11 June 2012

Flowers of Crete

Trifolium Spinosum
or Trefoil

In 1583, Onorio Belli was sent to Crete to be staff doctor for Alvise Antonio Grimani, duca of Candia.  When Grimani finished his term of office and returned to Venice, Belli stayed on until 1599, except for a visit back to Venice and Padua in 92-93. His wife died in 1597, and in 1599 he  returned to his home in Vicenza.  Belli was first of all a botanist, and during his years on Crete made copious collections and notes of the flowers he found, and discovered dozens of new species.  He also collected plants and seeds, and sent them back to colleagues at the University of Padua, where a painter, G. Dyckmann, did the studies you see here. The names under the pictures are Dyckmann's.

Chamepeuce Plinij Anguillarae 
or Ptilostemon chamaepeuce.

Along with botany, he also did detailed architectural drawings of classical ruins on Crete, and wrote a geographical and physical description of Crete, and descriptions of its cities, and accounts of its famous men.  This 1854 book, available on-line through Google's new format that seems designed to discourage readers, gives many of the Cretan architectural drawings and reports of antiquities and inscriptions.  By 1589 he had become so famous for his scholarship that a statue was put up in his honor in the wonderful Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. (I believe he is supposed to be second from the left of the inscription, top row, in that first photograph on that link.) 


One of the things we learn from Belli is that a lot of Venetians in Crete had gardens, and sought out and cultivated local species deliberately. Felix Fabri had said nearly 80 years earlier that there were beautiful houses and gardens, but he told us nothing about the gardens.  Belli doesn't write of layouts and landscaping, but of plants.  Scientific names of plants had not yet been stabilized, so I have found some of these difficult to identify despite having three books on Greek trees and flowers. From his lists:

Peonis flore albo simplici

* Sesili Peloponnese, a beautiful and noble plant, in the garden of Mocenigo at S. Euphemia.
* In the same garden, an enormous number of hyacinths and tulips (Giacinti et Dulipani).
* Viole de Spagna, or matronali, in the gardens of Mussati and in that at Ca' Capello.
* Large and most beautiful iris in the garden of Cao di Lista, and he has promised me a plant.
* The Mussati have Lisimachia with yellow flowers, it is similar to the leaves and almost to the flowers of the flamula Jovis and flowers at the same time, that is June, but it has yellow flowers.
*The garden at Ca' Capello can give me genestella (white broom), crimson poppies, dulipani.
* Double red mallows at Ca' Prioli.  Centaurea minore  (a kind of thistle), a night flower, in the same garden. Also double mallows in the Bembo garden.


Someone asked him for a shipment of plants from Candia in 1587 which included:
* A round cyprus, very familiar, but send a box with green roots because they last as fresh as on land.
* Tragorigano cretico which is commonly called rigani.
* Aspalatho (great spiny broom), which is the same in Candia as on Rhodes, is very well known for its spines.
* The true platans can be brought quite well in a case if they are taken care of.
* A cyprus plant with leaves similar to that of willow, narrower, and sharp; it has little fruits like little white olives, and scented: there they call it the tree of paradise. 


He was in Chania when he wrote a letter to his uncle and addressed the letter: Al Magnifico Signor Valerio Barbarano mi Signor osservandissimo.  Vicenza alla Spiciaria del Sarasin.  He described a particular plant at great length, and said: "I found [this plant] 3 years ago in the territory of Rethymo in a most delicious valley called Vicilis near Lampeo and brought it to Rethymo where was my most illustrious patron, and at the house I also found our Signor Silverio and together we showed it to the Most Excellent Daniel Furlani, doctor of Rethymo, my very good friend from school at Padua."

Continuing, he said: "He (Daniel Furlani) agreed with me that this was the tragio of Dioscorides,* and then sent seeds to Signor Guilandino who wrote that this was not the tragio of Dioscorides, but that Dodoneo called this plant Rutha silvestris Hipericordes, he absolutely amazed me since this plant is very different from that of Dodoneo, if I do not deceive myself, and think think it without doubt the tragio of which Pietro Bellonio makes mention in his book De arboribus coniferis.  Nevertheless I listened to the words of a man such as the Most Excellent Guilandino, and will push myself to find the true tragio of Dioscorides if it can still be found in nature and is not a fable: although I have used extreme diligence in this Regno** I have not yet found another of the tragio."

Verbasco cretense, or mullein.

* I think this is the Cistus villosus sspl creticus that produces labdanum or a kind of myrrh.
** In the 16th century Crete had come to be called a Regno, kingdom.

The images are by G. Dyckmann, from Onorio Belli a Creta: un manoscritto inedito della Scuola Archaeologica Italiana di Atene (1587). Atene: Scuola Archeologica Italiano, 1999.


  1. so the tragio he speaks of is the source of laudanum?
    I have read in a couple of traveler sources of a plant which the Cretans chew and it stains their teeth and also kills hunger..do you know what it might have been?

  2. "Labdanum" confused me at first but Laudanum comes from opium. I'm sure they were growing opium poppies -- my 15thC doctor made use of opium. Belli does not mention any uses for his plants, as far as I have noticed, & I haven't heard of the one you mention.


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