At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

11 September 2017

Ulisse Aldrovandi – naturalist

Professor became fascinated with plants while under house arrest

Ulisse Aldrovandi: a portrait housed at the Accademia  Carrara in Bergamo, attributed to Agostino Carracci
Ulisse Aldrovandi: a portrait housed at the Accademia
Carrara in Bergamo, attributed to Agostino Carracci
Ulisse Aldrovandi, who is considered to be the father of natural history studies, was born on this day in 1522 in Bologna.

He became renowned for his systematic and accurate observations of animals, plants and minerals and he established the first botanical garden in Bologna, now known as the Orto Botanico dell’Università di Bologna.

Aldrovandi’s gardens were in the grounds of Palazzo Pubblico in Bologna but in 1803 they were moved to their present location in Via Imerio, where they are run by the University of Bologna but are open to the public every day except Sunday.

The professor was also the first person to extensively document neurofibromatosis disease, which is a type of skin tumour.

Aldrovandi, who is sometimes referred to as Aldrovandus or Aldroandi, was born into a noble family. He studied humanities and law at the universities of Bologna and Padua and became a notary. He then became interested in studying philosophy and logic, which he combined with the study of medicine.

Aldrovandi commissioned artists to  illustrate his catalogues of wildlife
Aldrovandi commissioned artists to
illustrate his catalogues of wildlife
He was charged with heresy in 1549, accused of supporting theories doubting the Holy Trinity, and kept under house arrest in Rome until he was absolved in 1550.

During this time he developed an interest in botany, zoology and geology and, as soon as he was free to travel, he organised expeditions to the mountains, countryside, islands and coastal regions of Italy to collect and catalogue plants.

After obtaining a degree in medicine and philosophy in 1553, Aldrovandi started teaching logic and philosophy at the University of Bologna.

He rose to become Professor of Philosophy and then in 1561 became the first Professor of Natural Sciences at the university.

Aldrovandi assembled a collection of curiosities, about 7000 nature specimens, for which he wrote detailed descriptions. He collected plants for an herbarium and preserved more than 4,000 sheets of dried specimens in 16 volumes. He also commissioned artists to make illustrations of his specimens.

After a dispute about the composition of a popular medicine with pharmacists and doctors, Aldrovandi was suspended from all public positions for five years.

Aldrovandi painstakingly dried and preserved the leaves of plant species
Aldrovandi painstakingly dried and
preserved the leaves of plant species
In 1577 he sought the aid of Pope Gregory XIII, who was a cousin of his mother. The Pope wrote to the authorities in Bologna asking for Aldrovandi to be reinstated and also gave him financial aid to help him publish his books.

Aldrovandi left his vast collection of works on botany and zoology to the Senate of Bologna and after his death at the age of 82 in 1605 they were conserved in Palazzo Pubblico and then in Palazzo Poggi.

They were distributed among other libraries in the 19th century but in 1907 some of the collection was brought back to Palazzo Poggi. In 2005 an exhibition to mark the 400th anniversary of Aldrovandi’s death was held there.

A ridge of the moon is named Dorsa Aldrovandi and the plant genus Aldrovanda is also named after him.

The Ulisse Aldrovandi Museum at the Palazzo Poggi
The Ulisse Aldrovandi Museum at the Palazzo Poggi
Travel tip:

Palazzo Poggi in Via Zamboni in Bologna is now the headquarters of the University of Bologna and contains the Ulisse Aldrovandi Museum. The palace was built between 1549 and 1560 for the Poggi family and became the Home of the Institute of Sciences in 1714. During the Napoleonic period the various collections became scattered between different museums but at the end of the last century the University set up a project to bring the dispersed collections back to their historic home.

The Aldrovandi Botanical Gardens in Bologna
The Aldrovandi Botanical Gardens in Bologna
Travel tip:

One of the main sights in the small town of San Giovanni in Persiceto near Bologna is the Civico Orto Botanico Ulisse Aldrovandi, a municipal botanical garden established in 1985 and named in honour of the naturalist.

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