The useful plants of the city of Ferrara (Late Medieval/Renaissance) based on archaeobotanical records from middens and historical/culinary/ethnobotanical documentation
By Marta Bandini Mazzanti, Giovanna Bosi and Chiara Guarnieri
Plants and Culture: Seeds of the Cultural Heritage of Europe, edited by Jean-Paul Morel and Anna Marria Mercuri (Centro Europeo per i Beni Culturali Ravello, Edipuglia Bari, 2009)
Introduction: Ferrara is a well known city of the Emilia-Romagna Region, in Northern Italy, providing one of the best examples of the quantity of information that can be inferred from archaeobotanical analyses from Medieval/Renaissance contexts. The city developed around a ford on the Po river in about the 7th cent. A.D., and is one of the few Italian cities whose original layout was not based on the Roman tradition. The Este family ruled Ferrara from the second half of the 13th cent. A.D., and under its control the city rose to a significant position within the Italian states. Today, Ferrara is famous for its historical centre, which is extraordinarily well-preserved, featuring small orchards and gardens, and it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995.
The archaeobotanical records considered here originate from deposits dating from between the end of the 13th to the 15th cent. A.D. and located within the urban environment. Other European cities with records of Medieval seed/fruit remains from useful plants include Prague, Gdańsk, Elbląg and Kołobrzeg in Poland, and other Northern European cities. The archaeobotanical records were collected mainly from refuse pits and brick refuse pits. These were used for disposal of kitchen refuse and floor sweepings. Waste materials from households is important for reconstructing eating habits and understanding how plants were processed. The seed/fruit remains mainly belonged to common food plants, of which the surviving part is waste derived from the action of eating or preparing the plant, indicating that the deposits mainly consist of domestic refuse. However, the composition of these deposits also includes remains of cultivated/cultivable plants of which the presence of seeds/fruit cannot be directly connected with the uses of the plants (for example, leaf vegetables, fibre plants), as well as the remains of wild plants the uses of which are not obvious. The latter are generally included in the group of “wild species non obviously utilized” and are mainly classified as anthropogenic. Most synanthropic records indicated plants growing in nitrogen-rich soil, urban streets and squares, as well as weeded and manured cultivations. These seed/fruit remains could originate from the sweeping of waste materials in indoor/outdoor environments. Consequently, they might simply testify the presence of the relative plants in the open spaces adjacent to the habitation. This, in fact, was traditional in Ferrara, and ancient maps show the city as a patchwork of open and covered areas: streets, squares, houses, mansions, sacred or government buildings, courts, and household gardens. Today the well preserved Medieval centre of Ferrara still has numerous household and kitchen gardens. Nevertheless, a significant number of these plants also have alimentary/medicinal uses, documented both in contemporary historic-literarybotanic sources, and in Italian ethnobotanical sources. The authors consider it advisable to take this information into account, which, correlated with other data, might widen the range of species utilized in the domestic context.