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The botanical garden

THE NEED FOR A GARDEN OF MEDICINALS PLANTS 

In 1533, for the first time in Italy, the “Lecturam Simplicium” professorship (somewhere between today’s botany, pharmacognosy and pharmacology) was established at the University of Padova.

This professorship was assigned to Francesco Bonafede, a secondary professor of ordinary, practical medicine in Padua. Before this, there were no special professorships focusing on medicines, but rather lectors of practical medicine weighed up which was the most appropriate medicine to use on a case-by-case basis, depending on the individual disease being treated. This new teaching method, on the other hand, had a strong focus on applications, involving the study of pharmacology and therefore the properties of natural products, minerals, plants and animals. This is why there was soon the need, especially for Bonafede, to create a place where medicinal plants could be grown and studied and where practical demonstrations could be held of the subject matter being taught to students.
This requirement was met on 29th June 1545 when authorisation was granted to build the public “Orto dei semplici”, a garden to grow medicinal plants coming from the regions under Venetian rule and areas under the rule of the Serenissima in the eastern Mediterranean. As requested by Bonafede, this garden also featured an “apothecary to be used to study and authenticate medicinal products”. There was a time when medicines were defined as either being “simple” or “mixed”. “Simple” medicines came from natural plant, animal or mineral resources, whereas “mixed” medicines were made by mixing simple ones together. As plants began to dominate this category, the Garden became known as the “Orto dei semplici” (the ‘simple’ plant garden).
It was already possible to visit the botanical garden in 1546, when Luigi Squalermo was prefect.
The creation of this botanical garden represents an incredibly important step forward in the history of modern science as it introduced the demonstrative method into the branch of pharmacology that deals with the study of medicinal substances, especially of plant origin and in the field of botany.

THE BOTANICAL GARDEN AND ITS CREATION 

It is very likely that the botanical garden was built according to the design of the architect Andrea Moroni: it was created based on a circular structure with a square inside, which was in turn divided into four smaller squares by two perpendicular paths. Inside, a number of flowerbeds formed different geometric patterns. In 1552, a wall was built around the garden after plants kept being stolen. In the centuries that followed, the botanical garden underwent many changes and transformations, becoming enriched with statues, fountains, busts and decorative features which, however, did not alter the original structure. Over time, the greenhouses and semi-circular hall known as the “botanical theatre” were also added. The entire structure was first developed beyond the perimeter wall in the 19th century.

Padua’s botanical garden is thought to have given rise to all the other botanical gardens around the world and today counts more than 7,000 specimens belonging to more than 3,500 different species. Some of these are rare and incredibly impressive, such as the oriental plane tree with hollow trunk dating back to 1680, the ginkgo dating back to 1750 and a magnolia that may date back as far as 1786. There is also a St. Peter’s palm that was first planted in 1585 and which Goethe described in his essay on the metamorphosis of plants. The large building dating back to the XVII-XVIII century, which was once the home of the prefect, is today an exhibition space, home to the historical library, the archive and the “germo plasma bank”.
Today, the botanical garden is also home to a herbarium, which counts around 600,000 specimens including some extinct species, alongside a collection of algae known as the “Algario”.
Considering its cultural importance, in 1997 the botanical garden was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. More recently, a new area to the south of the ancient botanical garden was purchased and, since 2014, the new “Biodiversity garden” greenhouses have been open to the public there. These greenhouses simulate the climatic conditions of various environmental systems and are home to approximately 1,300 different plant species.