Belladonna Coincidences

14 Aug 2000

I enjoy coincidences almost as much as sports, and both are evidence of the playfulness of Nature. Far-reaching connections are similarly entertaining.

Many of the bulblist members probably know that William Herbert was a son of the Earl of Carnarvon. William's brother John inherited the title, which then passed to his son. A later Lord Carnarvon was involved in the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. Coincidentally, Sir Arthur Evans, who directed the excavation of Knosos at Crete, was a direct descendant of Georg Ehret who, like William Herbert, was a botanical illustrator.

It seems that the sort of intellectual curiosity that leads us to gardening and botany can also stimulate an interest in archaeology. Sir Hans Sloane collected archaeological and antiquarian curios as well as botanical and zoological specimens. John Bartram, the American plant explorer, also did some archaeological digging. His friend and agent Peter Collinson wrote that one of Bartram's excavations proved that Indian Corn was not introduced to the "Indians" by Europeans. Apparently there was some doubt at the time.

Other coincidences are not really coincidental at all, but interesting just the same. Mark Catesby's famous painting of a lily is notable on its own, but becomes more interesting when we know that it was based on a plant raised by Collinson from seeds collected by Bartram.

I recently bought a copy of The Correspondence of John Bartram, which contains letters to and from such worthies as Collinson, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Catesby, Hans Sloane, John Hill, Linnaeus, Gronovius, Philip Miller and others. Among other things I learned that Collinson was able to pick flowers from his Monthly Roses on Christmas day through the 1750s because of the unusually mild winters. Another English writer, of a different period, commented that the Monthly Roses rarely rebloomed in England because winter came too early. Clearly there have been changes in the English climate.

Coincidence 1: The Cape Belladonna was not a common garden plant in England in the early 18th century because it did not perform well in "stoves", and also failed to flourish in the open ground. In 1753, Philip Miller published his method for growing the plants near a south-facing wall. But was it Miller's method or the mild winters? At any rate, we learn from the Botanical Magazine that the Cape Belladonnas were not common in 1804.

Coincidence 2: No sooner did I learn from Collinson's letters that there was a period of warm winters in the mid 18th century than I found a letter in Science (28 July 2000) about "Temperature Oscillations in the North Atlantic". This letter mentions a 50- to 70-year temperature oscillation.

Some time back I mentioned some intriguing — even scandalous — facts about the Farnese family of Italy. Among other things, that the first Duke of Parma was son of a Pope, and that the Parma line was connected to the king of Spain.

*Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Emperor Charles V
(King of Spain) and great-grandson of Pope Paul III.

Now I learn (Collectanea Cliffordiana) that George Clifford, third Earl of Cumberland, who flourished in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, made nine voyages by sea, all at his own expense, chiefly to attack the Spanish settlements in America. His first voyage was in 1587, to the relief of Sluys, in Flanders, then besieged by the Duke of Parma.* "It would appear, that to his adventurous spirit, the English nation is partly indebted for the first establishment of the East India Company: for it is recorded, that on the 30th of December, in the year 1600, Queen Elizabeth granted the first charter of the 'English East India Company, to George Earl of Cumberland, and 215 knights, aldermen, and merchants: incorporating them into one body politic and corporate, by the name of The Governor and Company of Merchants trading to the East Indies.'"

More than a century later the political and economic climate of Europe had changed considerably. Another George Clifford, of the same family, had settled in the Netherlands where he established one of the largest botanical and zoological gardens of the time. This was the Clifford immortalized by Linnaeus's Hortus Cliffortianus.

The coincidence value for me is that the Lilionarcissus rubeus indicus grown in the garden of Cardinal Farnese (kinsman to the Duke of Parma) was later grown in the garden of George Clifford (kinsman to the earlier George, Earl of Cumberland) where Linnaeus named it Amaryllis spatha multiflora corollis campanulatis aequalibus genitalibus declinatis soon shortened to Amaryllis Belladonna. Of course, that's not the sort of coincidence that everyone might notice.

Finally, in 1555 Lady Margaret Clifford married Lord Stanley, afterwards Earl of Derby. John Simson's 1729 painting of the "Amarilla" (Amaryllis Belladonna L. = Hippeastrum puniceum) is owned by the Earl of Derby.

4 March 2003

6 degrees of Jacobeus

Among the many subjects I don't know much about, Medieval heraldry is one. If someone out there can help me solve a little mystery, I will be most appreciative.

Simon de Tovar provided the first (that I know of) European description of a Sprekelia in a letter to his friend Clusius. He compared the tepals of the flower to the blades of the sword emblems of the St. Jacob knights. Clusius published the description of Narcissus Iacobeus in 1601.

Later, in the Hortus Farnesianus (1625), a Hippeastrum was also called Narcissus Iacobeus. I have puzzled over this description because Castelli wrote that the resemblance to the St. Jacob's knight cross was seen only when the plant produced four flowers at once. Why four?

I have found various Jacobeus crosses, differing in details but generally similar: the downward arm is a long and pointed blade, the other three arms are more ornate.

How can a 4-flowered scape of an Amaryllis be made to agree with such an emblem? Three flowers and a bud, perhaps, but I still don't get it.

But there was another cross that is far more similar in appearance: the cross of St. John the Hospitalier. Curiously, or meaningfully, this cross was worn by at least one Farnese — Ranucchio, father of Odoardo — in his role as prior of Venice. This cross does look rather like a 4-flowered cluster of Amaryllis flowers as viewed from above.

Is this the cross Castelli had in mind? If so, how did it become associated with the St. Jacob's knight (S. Iacobi Equitum)? (And why is Jack a nickname for John?)

Cardinal Odoardo Farnese owned the Hortus Farnesianus.

I have previously mentioned Giulia Farnese, known as Giula Bella, whose nude portrait statue stands on the tomb of her brother, Pope Paul III. A clothed portrait of this famous "Donna Bella" is online at:

And to add yet another strained coincidence, Giulia Farnese was mistress to Pope Alexander VI. "...within a year of the death of the schismatic Master Alfonso de Cardenas in 1493, Ferdinand V of Aragon obtained the 'Administration' of the Order of Santiago in the Kingdoms of Spain by a Bull of the Spanish Pope Alexander VI (Borgia)."

So, in a round about sort of way, Pope Alexander VI is connected to Narcissus Iacobeus Clus. (Sprekelia), and his mistress Giulia Farnese is as indirectly connected to Narcissus Iacobeus Ald. Hort. Farn. (Hippeastrum)

Then there was the other George Clifford, who sailed to America to battle the Spanish, and who was related to Linnaeus's George Clifford. His first voyage was in 1587, to the relief of Sluys, in Flanders, then besieged by the Duke of Parma — another Farnese, son of Pope Paul III and nephew of Giulia Bella.

Finally, in 1555 Lady Margaret Clifford married Lord Stanley, afterwards Earl of Derby. John Simson's 1729 painting of the "Amarilla" (Amaryllis Belladonna L. = Hipp. puniceum) is owned by the current Earl of Derby.

6 July 2003

Kircher's clock and some Belladonnas

I recently visited the rare books collection at Stanford University to check the background of two antique amaryllis prints I recently purchased. One showing Amaryllis dubia is from the Dutch translation of von Linne's 'Systema Naturae' (ed. 12). The other, with a reproduction of Hermann's 'Lilium Americanum Bella donna dictum', was allegedly from Diderot's 'Encyclopédie'.

As I entered, the librarian at the door suggested I might be interested in a recreation of Athanasius Kircher's magnetic clock, on display in one of the special collections.

I was not able to examine the books I needed — they are stored off-site and must be paged in advance. I had a look at Kircher's clock, picked up a flier, then headed off to the Auxiliary Library to look up the original description of Masdevalia x Chelsoni.

When I got home that evening I read the flier on Kircher's clock, and how an earlier version had been constructed by an English Jesuit professor in Liege, Fr. Francis Line.

"The device immediately attracted the attention of learned figures throughout Europe, including the painter Peter Paul Rubens and Athanasius Kircher's patron, the collector, antiquarian and astronomer Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc. Peiresc was convinced that the mysterious motion of the orb, apparently caused by a cosmic magnetic influence, might provide a demonstration of the daily rotation of the Earth, thus vindicating Copernicus and providing hope for a revocation of Galileo's condemnation by the Inquisition in 1633. He wrote to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, one of Galileo's inquisitors and the nephew of the Pope, to suggest that the clock constituted new evidence that the Earth could be made to rotate by a cosmic magnetic force emanating from the sun."

"While Peiresc pleaded for clemency, the aging Galileo, confined under house arrest in his Villa in Arcetri near Florence, dashed his hopes, writing to him that the Jesuit machine was undoubtedly operated by means of a trick—a magnet hidden in the base, rotated by means of a clock, caused another magnet in the ball to rotate, giving rise to the effect."

This bit of historical trivia has some Amaryllis connections:

*One Hippeastrum, one Cape Belladonna

In 1602, Peiresc (whose name is commemorated in the genus Pereskia) wrote to a family member that he had recently received bulbs of "lilionarcissus flore rubente". I cannot identify this plant precisely, but we do know that Sprekelia had already reached Spain by that time. Furthermore, in the following year Jean Robin, who directed the Royal Gardens of the Louvre, painted a Sprekelia, two Hippeastrums* and a South African species growing there that might fit the vague description.

In 1625, Aldinus published the 'Hortus Farnesianus', a catalog of plants growing in the garden of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese. The work includes a picture of 'Lilionarcissus rubeus indicus' or 'Narcissus Jacobeus' — a definite Hippeastrum species. When Farnese died, Aldinus went to work for Cardinal Barberini.

Then, in 1633, Ferrari published his famous work with illustrations by Nicolas Guillaume Delafleur. Delafleur, known as 'Monsu Fiore' (Mr. Flower), also worked for Barberini — one of Ferrari's patrons.

There is no great meaning in all this, perhaps. The fact that Peiresc and Barberini were connected both by Galileo and by Amaryllids is merely an irrelevant coincidence. Likewise the fact that I went to a library seeking specific information on Amaryllids, and got what I had no reason to suspect existed.

And to top it all off, the current issue of Fortean Times magazine has an article on coincidences and C. G. Jung's theory of "Synchronicity". According to Jung, "synchronicity represents a direct act of creation which manifests itself as chance."

Of course, it helps to put oneself in the way of possible coincidences, as I do by visiting libraries and searching the internet. Still, it is a bit odd that I just happened to visit the Stanford library while a recreation of Kircher's clock was on display, and that a librarian just happened to suggest I might find it interesting. She had no way of knowing that it would be the high point of my otherwise disappointing day.

For more information on Kircher's magnetic clock and its history: