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Micheli, Pier' Antonio

1. Dates
Born: Florence, 11 Dec. 1679
Died: Florence, 1 Jan. 1737
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 58
2. Father
Occupation: Artisan
His father, Pier Francesco di Paolo Micheli, was a dyer.
Every circumstance of Micheli's life indicates that the family was poor.
3. Nationality
Birth: Italian
Career: Italian
Death: Italian
4. Education
Schooling: No University
He had only the most elementary schooling. Micheli was apprenticed to a book dealer at an early age.
Micheli was aided in his studies by Padre Virgilio Falugi, Abbot of Valombroso, who was knowledgable in botany, and through Falugi by other monks there, especially Bruno and Tozzi.
It is of interest that after his death, Micheli, who had little formal education and was hampered all of his life by his lack of a degree, was dressed in a doctoral gown for his funeral.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Botany, Natural History, Paleontology
Subordinate: Mineralogy, Geology, Zoology
In his major work, Nova plantarum genera (Florence, 1729), Micheli considered some 1900 species, of which nearly 1400 were new. The work remained unfinished at the time of his death (in the sense that he continued to collect more material), and a considerable amount of the data that he had gathered was never incorporated into it.
Micheli was an outstanding representative of a new phenonenon, the specialist in certain groups of plants--for Micheli the ombrellifers, gramineae, mosses, fungi, and marine algae.
In addition to his botanical studies, he was also concerned with zoology (especially fish or, better, sea life), paleontology, and geology. He was the first to recognize Monte Amiata as an extinct volcano far from regions still active volcanically. He explored the minerals of Tuscany.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Patronage
Secondary: Publishing
Until 1706, Micheli was attached to a bookseller in Florence.
He obtained the patronage of both the Grand Duke Cosimo III de' Medici and his successor Gian Gastone de' Medici. The support of these two men permitted him to devote himself completely to his studies.
He was nevertheless hampered by the lack of an academical degree and only held a modest position in the botanical garden of Pisa--though later he would be the director of the garden in Florence.
8. Patronage
Types: Eccesiastic Official, Aristrocrat, Court Official, Scientist
Early in his life, as an adolescent, Micheli was encouraged and aided by the Marquis Cosimo da Castiglione, and also by Pandolfo Pandolfini, Filippo Buonarroti, and Lorenzo Magalotti. Micheli dedicated genera to a number of his aristocartic patrons. Through them he came to the attention of the Grand Duke. He continued to be in contact with aristocratic dilattantes of natural history, and it appears that he received assistance from them.
It appears that the Societa Botanica, which Micheli founded, was filled mostly with aristocratic dilettantes, and after Micheli's death they produced an elogio of him. Micheli's executors included a Capponi and a Rucellai. However, it is worth noting that they did not cough up enough money to publish the works that Micheli left.
Nevertheless, it was the generosity of his two patrons (that is, the two successive Grand Dukes) that permitted Micheli to devote himself completely to his studies. After he was first introduced to the Grand Duke, Micheli composed his essay on the fruits of Tuscany and a sketch for Toscana illustrata for the Grand Duke. In 1706 he received an annual pension of 80 scudi (which was later increased) in return for two works (in manuscript) dedicated to the Grand Duke. The stipend was paid to him as an assistant custodian of the Garden of Simples in Pisa. In 1717, when William Sherard praised Micheli as the leading botanist of the day to the Grand Duke, his stipend was further increased. At some point he became director of the botanical garden of Florence.
Sherard is described as a rich English patron. He became acquainted with Micheli early, on a botanizing trip to Tuscany, and from that time he aided Micheli's career.
Prince Eugen of Savoy ordered his personal physician to collect plants of Austria and to send them to Micheli.
In 1720 Micheli presented the manuscript of his Nova plantarum genera to the Grand Duke, requesting assistance to publish it. Unfortunately another botanist, Tilli, higher than Micheli at the Pisan garden, also finished a manuscript at the same time, and he got the support. Ultimately Micheli got money from Gian Gastone to engrave the plates. He begged the rest here and there, and the work appeared finally only in 1729.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Pharmacology, Metallurgy, Agriculture
In his early expeditions around Florence, apothecaries (whom Micheli had consulted about questions of plants) used him to gather medicinal plants for them.
In 1708 the Grand Duke sent Micheli north of the Alps specifically to learn how the Germans made tinplate [sic], and also to collect for the garden in Pisa. Micheli wrote a description of how tinplate was made.
Although he was nominally employed in a herbal garden, Micheli seems to have paid no attention to the medicinal properties of plants. I found no reference whatever to such. However, probably on orders from his patrons, Micheli did draw up catalogues of fruits produced in Tuscany and of vines everywhere and the conditions in which they flourished. In 1723 he published a work on a weed that was damaging vegetables in Tuscany, with advice on how to eliminate it.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
He was influential in founding, with a group of friends, the Societŕ botanica Fiorentina, the first botanical society in the world, in 1716. Many of the leading aristocrats of Florence were in this organization (see Targioni-Tozzetti, pp. 86-8).
He conducted an extensive correspondence with both Italian and foreign botanists. (See especially Targioni- Tozzetti, pp. 85-134, 145-86, 208-19, 253-317.) He met William Sherard in 1699 and formed a friendship and established a continuing correspondence. He was able (through Magalotti) to communicate with Tournefort. He also corresponded with Jussieu, Scheuchzer, Petiver, Magnol, Vaillant, Boerhaave, Sloane, Zannichelli, Baillou, Folkes, Algarotti, Vallisnieri, Linnaeus, and many others. Targioni- Tozzetti is a mine of information on Micheli's correspondence and, in effect, on the community of natural historians of the early 18th century.
  1. G. Targioni-Tozzetti, Notizie della vita e delle opere di Pier'Antonio Micheli botanico fiorentino, (Florence, 1858).
  2. Microprint Q111.L2 no. T12 S. Ragazzini, "Per una catalogazione degli scritti inediti di Pier Antonio Micheli," Annali di Istituto e Museo di storia delle scienze (Firenze), 8 (1983), 159-72. Q105. I82F5 P.A. Saccardo, "La botanica in Italia," Memorie del Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 26 (1895), 110, and 27 (1901), 73.
  3. G. Negri,"P.A. Micheli (1679-1737)," Nuovo giornale botanico italiano, n.s. 45 (1938), lxxx-cvii. An outstanding essay.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. G.C. Ainsworth, Introduction to the History of Mycology, (Cambridge, 1976), pp. 308-37.
  2. Antonio Cocchi, Discorsi tuscani, (Firenze, 1762), pp. 971-238 (?).
  3. Michaud, Biographie générale.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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