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The Dioscorides Neapolitanus
The most famous pharmacological standard guide of all history
Neapel, Bibliotèca Nazionale, Ms. ex Vindob. gr. 1, Byzanz or Southern Italy, beginning of the 7th century



Further Pictures


The Codex Neapolitanus is one of the oldest manuscripts in the tradition of Materia Medica, the leading pharmacological work of Greco-Roman times, written by the Greek surgeon Pedanius Dioscorides in the 1st century A.D. The eminent role of this codex is not least due to the great number of botanical illustrations and descriptions of plants in all their details.
The primary significance of Dioscorides as a major authority in his field is evidenced by the wide spread use of his work over the centuries. In the 6th century it was translated into Latin and from the 9th century, it was transliterated and edited also in Arabic, Syrian and Hebrew. Materia Medica thus remained the pharmacological reference work and was read not only by physicians and botanists but also by interested lay botanists.
The Neapolitan codex can be dated to the early 7th century, although research still ignores whether it was made in Byzantium or in Italy. G. Cavallo suggests that the miniatures in the manuscript were obviously a product of the activity of Greek artists in Italy. The 403 miniatures depict different plants and bear unique testimony to the unmatched virtuosity of the illuminators of this period.

The miniatures

The botanical illustrations in the Codex Neapolitanus, according to some, are not originals of early Byzantine book illumination but rather constitute copies of more ancient models which are probably based on the herbal of Crateuas, a source used by Dioscorides, and thus go back to the Alexandrian or Pergamenes textbook illustrations of the 2nd and 1st pre-Christian centuries.
In a successful didactic approach, one to three illustrations of plants are found in the upper half of each recto page and described in the text below. The verso pages are, however, mostly left blank or carry only additional text, in the attempt to avoid possible interference with the picture composition due to colour showing through the vellum.
The hand used is the so-called Bible majuscule, a square type appreciated for its good readability. The division of the text in two columns also guarantees easy use. Below the botanical illustrations, the names of plants were added in red ink, thus keeping to a very synoptic layout. Later annotations added throughout the manuscript justify the great esteem for the Neapolitan codex which was frequently used over the centuries. Even today, Dioscorides is referred to in context with certain plants and drugs.

A physician’s reference work

Dioscorides treats one plant per chapter. Its designation and synonyms are followed by a description of its properties as well as information on its origin and effect, preparation, use and dosage. The work, whose significance applies both to the fields of botany and pharmacology, was above all conceived as a textbook on drugs for use by physicians.
A striking feature of the Codex Neapolitanus is the lexical rearrangement of its contents in alphabetical order. The systematic order according to the therapeutic properties of plants was supplanted to enable users finding their way round the book as quickly as possible.

The history of the manuscript

We know little about the history of the manuscript. Until the early 18th century, it was kept in the Augustine monastery S. Giovanny a Carbonara in Naples. In 1718, the Habsburgs took it back with them to the Viennese Court Library and the conclusion of the peace negotiations after World War I, the codex returned to Naples in 1919, this time to the Biblioteca Nazionale, and now belongs to the most precious gems of this richly stocked library.

The commentary volume

The scholarly bi-lingual commentary (Italian, English) comprises articles by G. Cavallo, S. Lilla, G. Orofino, and C. Bertelli. A general introduction to the manuscript and its background is followed by a codicological analysis and an expert examination of the miniatures from the perspective of the history of art. The commentary is complete with a contribution on the commissioner of the manuscript. The facsimile edition comes with a complete German translation of all 5 volumes of Materia Medica, edited by J. Berendes, with valuable observations, an introduction, a Greek, Latin and German directory and a complete record of the plants treated in the Codex Neapolitanus (compiled by H. Riedl).

  European Illuminated Manuscripts
  European Text Manuscripts
  American Manuscripts
  Oriental Manuscripts
  Music Manuscripts
  Documentations Facsimile Cassettes
  Alphabetical Index
  Chronological Index
  Thematic Index

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