Curiosity and ingenuity - Scientific Collections and Experimentation at Padova in the 18th Century
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The Herbariums and Illustrated Codices of Giovanni Girolamo Zannichelli (1662-1729)Erbari Visita la collezione

Giovanni Girolamo Zannichelli was born in Spilamberto (Modena). After completing school, he was sent to Venice to begin his studies in the art of Pharmacy, a subject for which Venice was renowned in all of Europe. The College of Venetian Pharmacists was highly considered and justifiably enjoyed special privileges both because of what it had accomplished in the pharmaceutical profession and because of the progress it had made in the field of chemistry-pharmacy. The activity of the numerous pharmacies, or so-called spezierie (spice shops), had, for centuries, supported the Serenissima, importer of medicinal plants and drugs, from both the Near and Far East, which were used to make various medicines. Newer and more effective compositions which would be able to cure disease while at the same time increase the pharmacists' earnings were being researched and experimented in every pharmacy. By the time the young Zannichelli arrived in Venice to dedicate himself to this time-honoured and profitable profession, the Serenissima had lost the monopoly it had had in the previous centuries on the trade of medicinal plants (the semplici) due to the discovery of America and the new routes to the far away Indies. Nonetheless, owning a pharmacy still offered a good prospective to anyone who, like the young man from Modena, was willing to dedicate himself to the profession with zeal, assiduity and diligence. In 1684, at only 22, he became part of the College of Venetian Pharmacists and only two years later he began working in his own spezieria, which still exists today, in Santa Fosca.

Ability, perseverance and possibly a bit of good luck guaranteed the young pharmacist economic success. This success grew and was finally confirmed by the privileges that the Government of the Serenissima granted him, both in recognition of his professional abilities and as an award for the publication of his two works Promptuarium Remediorum Chimicorum and De Ferro. The former is a handbook on how to prepare chemical medicines along with more than 100 recipes for compound medicines, i.e. those which were part animal, vegetal and mineral. The latter is a monograph on iron, the metal which was considered to be the most present in nature, the most useful to man and the most widely used in medicine. As far as his professional success is concerned, the name Zannichelli became famous for the preparation of the "Santa Fosca Pill" (1701), which was a very effective laxative (it continued to be sold for two and a half centuries, until 1950), and for a medicine which helped cure blenorrhagia (1713).

The income earned from the sale of medicines at his pharmacy provided Zannichelli with the means to dedicate himself to the study of Chemistry, a field in which he also gained fame. He wanted to find out how effective both the vegetal and mineral medicines then in use really were and thus analysed their chemical composition through experimental testing. During this testing he discovered the process by which antimonous oxide can be obtained. He was particularly respected as a chemist by two of his contemporaries, doctors at the University of Padova, Giovanni Battista Morgagni (1682-1771), who learned the basics of chemistry in the Venetian pharmacist's laboratory, and Antonio Vallisneri Senior who nominated his friend to set up and head a laboratory for a new chair in Chemistry. Zannichelli, however, died before the project was carried out.

His innate curiosity led him to take a serious interest in paleontology as well. This discipline, along with mineralogy, interested many scholars during the Age of Enlightenment. Having achieved economic security, in 1710 he was able to set out on several exploratory trips to gather the objects which later made up his Museum of Natural History. He travelled through the mountains of Vicenza and Verona gathering numerous samples of shell, plant and fish fossils.

In order to have the logistic support of local scholars, Zannichelli was fortunate to have his friend Vallisneri Senior write letters of presentation for him. In 1711, for the Patron Saint's Day, he set up a display to decorate the street, as was customary, of a large collection of shells, earth and marine plants, animal teeth and fish fossils which he and other scholars had gathered in various parts of Italy and in many other European countries. Many came to admire this new and unusual decoration which was displayed in such a way as to attract the public's curiosity. Not only did the learned collector put these objects on display, but he also had a catalogue printed with the names and the places where they had been gathered. In 1712, the spectacle was repeated with the exhibition of a rich collection of crystals, stones and metals from different parts of Italy and Europe. With this exhibition Zannichelli opened the doors of his museum to the public. He continued to enrich the contents of his collection throughout his life. In 1759 the museum was donated to the University of Padova by his son Gian Giacomo, contributing significantly to the enlargement of Vallisneri's already noteworthy collections.

From a letter of the Riformatori dello Studio di Padova, 8 June 1759 (Venetian State Archives, Senato, I, Fa. 2300), we learn that Vallisneri was asked to write a report about the collection. After careful examination Vallisneri confirmed not only that the collection corresponded to the Index, but also that it was of value and would enhance the Museum and University. He also found some objects the Museum did not already possess, which he described as rare and unique. For a good part of the eighteenth century, the origin of fossils was the topic of heated discussions among scholars. Zannichelli participated in these discussions developing a synthesis between contrasting theories. To arrive at this synthesis, he counted not only on the speculations of his acute intelligence, but also on his observations of reality and a comparison between past and present forms of life. For example, in 1713 he carried out a long journey along the Adriatic Sea all the way to Ancona and Loreto. During this journey he gathered many examples of marine plants and animals which he considered treasures of Nature. He dedicated much of his life to these studies in the geographical area of the Venetian Lidos and wrote the work entitled Istoria delle piante che nascono ne' lidi intorno a Venezia (History of the plants that grow in the lidos around Venice). Though it is the most important of his works, he considered it to be incomplete and imperfect. In fact, it was published posthumously by his son in 1735.

The desire to study the various links between Pharmacology and Natural History led Zannichelli to study many different subjects, from Chemistry to Paleontology, but it was Botany that most interested him and it was in this subject that he achieved his best scientific results. He was born with a passion for the "Kingdom of Flora", (unus plantarum amor) and it accompanied him throughout his life. He travelled around the Tri-Veneto for years, from the sea to the mountains, gathering and illustrating new and already known species. He provided information on where they were found, under what environmental conditions and what their uses were. He enthusiastically botanized on the Euganei Hills; the mountain peaks of Feltre (with Pietro Stefanelli, a semplicista, i.e. one who studied medicinal plants, and Superintendent of the garden of the Casa Nani on the island of Giudecca); in the area around Vicenza on the Berici hills; on the then very famous Mount Summano; on Verona's Mount Baldo; in the area around Belluno; and in Istria. He brought a great quantity of material home from these trips and often accompanied the various examples of flora with drawings made on location where they were gathered. He then gave the material to or exchanged it with the various scholars he was friends with or in correspondence with. He asked for their opinions, confirmation of a classification made or help in classifying unknown species. He had a special bond with the famous Florentine Botanist Pier Antonio Micheli (1679-1737) and was in correspondence with him for eighteen years. Bartolomeo Martini (1676-1720), a pharmacist and botanist from Verona, well-known for his exploration of Mount Baldo, was a common friend of the two.

Zannichelli was famous for his studies and written works not only among scholars and scientists, but the ruling classes as well. In 1702 Francesco Farnese, Duke of Parma, honoured him with a degree in Medicine, Surgery and Chemistry, valid in his States. Though much later (1725), the government of the Serenissima recognised him by nominating him Doctor-Physician, a title which allowed him to practice Medicine in all of the territories of the Republic.

The life of Zannichelli, a highly esteemed and honoured man, came to an end on February 11, 1729 from the after effects of a fall which had occurred during his last trip to Mount Cavallo in 1726.

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