Salerno’s Minerva Garden: a hidden trove of therapeutic treasures

While many people have heard of the botanical gardens built during the Italian Renaissance period in northern towns such as Padua and Pisa, a small and less well-known medicinal garden in Salerno actually predates them.

The Minerva Garden in this southern Italian town traces its roots back to the 14th century, when the medical writer and botanist Matthaeus Silvaticus decided to set up a small garden of simple medicine, attached to Salerno’s medical school, Europe’s oldest.

Silvaticus used the garden for experimental and educational purposes, and mentions it in his 650-page encyclopedia about medicating agents, Pandectarum Medicinae, completed around 1317. In Chapter 196 on the large-leaved Colocasia plant, he says “and I have it in my garden in Salerno, near a sizeable spring”.

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The area on which the modern garden stands has been identified as the garden referred to by Silvaticus. The layout visitors see today is a restoration based on its appearance in the 17-18th century when it was part of a noble residence, and includes several different levels. An interesting feature is its complex network of waterways, fountains and springs.

WP_20141214_069In the central garden on the first level, the plants are divided into sections reflecting the “four elements”: Air, Earth, Fire and Water, which formed the basis of the “humors theory” developed by Greek physician Galen, who lived between 129-216 AD. The mix of pairs of elements form the four fundamental bodily qualities: hot, cold, dry and wet.

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In the human body, the four elements are represented in the four humors of the organism: blood (air), yellow bile (fire), phlegm (water) and black bile (earth). Here’s a chart that may help:

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The theory, which Medieval therapeutic principles in Salerno were based on, supposes that the prevalence of one of the humors in an individual decides one of four personality types: the Sanguine (optimistic, leader-like, lovers of food) who are associated with the Air element and blood,  the Choleric (thin, frail, bad-tempered) who are linked to Fire and yellow bile, the Phlegmatic (fat, sluggish, lazy and unintelligent), connected to Water and phlegm, and the Melancholic (analytical, quiet and sad), tied with Earth and black bile.

Based on this system, the human body is governed by the four humors and any imbalances in them creates pathological states. Illness, viewed as the excess of one humor over others, can be corrected by a medicine that is opposite to the nature of the overbearing humor. For this reason, plants are classified with the same criteria used for studying human humors. So some plants are hot and wet, some are dry and cold etc.

The grounds of the garden are marked to show which herbal sections help for ailments related to the various humors and their corresponding elements, here we have water and earth and the quality of their pair in the middle: cold.

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Here is Aloe Vera, planted in the section between “Hot” and “Dry”:

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This lower garden is full of pretty orange trees and there is a suggestive pond-like water feature with overgrowing plants on one side:

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After this you can wander up the steps to subsequent levels, where you pass more springs, waterways and lemon tree groves among the many types of therapeutic plants:

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There are also some wonderful views of the Salerno coast.

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Once you’ve had a thorough look around the different levels, you can return to the terrace and choose from the selection of herbal teas on offer. I opted for orange and cinnamon– and enjoyed a tranquil rest looking out to sea. I thought about which humor I’m most like, and I tended towards “Melancholic”– so maybe it was good for me to consume a hot drink to snap me out of my sad moods!

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It was quite cloudy on the wintery day I visited, so I am sure in the spring and summer it can look even more spectacular with a blue-sky backdrop.

All in all, it was fascinating to visit this garden and learn about Salerno’s medical school and the “humors theory” they followed. I’ll leave you with a depiction of the Scuola Medica Salernitana taken from the Canon of Medicine, a medical encyclopaedia compiled by the Persian philosopher Avicenna and completed in 1025. Below is what the seafront of Salerno looks like nowadays.

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Il Giardino Della Minerva, Via Ferrante Sanseverino, 1, Cost: 3 euros,  http://www.giardinodellaminerva.it/

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