Pisa, Padua, and Florence, the First Botanical Gardens

In 1544, the botanist Luca Ghini established Europe's first botanical garden in Pisa, Italy. Ghini was acting on the orders of Cosimo I de'Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, who wished the garden to stock simplicia—plants with medicinal properties. The garden was linked to the University of Pisa, and is still: Its official title is Orto Botanico dell'Universita degli Studi di Pisa (Botanical Garden of the University of Pisa). It was the first botanical garden in the world to operate under the auspices of a university. The garden was relocated twice, in 1563 and 1591.

The design of all the early botanical gardens was based on the private gardens of the wealthy, which in turn were derived from the layout of monastic gardens. When Conrad Gessner visited the Padua botanical garden he admired its magnificence, but found nothing really new in it. Essentially it was a large pleasure garden. Once attached to universities, however, botanical gardens acquired new purposes, even if their layouts and plant stocks did not change. They were valuable educational resources, offered opportunities for research, and were open to the public, at least for part of the time, so they were also places for quiet enjoyment. Today the Pisa garden has a seed bank, a herbarium, a large and diverse botanical collection of growing plants, and an arboretum—a collection of living tree species. There are laboratories, a library, an archive, and a botanical museum. In addition, botanical gardens attract artists. Botanical illustration links the arts of drawing and painting with plant science, and many artists have worked at Pisa.

The Padua botanical garden was founded in 1545 and, although Pisa predates it by one year, the Padua garden still occupies its original location. It is attached to the University of Padua and was founded by order of the Senate of the Venetian Republic. From the seventh century until 1797 when it was conquered by France and then ceded to Austria, the Venetian Republic covered northeastern Italy, centered on Venice, and the coastal strip of what is now Croatia. At first the garden was called Hortus Simplicium (Garden of Simplicia) because it was devoted to medicinal plants.

As well as the medicinal plants, the first keeper of the garden planted a large number of trees, at least one of which survives. It is a European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis var. arborescens) that was planted in 1585. It is also known as the Goethe palm, because in 1786 the German author and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) drew conclusions about evolution from his study of it. The garden still has its original layout. A circular central plot surrounded by a moat represents the world surrounded by the ocean that people once believed surrounded all the dry land. Ornamental entrances and balustrades were added later. Because of its age, its preservation of the first design, and the fact that the garden continues to fulfil its original purpose, in 1997 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the Padua botanical garden as a World Heritage Site.

The Florence botanical garden also began as a Hortus Simplicium and it, too, was established by order of Grand Duke Cosimo I de'Medici on land he had purchased from a Dominican convent. It opened on December 1, 1545, and Luca Ghini was its first director. The garden is maintained by the University of Florence and was originally designed by the landscape gardener and artist Niccolo di Raffaello di Niccolo dei Pericoli (1500–50), who was known as Il Tribolo. Cosimo III de'Medici (1642–1723) took a great interest in the garden and under his influence, and with Pier Antonio Micheli (1679–1737), the professor of botany at the University of Pisa, as its director, the plant collection grew. The Florentine Botanical Society was founded in 1753 and took over the upkeep of the garden, and in 1783 the Accademia dei Georgofili assumed responsibility for it. The emphasis of the garden then changed. It became an agricultural experimental garden, and the layout was altered. In 1847 the garden was renamed the Giardino dei Semplici (Garden of Simples), and in 1880 it became the Botanical Garden of the Upper Education Institute.