The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe

The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe

The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe

The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe


Out of the diverse traditions of medical humanism, classical philology, and natural philosophy, Renaissance naturalists created a new science devoted to discovering and describing plants and animals. Drawing on published natural histories, manuscript correspondence, garden plans, travelogues, watercolors, and drawings, The Science of Describing reconstructs the evolution of this discipline of description through four generations of naturalists.

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, naturalists focused on understanding ancient and medieval descriptions of the natural world, but by the mid-sixteenth century naturalists turned toward distinguishing and cataloguing new plant and animal species. To do so, they developed new techniques of observing and recording, created botanical gardens and herbaria, and exchanged correspondence and specimens within an international community. By the early seventeenth century, naturalists began the daunting task of sorting through the wealth of information they had accumulated, putting a new emphasis on taxonomy and classification.

Illustrated with woodcuts, engravings, and photographs, The Science of Describing is the first broad interpretation of Renaissance natural history in more than a generation and will appeal widely to an interdisciplinary audience.


a philosopher like Francis Bacon, natural history was no longer simply an intermediate form of knowledge; it had become a distinct discipline.

Natural history as such was absent from the massive humanist encyclopedia compiled by Giorgio Valla (1447–1500), a Piacenzan humanist active in Venice, and published posthumously by his sonin 1501. In forty-nine books, Valla surveyed the whole of secular, liberal knowledge, from the quadrivial arts through “external things” such as glory and friendship. (He excluded divine learning and the mechanical arts.) The first eighteen books address the natural world; they are followed by seven books on medicine, a book of problems, and then nineteen books on the human world, from grammar to the benefits and problems of the body and the vagaries of reputation.

Valla located animals and plants in several divisions of his encyclopedia. In his four books on “physiologia” and metaphysics, Valla discussed “nature,” in the Aristotelian sense of the internal source of motion of a natural kind, and the natural world from the four elements to the cosmos as a whole. In these books of animals, he began with the soul (anima) and proceeded to its generation and growth; he did not consider individual species. In his books on medicine, on the other hand, he enumerated individual stones, animals and their parts, and plants, but he discussed only their properties as simple medicines—and, as with vipers, scorpions, and even bees, the harmful effects of their venom. Domesticated animals and cultivated plants found a place in the books on “Economy, or the administration of the home,” which also included architecture.

In our terms, then, Valla treated natural history under three distinct heads: natural philosophy, medicine, and “res rustica” (agriculture and husbandry). Though his encyclopedia contained the most up-to-date humanist learning, these categories had a long history behind them: as we will see in chapter 3, ancient and medieval students of plants and animals approached them in these three disciplines. Moreover, Valla was concerned with useful knowledge, in particular knowledge with moral value. He titled his work “Things to Seek and to Avoid,” emphasizing the transformative power of learning on the student's character. Within this framework, natural history per se had no place. Natural philosophy could edify, medicine and agriculture were useful; mere facts and descriptions, on the other hand, had no conceivable place. Valla's son Gianpietro probably expressed his father's view when he compared the encyclopedia, food for the mind, with dinner: eat too much food and you need to be purged, implying that learning too much would result in mental indigestion. Petrarch had earlier condemned knowledge for its own sake. Later humanists would disagree, but only after they had imbued detailed knowledge of nature with its own moral authority.

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