The "Carrara Herbal" in context: Imitation, exemplarity, and invention in late fourteenth-century Padua

Sarah Rozalja Kyle
Dept. of Art History, Emory University
July, 2010


This dissertation examines the relationship between the Carrara Herbal (British Library, Egerton 2020), an illustrated book of plant medicines, and the patterns of the Carrara family's patronage during their rule of Padua. The Herbal was one component of patronage system that redefined the collection and production of cultural artifacts as an enterprise in portraiture, involving not only books but portrait medals, fresco cycles, and tomb monuments. Commissioned by the last Carrara lord of Padua, Francesco II "il Novello" (r. 1390-1405), the Herbal and its diverse plant portraits reflect the effort Francesco made to portray himself as a scholar-prince in the tradition of Petrarch's illustrious men. Francesco's commission of the Herbal was influenced by the vision of self and of Padua expressed in portraits and books commissioned by his father, Francesco I "il Vecchio" (r. 1350-1388). As a material object, the Herbal upheld the status of the codex as an emblem of the learned prince, a status celebrated in his father's patronage. The elder Francesco had used his library to cultivate his self-image as a successor to the Roman leaders immortalized by Petrarch. The Herbal specifically engaged and modified the Petrarchan rhetoric of exemplarity established in Francesco il Vecchio's patronage, refocusing it onto the rising fame of the University of Padua's medical doctors. With the other illustrated books in Francesco Novello's collection, the Herbal mediated between the earlier portraits of the noble, physical bodies of Francesco's ancestors (and the healthy res publica that they connoted) and his own self-image and rule. Positioning himself as "court physician," Francesco metaphorically orchestrated the moral and physical health of his community. Doing so, he continued the "healthy" history of Padua associated with the bodies of his forebears and recorded in family biographies and local chronicles. Francesco brought his ancestors' achievements into his present and into his role as heir to the dynasty. Translating their use of portraiture into his book collection, Francesco aligned the visual signs of their good governance with his patronage and role as a physician prince. In Francesco's library these family identities were exchanged and appropriated, and the dynasty's continuity was expressed.