FLORENCE – With over 2 million estimated botanical specimens, the Central Italian Herbarium of the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence is the largest Italian herbarium and among the most important in the world. And it is here that the history of Italian botany and the future of biodiversity research today meet.

Thanks to the commitment of the National Biodiversity Future Center (NBFC), the first Italian research center on biodiversity (supported with 320 million euros by the PNRR Next Generation – EU) has started, with funding of almost 7 million euros, the massive digitization plan of the Italian Central Herbarium, and other Italian naturalistic collections (for a total of 4 million 200 thousand samples), the conclusion of which is scheduled for the end of August 2025.

Naturalistic collections, with their wealth of data and information, the result of centuries of scientific research and exploration, are indispensable sources for the study of the biodiversity of our planet. Italian herbaria represent an important slice of our naturalistic heritage, a true “biodiversity archive”, a historical memory that deserves to be protected and valorised.

«The massive digitalization plan is part of the concrete actions that NBFC is called upon to carry out for the research and valorization of biodiversity in Italy – states Luigi Fiorentino, President of the National Biodiversity Future Center. With its extensive national network of universities, research centers, associations and other private and social entities, the Center aims to promote knowledge of Italian biodiversity thanks to digital platforms which, together with advanced technologies and artificial intelligence, will allow researchers from all over the world. world to access our immense natural heritage. At the same time, the center promotes the peculiarities of our museums also enhancing the active role in the knowledge, conservation and valorization of biodiversity.”

Among the actions of Spoke 7 (one of the 8 Spokes that make up the structure of the Centre, the group in charge of communication, education and social impact of biodiversity) there is one which brings together the University of Florence and the University of of Padua: the digitization of all the specimens of the Central Italian Herbarium (Herbarium Centrale Italicum) – preserved in the “Filippo Parlatore” botanical collections of the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence and many other similar collections – is one of the operations most important in the scientific-naturalistic field of recent decades. Together with the scientific spokes (1-6) and CINECA which supports the operation with information and AI technologies, the project is progressing quickly in terms of numbers but above all it is bringing new skills and technologies to the valorisation of cultural heritage.

«Formidable archive of plant biodiversity, the Central Herbarium of Florence contains at least an estimated 2 million specimens, including seed plants (phanerogamic herbarium) and organisms without flowers and seeds such as mosses, ferns, algae, fungi and lichens (cryptogamic herbarium) , as well as a vast repository that collects hundreds of thousands of samples that are still little or never studied – explains Stefano Cannicci, Scientific Director of the NBFC for the Florentine university. Furthermore, some of the most important historical botanical collections in Italy are preserved here, true evidence of plant systematics and taxonomy, including the private collection of the botanist and naturalist Philip Barker Webb (1793-1854) collected mainly between the end of the eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century which, with its 250 thousand samples from every area of ​​the world, is still today one of the herbaria most consulted by botanists.”

«This huge digitalisation project allows for the first time to enhance the Italian naturalistic collections in a broad and coordinated way, with a focus on the botanical ones. In fact, Italy has a rich network of natural history museums and herbariums, scattered throughout the peninsula, with historical specimens collected all over the world in past centuries – comments Elena Canadelli of the University of Padua, Scientific Manager of the digitization project. The project promoted by NBFC launches an ambitious program of mapping and acquisition of the historical Italian biodiversity deposited in these unique collections, starting from those of Florence, among the most relevant in Europe. The University of Padua is proud to coordinate this project with an international scope, which we hope is the beginning of a new phase in the study and valorization of this unique heritage”.

If in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance nature was studied through drawn reproductions, in 1543, thanks to the intuition of the Imola doctor Luca Ghini, the first university botanical garden in the world and the first modern herbarium were born in Pisa, both institutions that would contributed to forever transforming the face of botany, from a simple auxiliary discipline of medicine to a plant science.

The Central Italian Herbarium (Herbarium Centrale Italicum, HCI) was born in 1842, an idea of ​​the Palermo botanist Filippo Parlatore, who was the first to realize the need for a general renewal of systematic botany and phytogeographical studies. Under his direction the Herbarium became not only a collection point but a real nerve center for research and exchange of plant samples with botanists from all over the world. Much has changed since then, but the herbarium still remains one of the main tools for the study, conservation and cataloging of plants, as well as an archive of historical information stratified over time and often still unexplored.

Each botanical sample, in fact, tells a story linked to the person who collected it and his journey, like that undertaken by the young naturalist Charles Darwin during his trip around the world on the Beagle (1831-1836), or like the samples collected by Odoardo Beccari in Borneo in the mid-nineteenth century. Even the plants we know today and see in parks and gardens have a long story to tell. For example, the “living fossil” Ginkgo biloba, which with its fan-shaped leaves inspired the German writer Goethe for some poems. The only survivor of a family that prospered in the Mesozoic era and found in woodland formations in the Zhejiang province in eastern China, a male specimen can still be admired in the Botanical Garden of the University of Padua on which, for educational purposes, in the In the nineteenth century a female branch was grafted which still produces abundant seeds every autumn. Or like Indigofera tinctoria, from which the famous “Dyers’ Indigo” is extracted, a vegetable dye used already 4,000 years ago in India to dye natural fabrics and also used in medicine and cosmetics as well as as a color for painting; in the 19th century it was used to dye a resistant raw fabric for the work trousers of workers and miners, called “jeans”.

Among the plant specimens kept in the Museum there are also those collected by women scientists such as the Italians Elisabetta Fiorini Mazzanti (1799-1879) and Silvia Zenari (1895-1956); and perhaps like the French Jeanne Baret, explorer and first woman to sail around the world, who embarked in 1766 disguised as a man together with the botanist and doctor Philibert Commerson, on board the Etoile, the ship that accompanied Baron Louis Antoine de Bougainville. Although the herbarium sheets do not explicitly report the name of Baret, who embarked in secrecy, in the Museum there are numerous specimens from that voyage most likely collected by her.

Other finds come from Lapland, “Mesopotamia”, Greece and Turkey, sent by botanists such as the Swede Carl P. Thunberg (1743-1828), one of Linnaeus’ greatest students, or the Italian archaeologist Domenico Sestini (1750- 1832). From the East come many precious finds collected by the Florentine scientist Fosco Maraini, father of the famous writer, anthropologist, photographer, mountaineer, writer and poet as well as a passionate plant collector during his numerous travels, both in Italy and abroad, in particular in Tibet, where together with the great orientalist Giuseppe Tucci he collected 515 samples between 4,000 and 5,000 m. of altitude.

In the digitalisation plan launched in recent months in the spaces where the Herbarium of Florence is located, the cataloging started from the collections of tracheophytes or vascular plants (i.e. those characterized by the presence of real tissues and organs) of the Italian Central Herbarium and will extend gradually to other collections. It plans to acquire and make accessible online both high-definition images of each individual herbarium sheet and information transcribed from the labels, so that anyone can access this treasure. Furthermore, this precious information will be able to “dialogue” with that of hundreds of other collections scattered around the world, with the aim of obtaining a large database rich in data on the plant biodiversity of the past that can be compared with that of the present. The networking of the samples takes place through a network of sites connected to various European universities and made available to the entire national and international scientific community, significantly contributing to the study of climate change.

This is a complex and very delicate activity, which requires perfect integration between logistical, management, IT and post-production aspects of data and images, with the use of highly advanced techniques to acquire the image of the samples present on the sheets preserved in the herbarium, without compromising their state of conservation and then proceeding to replace them in the appropriate spaces.

For a large-scale operation, such as those already successfully tested in the past in the herbariums of Leiden, Washington, Paris or Helsinki, and like the one now planned in Florence, collaboration between the curators of the museum involved and the company is therefore fundamental. specialized in digitalisation. The task was assigned, thanks to an international tender from the University of Padua, to Picturae, a company that operates worldwide. Using conveyor belt technology, approximately 10,000/12,000 samples are digitized every day.

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