This post is about an illustrated catalogue of the plant collection in a German bishop’s garden around 1600. After such an enticing introduction you might need some convincing to read any further, so let me add that the Hortus Eystettensis [or The Eichstätt Garden] is quite simply one of the most remarkable as well as beautiful botanical books ever published.
It changed botanical art almost overnight. Most earlier illustrations of plants had been in herbals and comparatively crude, often with neither sufficient detail to be useful in identification, nor with much in the way of aesthetic quality. Now, suddenly plants were being portrayed as beautiful objects in their own right. Moreover it was the first to systematically record all the plants actually growing in one specific place: the gardens of the Willibaldsburg palace, home of the Prince-Bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria.
Johann Konrad von Gemmingen who was prince-bishop between 1595 and 1612 formed one the first major European botanical collections outside Italy. No sooner had he been installed than he set a vast building programme in motion at the palace. Integral to this was the creation of a series of 8 separate pleasure gardens with associated garden buildings. By 1611 each was staffed with its own gardeners and filled with a vast array of plants, which although mainly European in origin, also included new introductions from all the other known continents. There are some 667 species represented in the Hortus in total including 63 from Asia, 9 from Africa and 23 from the Americas, many of which had been imported through the great Low Countries trading centres such as Antwerp and Amsterdam.
Von Gemmingen had originally asked a physician, Joachim Camerarius the younger, [the son of the more famous humanist of the same name who was contemporary of Luther] to take charge of the garden, but he died soon afterwards. The bishop then approached a Nuremberg apothecary, Basilius Besler, for advice on horticulture and the choice of new plants in particular.
It proved to be an inspired, if ultimately an expensive, choice. This was largely because Besler managed to convince the bishop that he should have the plants in the gardens recorded both in drawings and then engraved and printed as a book. The bishop apparently estimated an outlay of 3000 florins would be required. Like all estimates it was a long way out!
So why did Besler and the Bishop undertake this enormous task? I suspect the answer lies in two early modern social and intellectual phenomena. The first was the collector’s cabinet of curiosities or wunderkammer which helped reveal a gentleman’s interest and knowledge of the world around him. In fact Besler was to go on and write a guide for creating a cabinet Continuatio rariorum which was published in 1622. “The objects …be they of animate species or inanimate, terrestrial or aquatic, and those rarer specimens, which do not occur here, there and everywhere, fascinated me from my earliest years and so inspired me that for many years I have devoted myself to collecting them.” [Click here for more information] is
A recent post about John Evelyn’s theoretically perfect garden the Elysium Britannicum, introduced the second idea, that a garden should, if at all possible, represent Eden and contain as wide a range of plants and other features as possible. This is lent credence by Besler’s inclusion in the bottom left hand section of the Hortus Eystettensis‘s title page where Adam is being shown the garden of Eden by God.
Once von Gemmingen had agreed to underwrite the publication Besler set to work, acting as project manager rather than an illustrator, artist or even writer himself. It took about sixteen years to complete and was a complicated business because Besler did not move to Eichstätt himself but remained in Nuremberg some 50 miles away.
Every week he arranged to have boxes of flowers cut from the garden and sent to his team of artists in Nuremberg, where they were sketched and coloured. Reference was also made when necessary to other images of the plants concerned. A few of these original drawings, by Sebastian Schedel survive at Kew in a volume called Schedel’s ‘Calendarium’.
Once the drawings had been done they were sent to a team of artists and engravers in Augsburg overseen by Wolfgang Kilian. Unfortunately since engravers cannot easily work from coloured sketches the plants had to be redrawn in a more linear black and white form more suitable to be translated on the copper engraving plates. Again this is a highly skilled craft and many of these black and white drawings survive at the University of Erlangen. [Unfortunately they have not been digitized] Of course the information about the colours still needs to be recorded and some were partially coloured or had notes about the colours written on them. Kilian’s workshop then engraved some of the copper plates, although others were done by another team in Nuremberg.
In a detailed analysis of the printing process Angus Carroll explains that the pages were printed on single unfolded sheets of the largest standard paper size then available which measured 57 x 46 centimetres. Despite the fact that it’s likely that more than one printer was used it’s still estimated that it took as long as six months to complete the task. Only 300 copies were printed in the first run, and they were assembled in two different versions.
The first was a “working” version in black and white, generally printed on lower quality paper with descriptive text printed on the verso of each plate. This was probably designed for users such as physicians and apothecaries, and it originally cost 35 florins, although as stocks diminished so Besler raised the price and the final copies were sold at 48 florins. The short descriptions of the plants that accompanied the plates were in Latin of course and probably written by Camerarius’ nephew, the Swiss botanist/physician Ludwig Jungermann.
The other was a luxury presentation, with all the images hand coloured and usually [but not always] printed on the highest quality paper, for which Besler asked 500 florins. A few copies included the text printed on separate sheets and interleaved with the plates, but most were simply the images, making them true florilegia, rather than ‘botanical’ books.
The meticulous colouring was done in Nuremberg by the well-established Mack family workshop. It took many months to complete a single copy and the extra-elaborately painted copy now in the British library collection which is thought may have been commissioned by [or presented to] Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria, was started on 2 March 1614 and completed on 16 April 1615.
To put these prices into perspective its worth knowing that the Bishop’s head gardener was paid 60 florins a year!
The price was so high that when the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg enquired about buying one for his library he apparently wrote back in disbelief: “Please be so kind as to tell me whether I have read the sum correctly or whether it should be 50 florins. Should it cost 50 I would prefer the illuminated one; if it cost the greater sum I desire it only the way it is printed.” However when the Duke finally saw a copy he couldn’t stop himself buying several more as presents!
There was an alternative to buying one of Besler’s expensively coloured versions. Some buyers bought a plain copy and had their own artists colour them. Christie’s sold a copy recently which had been exported ‘plain’ to Italy and coloured by an Italian painter, and its thought that there are at least 2 other copies, now in French museums, where something similar was done. Doing this independently meant the possible ‘miscolouring’ of flowers and fruit and Nicholas Barker, the expert on Besler thinks its possible these versions were based on a coloured exemplar, supplemented by written instructions. There is a detailed account of the provenance of the Italian copy on the Christie’s website.
The Hortus is ordered logically in the order in which the plants flowered or fruited. Spring flowering plants fill the first 134 plates and include 454 plants. Summer comes next with 505 plants on 184 plates and Autumn with 42 plants including 98 species and finally winter with just 7 plates.
When finally assembled usually into 3, but sometimes only 2 volumes the Hortus Eystettensis was the largest and most magnificent florilegium ever made. Sadly, von Gemmingen died the year before it was completed, although he might have had a shock if he had seen the final bill which was, at almost 18,000 florins, 6 times the original estimate.
The new Prince Bishop, Johann Christoph von Westerstetten, was probably less than pleased but having almost completed the book Besler was allowed to complete the publication even though disputes about the finances continued for several years afterwards. The Hortus seems to have ultimately proved a very profitable business for Besler, since he was able to spend 2500 florins on a new house in Nuremberg.
As the first of its kind, the Hortus Eystettensis encouraged the owners of other notable gardens to commission a “florilegium” [lietrally‘a gathering of flowers’] not just for their own pleasure but as way of showing off. One downside of that is they rarely contain any useful text because they are simply statements of possession but they do provide a record of the arrival of new and exotic plants in Europe.
These coloured editions are now among the world’s most valuable early printed books. Complete copies are very scarce, because many have been broken up for sale as individual pages: understandable but very sad. A hand-coloured copy was sold in 2016 for nearly £2million, and an uncoloured copy in 2001 for £245,000.
The Hortus was reprinted from the original plates in 1640 but given a new dedication introduction and index, and again just over a hundred years later, around 1750. It was then thought the copper printing plates had been melted down, a not uncommon fate for such things, but in 1994 329 of the 367 plates were found in the Albertina Museum in Vienna.[again sadly not available in digital form].
The Willibaldsburg palace still stands on the hill overlooking Eichstadt but the garden was largely destroyed during the siege of the city during the 30 years war in 1633. However in the 1990s it was recreated using Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis as an inspiration.
The best place for further detailed information is Nicholas Barker’s “The Hortus Eystettensis”: The Bishop’s Garden and Besler’s Magnificent Book [British Library 199x]
There are several copies fully or partially available on-line. The most accessible coloured version is the 3 volume Teyler Museum copy, but there are other partially coloured or plain from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Madrid, Missouri Botanic Gardens, the University of Strasbourg, and extracts from the University of Erlangen. There is also a short video “The greatest flower book in the world” produced by Christie’s when they had a copy for sale recently.