coffee Trieste

On this day in history: Botanist Prospero Alpini born

Culture News

Born on 23rd November 1533: physician and botanist, Prospero Alpini, in Marostica near Vicenza. Alpini was the first European to observe and document the coffee plant.

Prospero Alpini studied medicine in Padua, in 1574. He then settled in nearby Campo San Pietro and worked as a doctor. In 1580, he travelled to Egypt as physician to the Venetian consul in Cairo. There he extended his botanical knowledge, and specifically of exotic plants.

While in Egypt he studied date trees. As a result, he worked out there were gender differences between plants. “The female date trees or palms do not bear fruit unless the branches of the male and female plants are mixed together, or, as is generally done, unless the dust found in the male sheath or male flowers is sprinkled over the female flowers.”

First report on coffee in Europe

0000139 Prospero Alpino. Lithograph by L. Rossi. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Prospero Alpino. Lithograph by L. Rossi. after: L. RossiPublished:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Prospero Alpini. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

The University of Padua in 1593 appointed Alpini professor of botany. He cultivated several species of Oriental plants described in his De plantis Aegypti liber (1592; “Book of Egyptian Plants”).

Included in this work were the first European botanical accounts of coffee, banana, and a genus of the ginger family, later named Alpinia.

The habit of drinking coffee, firstly for medicinal purposes and later for pleasure, spread quickly in Venice and several coffee houses were set up. The first European coffee house was probably in Venice as early as 1629. The famous Caffè Florian was established in Piazza San Marco in 1720.

However, Trieste soon became the heart of the Italian coffee scene.

Trieste and coffee

In the 18th century, Vienna granted Trieste the liberty of a “free port”. This allowed the city to set its own tariffs and taxes. This revolutionised the city’s position on European trade routes. For one product it was a game changer – coffee.

From 1719 to 1791, Trieste retained its free port status. That was long enough to shape it as a major point of import for coffee in Europe. The town was a beneficiary, developing the infrastructure to cater to the boom. There were warehouses and roasteries.

And then there were cafes. The beans on the wharves became a delicacy to drink as much as a shipment to move on. Cafe Tommaseo is the city’s oldest surviving such institution – established in 1830. Caffè degli Specchi is only slightly younger, having opened in 1839.

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