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From Ortus Medicus to Ortus Botanicus


PhotosCristina Archinto
TextCarla DeAgostini

It was1638 when the plague hit Amsterdam and medicinal plants represented the only way to cure and prevent it. It was for this reason that in the same year was created the Hortus Medicus, a place where doctors and pharmacists met in order to learn and share their botanical and medical knowledge, always enriching the collection of medicinal plants. The first who catalogued the whole collection was, in 1646, the director of that year Snippendaal: it took him a whole year to count the 796 species of plants, and to write the catalog, but thanks to his hard work Carl Nilsson Linnaeus in 1753 succeeded in writing his fundamental work Species Plantarum.


Meanwhile in 1682, thanks to the commercial contacts of the East India Company and to the help of collectors from the Netherlands, the Garden acquired many species, not only medicinal, but also greenhouse and ornamental, which transformed the old Hortus from Medicus to Botanicus, a new center of intense research and trade. Also in this period, the botanical illustrators Jan and Maria Moninckx were commissioned to document the new collection, and they created the Moninckx Atlas: not the usual herbarium with dried plants, but a catalog containing graphic reproductions of the most recent and exotic plants. The task, which ended in 1749, required the production of nine volumes, and involved other expert watercolorists Such as Johanna H. Herolt, daughter of Sibylla Merian, and Alida Withoos, daughter of Mathias Withoos, the painter of still life master of Gaspar Van Wittel. Even today the Moninckx Atlas is considered the main testimony of the extraordinary contribution of women to the birth of scientific drawing.



Today, the Hortus Botanicus covers little more than one hectare but boasts an enormous variety of plant: there are about 4,000 species, including those grown outdoors and those housed in its seven greenhouses, just over 1% of the world's plant diversity and it is a place rich in history, where modern events of emancipation and cutting-edge studies are intertwined for their attention to both the past and the present. An example is the semi circular garden reorganized in Systemic Garden in 1863. The semicircle shape in fact represents the systematic classification of plants: species that are closely related are found growing near each other, while those that have little in common are grown far away. Currently, they are classified according to the Angiosperma Phylogeny Group (APG), among the most advanced technologies of "molecular systematics," based on similarities in genetic material. Here, if summer is a riot of blooms, winter lets the symmetrical lines of boxwood hedges emerge.


A true masterpiece of modern architecture is the Three Climates Greenhouse, designed in 1993 by Zwarts & Jansma Architects, which brings together three different climatic environments: the subtropics, the desert and the tropics. A suspended walkway allows visitors to pass from one area to the another, each with its own temperature, humidity and air circulation. Walkers enjoy the view of the tangle of lianas and leaves, look closely at the tree canopy while catching a glimpse of the sky through the glass roof as they pass through dry scrub, jungle and desert. In the first one he comes across geraniums, agapanthus and gerberas, then reaches the humid subtropical climate where the protagonist is the abundance of water, and finally the desert section, where cacti and majestic succulents from faraway deserts stand out.


Instead in the Palms Greenhouse you can admire, next to giant palms specimens, the famous 350-year-old Cyca Encephalartos altensteinii, purchased in 1850 by William III. The Hortus boasts the presence of 60 different species of cycads, protected and safeguarded also thanks to the collaboration with other gardens, through the exchange of pollen, seeds or young plants. Hundreds of tropical butterflies color the small Butterfly House, fluttering over an interesting collection of tropical plants linked to trade with the Americas, such as coffee, tea or chocolate. The Garden also specializes in South African, Australian and carnivorous plant families.


The Hortus Botanicus of Amsterdam, with its history and collections, is now an internationally recognized historical, herbalist and scientific heritage, but it is also a pleasant stop to get lost in during a trip to the Dutch city par excellence


Official website



Maria Sibylla Merian.jpg
Illustrations by Maria Moninckx and Maria Sibylla Merian



The Moninckx Atlas is a collection of botanical images, containing watercolor and gouache reproductions of 425 exotic plants from Asia, South Africa and South America, planted in the Botanical Garden of Amsterdam. This collection, divided into nine books, takes its name from the two artists who contributed the most to its creation: Jan and Maria Moninckx. Maria Moninckx was born in The Hague around 1673, and was the daughter of an important painter, Johannes Moninckx, and Ariaentje Pieters, also an artist. Renowned in the field as a floral painter, for the Atlas performs 101 illustrations. The side by side, in addition to Jan Moninckx, two other women Johanna Herolt-Graff, daughter of Maria Sibylla Merian whose books are still considered masterpieces of painting and precursors of modern entomology, and Alida Withoos. Both botanical illustrators of the time, they are part of a discipline underestimated in the artistic field but of extreme importance in the scientific world, as an aid to the classification and study of plant morphology, since unlike herbals it provides a representation of both the shape and the details of the various species. In this case, botanical illustrators study closely not only plants and flowers but the life of insects themselves, often achieving important, as well as ignored, scientific results. For example, Maria Sibylla Merian between 1679 and 1683 printed The marvelous metamorphosis of caterpillars and their singular feeding on flowers, a work where she illustrates more than 176 animal species, from silkworms to butterflies, in every stage of development with as many species of flowers and plants on which the animal feeds. In fact, every table shows data about the times of metamorphosis, nutrition and life cycle of each one. Precisely because of this precision Merian is today considered the first entomologist in the history of science, a recognition that will be given only in the twentieth century, after centuries in the shadows, renowned only in expert circles of the sector.

These illustrations therefore represent not only an essential tool for study, but also an emancipation from the prejudice according to which science, and therefore botany, was, and often still is, a male prerogative only.

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