment of a small river that marked the garden’s south border when it was founded in 1545 (E. Cappelletti, e-mail, June 25, 2007). This river was covered 50 years ago to accommodate a small road.

According to Strappazzon, the extension area will be divided into parallel sectors—“just as the Earth is divided into parallel latitudes.” Each sector in the greenhouse will represent a climate zone, starting with a humid tropical sector with pools and water, followed by a hot, dry climate sector, a temperate sector, and an arctic sector. The building will also include a “plants in space” sector, representing mankind’s ability to grow plants under “impossible” natural climate conditions through the use of technology.

The team will also design exhibits and visuals for the satellite garden’s botanic museum, focusing on three particular themes. The “plants and environment” theme will showcase plants in accordance with climatic conditions; the “plants and mankind” theme will illustrate the cultural and historical interdependence between man, plants, and the environment; and the “plants in space” theme will depict how plants can be cultivated in NASA systems under artificial conditions for the survival of mankind. Additionally, the team will work to restore the circular wall of the original botanical garden and other stone and metal works of historic and artistic value, and they will redesign and restore the garden’s 19th century greenhouses.

“Since new modern greenhouses will be built in the satellite garden, the old greenhouses in the historical garden will be used as ‘didactic greenhouses,’ where plants will be cultivated to illustrate specific topics,” said Prof. Cappelletti. She explained that such topics could include the different systems and strategies that carnivorous plants use to capture insects, the morphological and physiological adaptations that plants undergo during conditions of water shortage, and issues of plant biodiversity preservation. “The Padua satellite garden will be an extraordinary occasion to put into value the garden from both the scientific point of view (i.e., new laboratories and facilities for research, a new seed bank) and the education point of view, with the new plant collections ‘plants and man’ and ‘plants and the environment,’” she continued. “While preserving the garden’s heritage, it will be possible to update the garden’s role as a scientific center and teaching medium, adapting these functions to the progress made by the botanical sciences. The satellite garden’s new plant collections will stimulate the increased interest of a wide range of visitors.”

Prof. Cappelletti added that the garden’s maintained historical heritage and evolving collections are what set it apart from the gardens of other institutions. “I feel that the Padua Garden is unique because of its unique architectural features coupled with its role as a scientific research center and teaching medium, which have always been adapted over the centuries to the progress in the botanical sciences,” she stated. “Moreover, the Botanical Garden of Padua represented a source of inspiration and influenced the establishment of many similar gardens in Europe and abroad, so that it is regarded as the ‘mother’ of all botanical gardens in the world.”

The garden’s influence and reputation led to its induction onto the World Heritage List in 1997. To this day, the garden is known worldwide for its contributions to botany and medicine and for its ability to reflect the ever-changing nature of scientific developments.

  1. Dal Piaz V, Bonati MR. The design and form of the Padua Horto Medicinale. In: Minelli A, ed. The Botanical Garden of Padua, 1545-1995. Venice: Marsilio Editori; 1995:33-54.

  2. UNESCO World Heritage List Advisory Body Evaluation: Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico), Padua, No. 824. September 11, 1996. Available at: Accessed April 6, 2007.

  3. Guidelines for the Improvement and Development of the Botanical Garden in Padua. University of Padua. April 2004. Available at: http://www. Accessed May 4, 2007.

  4. Hallett S. World’s first botanical garden has roots in medicine. CMAJ. 2006;175(2):177.

  5. Cappelletti EM. Plants cultivated at the time of Anguillara. In: Minelli A, ed. The Botanical Garden of Padua, 1545-1995. Venice: Marsilio Editori; 1995:163-172.

  6. Savoia AU. The Botanical Garden of Padua in Guilandino’s day. In: Minelli A, ed. The Botanical Garden of Padua, 1545-1995. Venice: Marsilio Editori; 1995:173-184.

  7. Cappelletti EM. Living collections in the botanical garden at the time of Cortuso. In: Minelli A, ed. The Botanical Garden of Padua, 1545-1995. Venice: Marsilio Editori; 1995:197-206.

  8. Hyams E. Great Botanical Gardens of the World. London: Bloomsbury Books; 1985.

  9. DeToni JB. The Botanical Garden and Institute in Padua. Botanical Gazette. 1899;28(4):268-270.

  10. Trees page. Botanical Garden of Padua Web site. Available at: Accessed April 5, 2007.

  11. Medicinal and poisonous plants. Collections page. Botanical Garden of Padua Web site. Available at: Accessed June 26, 2007.

    The base word for spezieria is the Italian spezie, “spices.” A spezieria is a place where spices were sold or, perhaps in this case, displayed. In the 16th century the term spices in European languages was synonymous with drugs and a spezieria was a “drugstore.”

    ‡Directors of the garden were Prospero Alpini, Giulio Pontedera and Giovanni Marsili; botanists were Sarrasin Jean Antoine (aka Saracenus Janus Antonius; Lyon, 1547-1598) and Fabio Colonna (aka Fabius Columna; Naples, 1567-1640).


    Early History and Leadership of the Padua Botanical Gardens

    by John Riddle, PhD

    In 1545 the Consiglio dei Pregadi of the Venetian Republic enacted a decree that in Padua an orto (garden) was to be instituted. Francesco Bonafede was the principal organizer of the Padua Garden and, in the following year (1546), Luigi Squlermo, known as Anguillara, was named its first director.1 Enormous energy, expense, and controversy marked the entry of almost each plant sought, planted, and maintained in order to provide the garden with “simples,” as medicinal plants were called. Civic medicinal gardens were a new institution in Europe. Prior to the establishment of the gardens in Padua and Pisa, lecturers on pharmacy (called “masters”) in medieval universities often maintained private medicinal gardens as teaching tools for medical students. Italy developed the first public medicinal herb gardens.

    Anguillara had been a student of Luca Ghini, the founder of the botanical garden in Pisa. Ghini’s garden consisted of live plants and marked a departure from the accepted practice of collecting pressed, dried plants for instructional purposes. Ghini traveled extensively throughout the Mediterranean, especially eastern regions, collecting plants. Back home in Pisa, he had a Greek-speaking house maid who frequently identified the Greek names of plants for which he needed a classical identification. Aldrovanus, one of Ghini’s students who became a famous herbalist in his own right, compiled a list of some 610 plants in Ghini’s garden.2

    The Padua Garden quickly surpassed Pisa’s in importance, influence, and continuity. One of the reasons that the Padua Garden endured is that, quickly after its founding, a wall was constructed around it because it had become too public: “The gardens being open, means that anyone can enter and take away plants and simples,” reads a document in the University Archives.3 Pietro Andrea Mattioli, a leading physician and famous medical authority in Venice, cryptically observed: “In truth, a hortus [garden] [is] only at the service and embellishment of medicine.”4 In contrast, Pisa’s Garden had constant encroachments because of fortification construction imperatives.

    Ghini’s conception at Pisa and Padua’s success inspired other Italian cities to develop medicinal gardens. Just as today each town wants a library and museum, so in the 16th century towns competed for prestige with medicinal gardens. Among them was one in Naples founded by Giovanni Vincenzo Pinelli, the great humanist. This garden was initiated some time after 1544 and was carried to completion by Bartolomeo Marantha (d. post 1570), who studied under Ghini and maintained correspondence and exchanges with northern Italian gardens.

    Between the Paduan Garden’s rows and patches, politics was a weed threatening its existence. Shortly after Padua’s Garden was established, Mattioli maintained warm relations with Anguillara, the garden’s director, but he began attacking him when he and Anguillara disagreed about the identifications of Dioscorides’ plants. Both claimed to be experts on the 1st century herbalist, Dioscorides. Among other things, Mattioli called Anguillara “olitor Patavinus”—a “common Paduan vegetable gardener”— which is certainly not a nice thing to say to a medicinal garden director!2 Likewise, when Melchior Guilandini, the garden’s second director and successor to Anguillara, contradicted Mattioli about his translations involving some plants and their identification, Mattioli viciously attacked Guilandini and sought unsuccessfully his removal.

    Guilandini’s biography offers a glimpse into the importance of medical botany. Born in Königsberg (Prussia) with the family name Wieland around 1520, he was a poor herbalist, living off roots and selling his herbs from a donkey. While selling in Rome, he met a Venetian ambassador who persuaded Guilandini (Italianized) to come to Venice. The ambassador helped sponsor a “botanizing” trip so that Guilandini could travel to Greece, Syria, and Egypt for the purpose of identifying and collecting plants, especially those discussed by Dioscorides and about which Mattioli and others disagreed to the level of more fury than reason. Guilandini brought back many plants for Padua’s Garden. He was about to undertake a similar journey to America for medicinal plants when he was captured by Algerian Corsairs and held for ransom. Not Mattioli but another professor at Padua, namely Gabriel Falloppio, the famous anatomist, raised his ransom and pushed Guilandini’s candidacy to succeed Anguillara to “lecture and [the] demonstration of medicinal herbs.”5 Among Guilandini’s contributions was an ingenious hydraulic apparatus for watering the gardens.

    The great names who founded the scientific revolution had acquaintance with Pauda’s Garden, doubtlessly as they reflected upon their studies. These include Copernicus, Galileo, Versalius, and William Harvey, among others. Prefects (or directors) of the garden included such notable names in botany as Giacomo Antonio Cortuso (1590-1603), Prospero Alpini (1603-1616), Johann Rhode (1631), Alpino Alpini (1631-1637), and Giorgio Dalla Torre (1649-1681). The Orto botanico di Padova would eventually be surpassed by other gardens, for example, the Kew in London, the Missouri, and Huntington gardens—but none can surpass the Padua Garden for its significant influence in medicinal botany, medicine, and science.

    John Riddle, PhD, is the alumni distinguished professor emeritus of history at North Carolina State University.

    1. Trevisan R. Luigi Anguillara. In: Minelli A, ed. The Botanical Garden of Padua, 1545-1995. Venice: Marsilio Editori; 1995:57-59.

    2. Riddle J. Dioscorides. In: Catalogus translationum et commentariorum. Washington: Catholic University Press; 1980. 4:84-85.

    3. Archivio Universita Padova, vol. 666: ff. 20v-1v, as cited by Dal Piaz V, Bonati MR. The design and form of the Pauda Horto Medicinale. In: Minelli A, ed. The Botanical Garden of Padua, 1545-1995. Venice: Marsilio Editori; 1995:33-54.

    4. Dal Piaz V, Bonati MR. The design and form of the Pauda Horto Medicinale. In: Minelli A, ed. The Botanical Garden of Padua, 15451995. Venice: Marsilio Editori; 1995:33-54.

    5. Premuda L. Wieland. In: Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Scribners, 1976;14:335-336.