Project (2020-)

The Vegetative Soul and Plants in the Study of Living Bodies

Vegetation and vegetative powers, in their basic ability to preserve, maintain, and reproduce life, traditionally shape the understanding of living bodies and the definition of life throughout the centuries. The early modern understanding of vegetation and vegetative powers appears particularly significant and innovative. During this period, alternative interpretations of life surface: from mechanical philosophy to alchemical traditions, resulting in fiercest clashes without a clear and definite solution. Life apparently remained an unfathomable thing. A theoretical approach to the study of plants, the silent witness of life, apparently helped to deal with this problem but created new issues requiring new investigations.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, vegetal studies attracted the attention of scholars, not only for the external variety and diversity of plants, but also for their structure and functions. In Aristotelian tradition, the vegetative soul played a relevant role as principle of the basic activities of life. Yet, discussions over this soul shaped the early modern understanding of plants and life. Scholars shed new light to the understanding of vegetare, to nutrition, growth, and reproduction, but were also interested in the physiological and anatomical studies of plants and animals. A philosophical interpretation of plants as representing the minimal level of vitality led studies to important and fascinating attempts to redefine life.

This project focuses especially on three aspects:

  1. the early modern medical approach to plants as a model to explain the basic functions of life, and especially describe embryology, and the operations of the liver
  2. the early modern reception of pseudo-Aristotle’s De plantis in botanists, naturalists, and philosophers of the seventeenth century
  3. the early modern study of plants and vegetation