NEWS - Clarence Bicknell and Stefano Sommier

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‘Caro Dottore’ - Clarence Bicknell’s correspondence with Stefano Sommier 1903-1918

by Graham Avery 18th June 2016

The Botanical Library of the University of Florence (Biblioteca di scienze, sede Botanica, Universita'  degli Studi di Firenze) has in its archives a collection of letters and postcards written by the British botanist Clarence Bicknell (1842-1918) to the Italian botanist Stefano Sommier (1848-1922).

Sommier, born in Florencestefano sommier 7131 of French parents, was a founder member of the Società Botanica Italiana and its President from 1898 to 1902. An active collector of plants, he travelled to Crimea, the Caucasus, the Urals, Siberia, Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland, France, Switzerland, the Balkans, and islands in the Mediterranean. His many botanical publications include floras of Siberia, the Caucasus, Malta, Pantelleria, the Isole Pelagie (between Malta and Tunisia) and the Isola del Giglio. He participated in botanical exchanges, donated his herbarium to the Central Herbarium in Florence, and contributed specimens to other herbaria in Italy.

Sommier’s botanical correspondence (10,000 documents relating to 500 correspondents) is conserved in the Botanical Library of Florence University; a catalogue compiled in 2006 is at

In June 2016, with the kind assistance of Cristina Scarcella and Sig. Renzo Nelli of the Botanical Library, I examined Bicknell’s correspondence with Sommier. It consists of 31 documents (19 letters and 12 postcards) sent by Bicknell mostly from his home in Bordighera (but 2 from Val Casterino, 1 from Malta, 1 from England, 1 from Florence), mostly addressed to Sommier at his home in Florence (Lungarno Corsini 2) but some sent to him in Florence at the Museum of Natural History (Museo Storia Naturale) or the Società Botanica Italiana.

The earliest of the documents is dated 21 July 1903 and the latest 29 March 1918, a few months before Bicknell’s death. All are written in Italian, until 1914-18 when one letter and two postcards are in English. Some of them are undated, but after examining their contents I have guessed the dates of all but 3. My images of the documents are numbered in the order in which I found them in the archive; if I can establish all their dates, I may be able to renumber them in chronological order.

Although the main topic of the correspondence is botany, there are frequent references to Bicknell’s travels, to his interest in Esperanto, and his reflections on social and cultural matters: these include the popularity of the tango, the liturgy of the church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, and the situation in Val Fontanalba during the 1914-18 war.

...To be continued

To be included:
In 1904 Sommier published in the Bullettino della Societa Botanica Italiana (pages 193-202) an article by Bicknell entitled Une Gita Primaverile in Sardegna (‘A Visit to Sardinia in Springtime’) which describes a botanical visit made by the author and his assistant Luigi Pollini in 1904 from 25 March to 8 April. After mentioning the places that they visited (Porto Torres, Sassari, Macomer, Cagliari, Golfo Aranci) and the excursions that they made, the article describes the flowering plants found in different parts of Sardinia and concludes with a complete list of plants found – a total of 223 species or subspecies. (See documents 27, 8, 7 for correspondence with Sommier about this article).

In 1907 Sommier named a botanical subspecies after Bicknell. Writing in the Bulletino della Societa Botanica Italiana, 1907, page 38, he explained that Clarence Bicknell, a fellow-member of the Societa, had sent him a new hybrid of Pedicularis (Lousewort in English); this specimen had been found on 8 July 1906 in the Maritime Alps, below Castello di Ciavraireu in Val Fontanalba, near Bicknell’s summer home at Casterino; to this new hybrid, a cross between Pedicularis incarnata and Pedicularis Allionii, Sommier gave the name Pedicularis Bicknelli. (See documents 12, 10, 17 for correspondence with Sommier about this plant).

The photo of Sommier is from

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