Section 2. Pietro Antonio Michiel’s Garden and the Litigiousness of Protobotanists
Amongst sixteenth-century Venetian gardens, that of the nobleman Pietro Antonio Michiel (1510-1576), in San Trovaso (Dorsoduro), was one of the most beautiful and one of the richest in botanical varieties. A shy and passionate student of nature, Michiel often went gathering herbs in the territories of the Serenissima, while diplomats and traveller friends brought to his home in San Trovaso rare plants from the New World, Northern Europe and the Far East. In order to study their growth and developments through the seasons, Pietro Antonio often tried to plant them in his own garden. Though this garden no longer exists, the herbarium he assembled throughout his life remains: in it he recorded the characteristics and medicinal properties of 1,028 plants, and had them depicted by painters of varying abilities. Though he was not a physician or a naturalist by profession, Michiel maintained good relations with the leading figures in botanical research of his time. However, even his illustrated herbarium shows the highly competitive atmosphere that surrounded medical professionals. Materia medica touched on issues of life and death: researchers sought to correctly identify the plants described in ancient texts – which often lacked images and had been corrupted along the way – and to discover new medicinal plants that could cure the sick body or, on the contrary, those that might be harmful to health. Such research could bring lustre and fame, but also blame and ridicule.