Bon: the origins of coffee
A special opening of MUMAC to present the De plantis Aegypti by Prospero Alpini, a 16th century volume that contains the first image of a coffee plant, named Bon. To coincide with the Museo Segreto event, MUMAC is exhibiting the original edition, which has an undeniable historical and cultural value
The first news came in the form of dialogue. In 1592, Prospero Alpini described to his teacher Guilandino, in De plantis Aegypti, trees and shrubs, wild or cultivated, that were used in Egypt to treat diseases. These included three plants presented for the first time on European tables: coffee, baobab and banana tree.
Prospero Alpini was the first person to illustrate the plant whose seeds (called Bon) were used to prepare a coffee decoction. He also described the drink, which was widely consumed in Egypt, calling it caova and extolling its healing uses. At the time, it was unknown in Europe, but it just so happened that in the same year a German doctor, Leonhard Rauwolf, also brought back news about it: like the Venetians scholar, he could not imagine how widespread the roasted seeds of that plant would become.
From the legend to Coffea arabica
Coffee has an ancient origin, lost in history and legend. Certainly, in the middle of the 15th century it was drunk in Yemen: in his classification, Linnaeus called the plant Coffea arabica due to the area in which it was widespread and paid tribute to Alpini, naming a genus of the Zingiberacee family, Alpinia, after him to thank him for certain descriptions taken from his De plantis Aegypti, which he included in his writings a century and a half later.
Prospero Alpini began a military career that he quickly abandoned due to his passion for medicine and research into unknown places. In 1580, he left Venice for Egypt, where he stayed for a little over three years, during which he studied medicine and local botany. This adventure resulted in two volumes: De medicina Aegyptiorum (Venice, 1591) and De plantis Aegypti Liber (Venice, 1592), whose original edition is now kept at the extensive MUMAC Library, the second-largest coffee library in the world with over 1,000 volumes dating from 1592 onwards, divided into 10 themed sections from history to recipes, art and technology, with 15,000 documents including posters, photographs, catalogues, technical drawings and patents.
De plantis Aegypti on display
This archive, which is more unique than rare, is usually accessible by appointment, but on 4 March it will be open to the public to coincide with Museo Segreto, sponsored by the Museo City Association in order to promote open-air exhibitions in Milan. The ancient De Plantis Aegypti volume by Prospero Alpini will be presented to adults as part of a visit to the museum and to the temporary Technology heart, Human mind exhibition, while younger visitors can participate in an animated readings workshop in collaboration with Simabè, where they can discover what an illuminated manuscript is and what lies behind the fine design of the first coffee plant exhibited in Europe.
The first description of the coffee plant
De Plantis Aegypti is an extremely rare, incredible work, which describes the coffee plant and the use of its roasted seeds to create the decoction known as
caova as follows: “In the garden of the Turk, Halibei, I saw a tree that produces the seeds commonly known as Bon. With these seeds, both Egyptians and Arabs make a well-known decoction, which they themselves drink instead of wine, and which is sold in public taverns, not unlike wine in our country: they call this drink Caova. These seeds are exported from the abundant land of Arabia. Everyone is familiar with the use of Bon seeds.” Everyone in the Arab world, we should add, since it only became well-known among Europeans after Prospero Alpini described it in his De Plantis Aegypti.
4 March from 14.30 to 18.30
Special opening of MUMAC with an exhibition of the book De plantis Aegypti by Prospero Alpini, a workshop for children at 15.00 and a guided tour for adults at 15.30 of the museum collections and Technology heart, Human mind exhibition in the Hangar 100 hall.
Free admission, limited places, reservation required by email firstname.lastname@example.org