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Marostica A place to love, to live in, to visit

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To love Prospero Alpini

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The trip to Egypt: the study of botanical species on the island of Crete, botany and Egyptian medicine

Under the influence of Guilandino, Prefetto e Ostensore dell'Orto Botanico (a title identifying the director of the botanical garden), his beloved mentor for matters concerning his discipline and life, and after the naturalistic explorations he had carried out in distant lands, Alpini travelled to Egypt from 1580 to 1584 following the Venetian ambassador Giorgio Emo. His observations are recorded in numerous works, some of which are posthumous, such as De medicina Aegyptiorum (1591), De plantis Aegypti (1592), De plantis exoticis (1629) and Rerum Aegyptiarum libri IV (1735). In De plantis Aegypti he described and outlined the coffee plant (Coffea arabica L.) for the first time ever, underlining the therapeutic uses of this drink obtained from toasted seeds.
What was initially a journey and a mere stay eventually turned out to have become a form of "dialogue" between western and eastern culture. In De medicina Aegyptiorum, the focus is on the comparison between the medicine of the Egyptians and the medical traditions of the University of Padua, but the work eventually becomes a dissertation on the history of the religions of the Mediterranean and "minor India". The Paris edition released in 1646 fully interprets this trend: Egypt and India are put together in a comparison that dates back to Herodotus and this comparison is then referenced by Leon Battista Alberti in his work De architectura that he wrote in the same years in which Colloquium Heptaplomeres, a work by Jean Bodin (Angers, 1529 - Laon 1596) on the religions of the Mediterranean area and their possible coexistence, was published. Historical reason is a source of religious and cultural harmony after all.

Coffee

Alpini must be recognized as the first author to provide a botanical description of the Bon and the use of its toasted seeds, which the Egyptians used to prepare caova, a decoction they also drank for therapeutic purposes. It is Coffea Arabica and the decoction is what we now call coffee.

In the garden of the Turk Halybei I saw a tree [...] that produces seeds which are well known there under the name of bon or ban. With these seeds everyone - both the Egyptians and the Arabs - prepare a very popular decoction which they drink in place of wine. This decoction is sold in public taverns, as is the case with wine at home: they call it caova. These seeds come from Arabia Felix […]
taken from De Plantis Aegypti (1592)

On his return from Egypt and without even imagining how trendy coffee would later become in most of the world, Alpini contributed to spreading this drink in the Republic of Venice to such extent that shops were opened where the drink could be tasted and the toasted seeds purchased. 

The return to Padua and the appointment as director of the Botanical Garden

After a long holiday, in 1594 Alpini was given the task of teaching about the semplici (medical plants) and, in 1603, he also took over the role of Prefetto dell'Orto e della Ostensione dei Semplici (Director of botanical garden and in charge of teaching about medical plants), following the death of Giacomo Antonio Cortuso. Under his management the botanic garden of Padua became an important centre of study and research, especially as regards the dissemination and cultivation of many exotic species. Alpini had a correspondence with many Italian and foreign scholars, with whom he exchanged plants and seeds. 
A scholar of Italian and exotic flora, particularly Egyptian and Cretan flora, his research was always aimed at the knowledge of the pharmacological properties of plants for possible therapeutic uses. A careful observer of natural phenomena, he was a precursor of the idea of sexual reproduction in plants with his observations (1592) on the fertilization of female date palms by the "dust" of male inflorescence. His name is still remembered by the genus Alpinia.   
Alpini was also a practitioner of great value and in 1601 he published a work on the prognosis entitled De praesagienda vita et morte aegrotantium libri septem, which was bound to be a great success. His work De praesagienda is a clinical, semeiological work, based on ancient Hippocratic thought, enriched and verified by his own personal observations. On the other hand, the treatise De medicina methodica (1611) is an acute attempt to revive doctors' interest in the ancient doctrine of the Methods and therefore in solid thinking. 

Prospero Alpini and Leandro Dal Ponte 

Leandro Dal Ponte (Bassano del Grappa, 1557 - Venice, 1622), son of the famous painter Jacopo Dal Ponte from Bassano, is the author of the valuable portrait of Prospero Alpini in his youth, depicted at the age of thirty-one, as specified on the back of the painting, when Alpini went to Bassano del Grappa to practice his medical profession there at the end of November 1584. The painting was donated by the artist to Alpini, probably as a sign of gratitude for the care he gave to the Dal Ponte family. 

The portrait is today kept at the Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart.

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