I got the chance to participate to the Festival della Scienza (Festival of Science) in Genoa (22nd October – 1st November) with the laboratory L’erbario dello speziale. Piante, carta e colori (The alchemist’s herbal. Plants, paper and colours) addressed to children aged 4-10, for school classes and family groups. It was every day 10-6 at the Natural History Museum (recently I am always there!) and it was run by 6 people working for the Festival della Scienza, both with a humanistic and natural sciences background (it is what me and Claudia Parola requested when we apply with our project).
This is the description we wrote for the official programme:
The alchemist is preparing some healing composts in his workshop using peony, st. John’s worth and marigold. But he is doing such a mess, he should need a herbal manuscript to understand which plants he should use and in which recipes! The herbal manuscript, since Antiquity till the end of the fifteenth-century, contained plants descriptions, their properties and where to collect them, together with drawings. These herbals were for doctors, alchemists, herbalists or to the lower group of cirurgici, but also to herbalist women. In this laboratory we will help the alchemist drawing for him the useful plants for his job, saying where he can find them and their medicinal properties. And you, have you ever observed a plant and then tried to draw it? Taking inspiration to real plants and models from the past, we will discover what a herbal manuscript is, what’s its story, who made it and why. We will see different examples of herbals through time and how techniques change, their function, the people who used them. The plants, in fact, were mostly represented with leaves, flowers, fruits and roots but sometimes human heads or animals (e.g. fishes, snakes, dragons) took the place of some parts of the plant. We will be careful to the details of the plants we will draw, so that the painting technique and the naturalistic knowledge are in a perfect balance and harmony.
Curators: Raffaella Bruzzone and Claudia Parola
In collaboration with Museo della Carta di Mele
The laboratory was divided in 4 parts:
- a talk/explanation about the history of herbals;
- an activity with images from medieval herbals till nineteenth-century representations of plants, where they had to put them in chronological order according to what we said;
- an overview on some herbs and their properties (rosemary, sage, marjoram, mint and thyme);
- plants drawing with different materials and techniques: tempera, watercolours, crayons, impression (imbedding the leaves in colour and pressing them on a piece of paper)
If parents/teachers were interested there was an explanatory poster with five main texts: the history of herbals, what is a herbal, why a herbal, who made it, who was it for. At the very end of the posters there is a ‘Did you know that…’ section about the herbal manuscript from the Val di Vara, making people aware that these kinds of objects can be found not far from home.
Every class/family went away with a sheet made by the Museo della Carta di Mele, an ancient paper factory (cartiera) just outside Genoa, with the recommendation to try at home on this paper as the effect is completely different and wonderful (it is a paper similar to the one they would have used for a Medieval herbal).
I was there during the whole Festival to take pictures, ask questions to the children and the teachers, and it was such a great experience! The children were so interested and asked a lot of questions, I love their ways of representing the plants and choosing the different media and materials . I was pleased to hear that some of the schools involved had their own herbs garden to look after so the children already knew something about it. The teachers kept saying it was a great idea for a laboratory and me and Claudia were very pleased of the result!