Italy, Asia and botany: a long history

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The year 2020 marks the centenary of the death of Odoardo Beccari, a scientist who has remarkably contributed to the South East Asia’s knowledge of biodiversity 

The 2020 marks two important events which connect Italy and South East Asia. The 500 years from the circumnavigation of the globe by the Portuguese Ferdinando Magellano, with the report by the Italian Antonio Pigafetta. The diary documented the cities, people and costumes of South East Asia. Moreover 2020 marks the death of the Italian Botanist Odoardo Beccari.

Odoardo Beccari is not particularly known outside the scientific circle, however his articles on the description of new plant species made him one of the most relevant tropical botanists between the nineteenth and twentieth century. His reports and articles have inspired the milieu, names, and adventures of the pirate Sandokan, written by Emilio Salgari.

Originally from Tuscany, with the Marchese Giacomo Doria, organized their first trip to explore the land of Sarawak (Borneo). In the journey they stop in Sri Lanka, Singapore, and arrived in Kuching, capital of Sarawak, on the 19th June 1865, as guests of the Raja James Brooke. The two explorers moved to mount Battang, approximately 300 m asl, starting their collections. Other explorations followed in South East Asia and Africa, with other important Italian scientists. The Beccari collection are today deposited at the National Herbarium in Florence while the zoological and anthropological collections are exhibited at the Genoa Museum.

For the centenary of his death, several events will be held. The National Herbarium, in Florence, will inaugurate an exposition on the life and works of Beccari (25 October 2020 - 28 February 2021). The Italian version of most famous Beccari Book Nelle foreste di Borneo, has been reprinted. Nelle foreste di Borneo

Kuching (Sarawak) where the twenty-year-old Beccari arrived to start his work in the tropical forest, has planned four events to commemorate the botanist. The 25th of July the Minister of Culture, Art and Tourism of Sarawak has inaugurated the Beccari Discovery trail, 3.2 km on the Batang Mountain, where Beccari built his base camp (Villa Vallombrosa). In September the ‘Hidden Valley of the Rattans’ in Kubah National Park will be inaugurated, in collaboration with the Sarawak Forestry Department. For 2021 (some events have been postponed due to the pandemic) a conference in honour of Odoardo Beccari titled ‘Wandering in the forest of Borneo’ has been organized in collaboration with Sarawak Biodiversity Centre.

Beccari described his travels and observations in the book ‘Wanderings in the Great Forest of Borneo’, which became the only scientific italian best-seller known abroad. In that book, Beccari wrote that in the future, with economic development in Malaysia, those forests would have been studied by local botanists. Today, local botanists are celebrating the Italian botanist for his great contribution on the understanding of Borneo biodiversity.

Article written by Daniele Cicuzza 

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