De medicina Aegyptiorum. (with) De plantis Aegyptis liber … De balsamo dialogus.

Venice, Francesco de Franceschi, 1591 (with) 1592.


Two volumes in one. 4to. 1) FIRST EDITION, ff. (12), 150, (26); 2) FIRST EDITION of first work, ff. (4), 80, (8). Roman letter, little Italic; printer’s device on titles; historiated and foliated initials, initial C a figure of Cronus; grotesque head- and tail-pieces. Volume I: three woodcuts in Book Two of Egyptian cupping glasses; two full-page woodcuts, the first showing the process of scarification of the legs, the second a treatment for dropsy; diagram of a leg on leaf M7v. Volume II: many woodcuts of plants, mostly full-page and in good clean impression; occasionally lightly age yellowed, slight marginal damp stain at lower edge of final two gatherings. A very good copy in elegant mottled calf c. 1700, gilt edges, gilt spine with floral compartments and title on red morocco label; red sprinkled edges; early inventory number on front pastedown and pencil modern signature of ‘Dr Gazeau’, repeated on head of title; eighteenth-century library stamp in blank margin of title.

Fine copy of three pioneering medical and botanical treatises of the late Italian Renaissance. ‘Alpini, an Italian physician and botanist, graduated from Padua and travelled through Greece, Crete and Egypt from 1580-1583. Following his travels, he returned to Padua where he remained as professor of botany and director of the botanical garden until his death.’ (Heirs of Hippocrates).

The volume begins with the first edition of ‘one of the earliest European studies of non-Western medicine. Alpini’s work dealt primarily with contemporary (i.e. Turkish) practices observed during a three-year sojourn in Egypt. These included moxibustion (the production of counter-irritation by placing burning or heated material on the skin) which Alpini introduced in European medicine. Alpini also mentioned coffee for the first time in this work’ (Norman). He also introduced the banana and baobab to Europeans.

Preceded by an extensive subject index and followed by an exhaustive alphabetical one, the text, divided into four books, discusses inter alia the state of Egyptian medicine, the reasons behind the unusual longevity of the Egyptian people, epidemics and illnesses that had affected Egypt, methods of and reasons for blood-letting, Eunuchs, varieties of cupping glasses, techniques of scarification, cures for dysentery, the range and extent of surgery and drugs available, the use of softening baths to enhance the appearance of the body, the composition and administration of theriacs (obeying the hair-of-the-dog principle with regard to poisoning), and syringes. He also mentions the use of wine in medicine and describes, for the first time in print, the coffee plant.

In very readable Latin, the book provides a fascinating insight into early homeopathy, surgical and cosmetic procedures, and Egyptian lifestyle. The unusual degree of specialization of Egyptian medics is also discussed, with doctors said to become experts in individual organs and areas (e.g. ears and lungs), so as to maximise their wisdom and knowledge.

The second part of the volume is taken up by the joint edition of two other treatises of Alpini, the first edition of De plantis Aegyptis, and the second edition of the Dialogue on Balsam, which appeared separately in 1591. Alpini combined his medical training with a deep interest in botany, resolving to travel in search of the most useful vegetable sources of balm or balsam. He stayed three years in Cairo and gathered materials for the two works printed there, after which he returned to Italy in 1593.

De plantis Aegyptis discusses and illustrates around 50 species of Egyptian flora, 23 of them never previously described by any European writer and all of which the author had personally examined. The descriptions and drawings of the papyrus, coffee and cotton plants are the first ever to be printed. The work is the earliest on African flora listed in Pritzel, and it was to this book more than any other that Alpinus owed his great reputation among contemporary naturalists.

While the term ‘balm’ or ‘balsam’ was applied in this period to a variety of resins derived from plants, or to the plants themselves, Alpinus’ Dialogue is concerned specifically with the amyris species and the resins, fruit and wood they produce. The book is the earliest monograph on balms recorded in Pritzel, and contains one full-page illustration. Somewhat surprisingly a large initial at the beginning of the second work depicts a man playing the bagpipes.

“From a scientific point of view, the De Plantis Aegyptis is his [Alpinus’] most important work. The pioneering study of Egyptian flora introduced exotic plants to the still parochial European botanical circles … this … later was used by such systematists as Hasselquist and Forskal as a basis for their more complete studies … Some of Alpinus’ original descriptions were included in the writings of Linnaeus, who … name[d] the genus Alpini … in his honour.” DSB I p. 124.

1) BM STC It., 20; Norman, 39; Adams, A 802; Mortimer It., 16; Heirs of Hippocrates, 240 (1646 edn.); Osler, 1796; Durling, 178; Wellcome 232; Garrison-Morton, 6468 (‘First important work on the history of Egyptian medicine’); Simon, II, 42. Not in Vicaire or Bitting.

2) BM STC It., 20; Adams, A 803; Pritzel, 163; Wellcome, 234; Osler, 1799; Mortimer It., 17. Durling, 179; Arber, 90.


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