Francesco Cupani

The Alpine House @CUBotanicgarden is pretty stunning at the moment, what with the cyclamen, autumn crocus and colchicums – do go and have a look! Among all the incredibly photogenic flowers, I came across Colchicum cupani, which compelled me finally to get around to looking up the Franciscan friar whose name is immortalised in the variety of sweet pea I attempt (with varying degrees of success) to grow every summer.

Colchicum cupani in the Alpine House at the Botanic Gardens.

Cupani was a Sicilian, born in the village of Mirto in the province of Messina on 21 January 1657. He seems to have studied medicine, and at the age of 24 he entered the Franciscan order, where he was able to continue his studies of natural history, especially botany and especially the plants of his native island.

Francesco Cupani, Franciscan friar.

He was encouraged in his work by the Palermitan botanist Paolo Boccone (1633–1704), who had worked in the botanical garden at Messina founded in 1638 by Pietro Castelli (c. 1570–1661): its second director was Marcello Malpighi (1628–94). Boccone travelled widely in Europe: in 1671 he published in Paris Recherches et observations naturelles, on medicinal and toxic plants, and was a proponent of the binomial system.

Paolo Boccone, in Cistercian robes, from the frontispiece of his Museo di Fisica e di Esperienze Variato (1697).

He later became court botanist to Ferdinando II de’ Medici in Florence, and aided in the development of the botanic garden there, before moving to Padua as professor of botany. In his fifties, he entered the Cistercian order, adopting the name Silvio. As well as travelling, Boccone maintained a correspondence with other European botanists, including Charles Plumier.

It is not known if Cupani himself travelled outside Italy (he did study for a time in Verona), but his own correspondents, in addition to Boccone, included Tournefort, William Sherard (who endowed the chair of botany at Oxford University), James Petiver (a rather disorganised collaborator with Sir Hans Sloane), and the Dutch Caspar Commelijn (1668–1731), who was director of the Hortus at Leiden, and worked with the botanist and anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638–1731), father of the (these days) more famous Rachel.

In this group portrait of the Inspectors of the Amsterdam Collegium Medicum (1724) by Cornelis Troost, Commelijn is seated second from right, with his hand on a book. (Credit: Amsterdam Museum)

In 1692, Cupani became director of the botanic garden at the small Sicilian town of Misilmeri, near Palermo (the name is apparently from the Arabic: ‘the home of the emir’, Ja’far al-Kalbi II, governor of Sicily 998–1019). His patron was Giuseppe del Bosco, Principe di Cattolica and Duca di Misilmeri, who the Milismeri website claims excitedly but inaccurately to have founded the first botanic garden and zoo in the world. Here, he collected plants from the rest of Europe and the Far East, by purchase and exchange, and, following the example of Boccone, categorised them in a binomial system, fifty years ahead of Linnaeus.

The title page of Cupani’s Hortus Catholicus (1696).

Sadly, no trace of the garden remains today, but Cupani published works on his studies of native and exotic plants: in 1692, Catalogus plantarum sicularum Noviter adinventarum; in 1694, Syllabus plantarum Siciliae Nuper detectarum (both published in Palermo); and in 1696, Hortus Catholicus (published in Naples). (On his death on 19 January 1710, he left a final work, Pamphyton siculum, on the flora and fauna of Sicily, which was published posthumously in various versions from 1713 onward: this article gives a useful account of its history.)

The title page of the Panphyton, and (below) a page of illustrations, showing a mixture of plants, insects, a mineral and a fish.

In 1992, reorganisation of the herbarium at the university of Catania brought to light two horti sicci which are now believed to have been assembled by Cupani, or by a team working with him.

The title page of Cupani’s herbarium.

William Sherard wrote to Cupani in 1696, asking him to create one for him, and it was by the exchange of such works, rather than by the hugely more expensive route of printed books with engraved plates that European botanists shared their knowledge.

A rose, from the herbarium.

It was through this exchange of knowledge that Cupani became (in England at any rate) synonymous with the sweet pea. In 1699 he sent seeds of this Sicilian native to the botanist and schoolmaster Robert Uvedale (1642–1722), who was the son of an innkeeper in Westminster and attended Westminster School. (He is reported to have darted out as the funeral procession of Oliver Cromwell passed the line of schoolboys, and grabbed a small satin escutcheon from the bier, which he later had framed: it is now in the School library.)

Robert Uvedale in later life. (Credit:Enfield Local Studies & Archive)

At Trinity College, Cambridge, he seems to have come under the influence of the great John Ray (often called the ‘Father of English Botany’), graduating in 1663 and being elected fellow the following year. He was ordained deacon in 1666 and priest in 1692, earning a pluralist income from several livings, as well as from the his school in Enfield in Middlesex (a complicated court case around his teaching activities lasted from 1664 to 1676, but need, as they say, not detain us here). He probably knew James Petiver (they certainly corresponded), who sent him copies of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (to which Uvedale, perhaps strangely, was never elected), as well as Sir Hans Sloane, who later acquired his herbarium.

It seems likely that Petiver was the link between Cupani and Uvedale, whose garden at Enfield was sufficiently famous that in it was described (along with Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, the Chelsea Physic Garden and John Evelyn’s garden at Deptford, inter alia) in an article derived from a 1691 manuscript published in the journal Archaeologia, Or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity in 1796.

The heading of the article on gardens.

Enthusiasm for the variety and good cultivation of Uvedale’s plants, but a reservation about the layout of the garden as a whole.

If you look up ‘Cupani’ as a sweet pea, you will find that almost all seedsmen can supply it, and that it is described as Lathyrus odoratus ‘Cupani’: ‘a plant that everyone should grow in their garden’ … ‘one of the most powerfully scented sweet peas’ …  ‘grow a piece of history’ … Oldest recorded sweet pea!’ It is often confused (not least by the seedsmen themselves!) with Lathyrus odoratus ‘Matucana’, which it closely resembles, as you can see from these pictures.

Lathyrus odoratus ‘Cupani’.

Lathyrus odoratus ‘Matucana’ – spot the difference?

According to this interesting website, there were many misunderstandings about the origins of sweet peas (Linnaeus thought they came from Sri Lanka, and Matucana is the name of a place in Peru – South America also being mistakenly believed to be an original habitat) and their taxonomy, but ‘although the material sold as “Matucana” is not entirely consistent, it generally has four flowers per stem’, whereas ‘flowers [of ‘Cupani’] are noticeably smaller, flower colour and fragrance are both more intense, and there are only two flowers per stem. All this matches the original description given by Cupani …’.

A posthumous engraving of Cupani.

After his death, Cupani, who by his publications and his correspondence had become famous in scientific circles across Europe, was commemorated in nomenclature. As well as the colchicum (above), there is Genista cupanii, a native of Sicily,

Genista cupanii.

Melica cupanii (a grass), and Plantago cupanii (a native of Sicily and northern Africa which doesn’t seem to have a common name). Other names have been superseded, including Scilla cupanii, now S. peruviana (L.),

Scilla peruviana, which is in fact an Old World plant of the Mediterranean and North Africa.

and Tragopogon cupanii, now T. porrifolius subsp. cupanii (purple salsify).

Tragopogon porrifolius subsp. cupanii , purple salsify. (Credit: Sarah Stierch)

(Most of these names were given by Giovanni Gussone (1787–1866) in his two works, Florae Siculae Prodromus (1827–8) and Florae Siculae Synopsis (1829)). There are also two genus names, Cupania (bestowed by Linnaeus), a family of trees from Central and South America,  and Cupaniopsis, trees and shrubs with a range from New Guinea to Australia and the Pacific, now severely endangered. But undoubtedly it is the sweet pea for which Fra Francesco will be most remembered.





This entry was posted in Biography, Botany, Gardens, History, Italy, London, Natural history and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Francesco Cupani

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  5. Anna says:

    Thank you for the research 🙂


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