The Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae illustrated in Tacuinum Sanitatis

ANNALS OF BOTTANY 103: 1187–1205, 2009

Harry S. Paris, Marie-Christine Daunay and Jules Janick.

  • Background and AimsBeginning in the last two decades of the 14th century, richly illuminated versions of the Tacuinum Sanitatis, the Latin translation of an 11th-century Arabic manuscript known as Taqwim al-Sihha bi al-Ashab al-Sitta, were produced in northern Italy. These illustrated manuscripts provide a window on late medieval life in that region by containing some 200 full-page illustrations, many of which vividly depict the harvest of vegetables, fruits, flowers, grains, aromatics and medicinal plants. Our objective was to search for and identify the images of taxa of Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae.
  • Methods: We have located all reported illustrated Tacuinum Sanitatis and similar or related manuscripts, searched through printed or electronic reproductions of them, categorized six of them that display full-page illustrations as archetypic, and established the identity of the Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae appearing in these six manuscripts.
  • Key Results and Conclusions: Of the Cucurbitaceae, Cucumis sativus (short-fruited cucumbers), Cucumis melo (including round as well as elongate melons), Citrullus lanatus (both sweet watermelons and citrons), and Lagenaria siceraria (including bottle-shaped as well as long gourds), are illustrated. Of the Solanaceae, Solanum melongena (egg-shaped purple aubergines) and Mandragora sp. (mandrake) are illustrated. These depictions include some of the earliest known images of cucumber, casaba melon (Cucumis melo Inodorous Group) and aubergine, each of which closely resembles an extant cultivar-group or market type. Overall, the botanically most accurate images are in the version of the Tacuinum located in the O¨ sterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, cod. ser. n. 2644. Similarities and differences in botanical accuracy among the images of Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae in the six archetypal Tacuinum manuscripts suggest to us that another illustrated Tacuinum, now lost, may have antedated and served as a model or inspiration for the six surviving archetypic manuscripts.
  • Key words: Citrullus lanatus, Cucumis melo, Cucumis sativus, Lagenaria siceraria, Solanum melongenaMandragora sp., medieval horticulture, history of horticulture.


The Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae include some of the more important vegetable crops of the world, with a collective value of billions of dollars annually. These two families include cucumbers, melons, watermelons, squash, pumpkins, aubergines (eggplants), peppers, potatoes and tomatoes, all of which are of worldwide importance, as well as a host of other crops of regional importance and uncultivated taxa of medicinal interest. From descriptions, depictions and artefacts, some dating back several thousands of years, it is known that plants of both families have been appreciated for food and medicine since antiquity (Janick et al., 2007; Daunay et al., 2008; Paris and Janick 2008a, b). However, little information has been accessed, collected and analysed with regard to the identity, culture, harvest and use of the Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae during medieval times.
Our ongoing investigations have focused on obtaining a better understanding of the history of cultivation and use of the Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae (Paris, 2000, 2001, 2007; Paris and Janick, 2005, 2008a, b; Paris et al., 2006; Janick and Paris 2006a, b; Janick et al., 2007; Daunay and Janick, 2007; Daunay et al., 2007, 2008).
Among the issues addressed have been the times of arrival of various melon (Cucumis melo) types and cucumber (Cucumis sativus) in Europe. Specifically, the widely held idea that cucumber was known in Greek and Roman antiquity, based on translations of the Latin cucumis as cucumber, has been shown to have no supporting evidence (Janick et al., 2007). Our current objective focuses on the late medieval period, just before the humanistic upheaval of the Renaissance and the European contact with the Americas.
As described below, richly illuminated copies of a Latin manuscript known as the Tacuinum Sanitatis were produced in late medieval times. These illustrated Tacuinum manuscripts and their emergence into the realm of modern scholarship in the late 19th century have been the subject of some lengthy reviews, including those by Cogliato Arano (1976), Segre Rutz (2002), Bertiz (2003), Hoeniger (2006) and Mane

(2006). Over the years, a number of facsimile editions accompanied by scholarly commentary have been issued.
More recently, electronic digitization by the Bibliothèque nationale de France (, the Bibliothèque municipale de Rouen (France; and the Biblioteca Casanatense (Rome; has greatly eased access, facilitating more efficient study and comparison of these documents. Noteworthy is the book by Cogliati Arano (1976), which contains 43 colour and 243 black-and-white reproductions of images, with English translations of the brief accompanying texts, taken from five illustrated Tacuinum manuscripts.

These reviews and commentaries contain a wealth of historic, artistic and descriptive information and comparative analyses of the different versions of the illustrated Tacuinum. However, little critical attention and analysis has been devoted as yet to the images of plants by specialists of particular plant families. Our interest in the Tacuinum focuses on the remarkable fullpage illustrations as they relate to horticulture. Among the illustrations are particularly vivid depictions of the harvest of vegetables, fruits, flowers, grains, and aromatic and medicinal plants, which can provide substantial information on insufficiently investigated cultivated plants of the late medieval period. As will be shown, although the botanical details are often missing or erroneous, the depictions are valuable for identifying the crop plants known from late medieval northern Italy. Our specific objective was to identify the taxa of Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae present in the illustrated versions of the Tacuinum Sanitatis.


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