What are florilegia? In a direct translation from Latin a florilegium literally means a collection of flowers so its easy to see why it was used for the first time by Adriaen Collaert as the title for his book simply entitled ‘Florilegium’ which was a collection of his engravings of flowers, with no accompanying text, published in Antwerp in around 1590. It wasn’t long though before the term became more specific and began to mean a painted or engraved record of the flowers growing in a specific garden.
Usually bound into book form a florilegium was often commissioned by an institution or wealthy individual and served effectively as a catalogue or portrait gallery of the beautiful and often rare flowers they possessed.
This post is about one artist and the florilegia he created. He’s virtually unknown and his work was for a long time thought to be by someone else but when you see the quality of his painting you’ll wonder how on earth he could have been overlooked.
So take a bow if you’ve heard of Hans Simon Holtzbecker, otherwise read on to discover more about what you’ve been missing…
Unlike either early herbals or botanical books where descriptive and informative text was accompanied by illustrations often of dubious quality, florilegia had no underlying medical or scientific ambitions. Instead they were essentially high quality picture books, with minimal or no text. They were also more concerned with garden plants than wild ones, and with their aesthetic quality rather than their medical or other use. For that reason they tended to show plants at their very best and most spectacular rather than out of season. This meant they were often arranged seasonally i.e. at the time in which the plant came into leaf or flower rather than alphabetically or by plant family. Rather than just paint the flowers, many florilegia also illustrated as many aspects of the plant as possible including roots and growth. Additionally florilegia could also act as pattern books or models to inspire the work of embroiderers or other artists and craftspeople.
The heyday of the florilegium was undoubtedly the 17thc although of course there have been many wonderful later examples, including in our own day the Highgrove Florilegium commissioned by the king when he was Prince of Wales. [You can see that at the Lindley Library]. Painting flowers was then widely seen as a great art form, but today the names of the greatest botanical painters are largely unknown, as indeed is still the case with almost all botanical artists today.
So who was Hans Simon Holtzbecker? I confess that I was completely ignorant about him and his work myself until a couple of weeks ago when I saw some of his paintings on-line while researching something else.
It doesn’t help his reputation that very little is known about him or his life. There is no portrait, no sketchbooks, letters or accounts, and even the dates of his existence are conjectural.
It’s thought his family were protestant refugees who moved to Northern Germany from catholic Austria during religious persecutions of the Counter Reformation, and that Hans Simon himself was born sometime in the 1610s. However he definitely lived in the parish of Saint Petri in Hamburg because he had five children baptised in the church there between 1651 and 1662, and it’s thought he was buried there in 1671.
More mysterious still is the fact that he doesn’t appear in any of the standard reference works on botanical art, although this may be because much of his work was until recently mistakenly ascribed to the great Dutch artist Maria Sybilla Merian.
The earliest documentary references to him are from the 1650s with a few scant entries in the account books of Gottorf Castle, just outside Schleswig in Northern Germany. Known as Gottorp in Danish this was the seat of Frederick III, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp, who made his small state into one of the leading cultural centres of Northern Europe, while his gardens were probably the best in northern Germany. They were transformed under the direction of his gardener, Johan Clodius, and included an orangery, the first of its kind in Germany, an aviary to house birds brought back from the Duke’s foreign travels, and a conservatory for growing exotic plants. (More information in D. Hennebo and A. Hoffmann, Der architektonishe Garten: Renaissance und Barock, 1965).
Some of these account book entries just record payments but one is quite useful because it shows that Holtzbecker received plant boxes from the castle which he later returned. The implication must be that they were sent to him full of flowers from the garden for him to paint, which is precisely the same way that Basileus Besler managed the production of the Hortus Eystattensis which I’ve written about before. These plant boxes were the origin of the largest of his surviving works: the Gottorfer Codex.
This contains a total of 365 illustrated pages and depicting 1,180 plants with their bulbs or roots.
Amongst them are 38 different crocus, 49 daffodils, 78 tulips, 60 iris, 24 primulas, 72 anemones, 70 dianthus, 18 hollyhocks, as well as plants as diverse as oleander, aloes, cannas, colocassia, campsis, willow herbs, prickly pears, citrus and pomegranate. It also included comparatively recent introductions such as tuberose, amaryllis and sumach.
Unfortunately the florilegium was never completed because Frederick III died and his successor took no interest in Holtzbecker continuing, although he did have the paintings bound into 4 large volumes bearing his own armorials. The albums then became the property of the Danish crown when they annexed Schleswig during the Great Northern War (1700-1721) and is now in the National Gallery of Denmark. The castle at Gottorf was later rebuilt and is now a museum. The garden has been restored using Holtzbecker’s work as a guide for the planting.
Holtzbecker is also mentioned in a collection of essays published in Hamburg by a friend of his which refers to him as a well-known flower painter, working for the Duke. It mentions too that he imitated the work of Daniel Seghers a Jesuit priest and flower painter from Antwerp.
Seghers was particularly noted at the time for his skill in painting flower garlands, which he had learned and developed from his teacher Jan Breughel the elder. Imitation didn’t carry the same negative connotations it does today, and implied that Holtzbecker was recognised as having mastered a difficult skill.
A second contemporary reference to him comes in a book by a local history professor who calls him “an excellent painter of fruit, flowers and leaves with uncommon industry and natural colours ” and mentions that he had created a book for the mayor of Hamburg. This is now known as the Moller Florilegium and originally consisted of 5 volumes of paintings recording the flowers in the mayor’s garden. That might sound fairly insignificant but Hamburg was a powerful and independent city state, so its mayor was an extremely influential figure. The Moller were amongst its leading families and Barthold Moller became mayor in 1643 and remained in post for 37 years.
No records of his garden survive, but it was in the New Town on the lower right section of the map where there were large houses with equally large plots.
Judging by the number and variety of flowers depicted, Moller’s garden must have been both extensive and impressive.
Just three volumes of the original five are known to survive. They are identically bound in red Morocco, and each has an elaborately painted floral frontispiece incorporating Moller’s coat of arms. The frontispieces are made up entirely of flowers which are depicted in that specific album, and it appears that this was a Holtzbecker trademark since his other florilegia follow the same pattern.
One album, sadly not yet digitised, is in the Bunny Mellon collection at Oak Spring Gardens in Virginia, and a second was sold at Christies in 1999 for £550,000 and acquired by the the State and University Library of Hamburg. The following year they obtained a third volume, although my German isn’t good enough to work out how.
Apart from the frontispiece the Mellon volume contains 90 leaves of paintings on vellum, and was until recently attributed to Maria Sybilla Merian.
The Christie’s volume consists entirely of bulbous plants, mainly spring flowering. Most of them such as snowdrops, crocuses and fritillaries were well established in European gardens but, like Frederick III, Moller was also growing some of the rarer and more recent introductions to Europe like the sumach, tuberose and amaryllis Since many other sorts of bulbous plants such as iris and lilies do not feature we must assume they were in one of the now lost volumes.
Interestingly, as in the Gottorf Codex, there are also a significant number of tulip and double daffodil cultivars and they include varieties that are no longer in cultivation, notably the famous Semper Augustus tulip, for which thousands of florins were paid at the height of tulip mania just a few decades earlier. All this suggests that Moller was a serious collector.
The third Moller volume contains a mix of shrubs and herbaceous plants, including sumach only introduced by John Tradescant in 1634. Given that there are two missing volumes we can only assume that Hamburg’s mayor had a garden that was equally impressive in contents, if not size, as Duke Frederick’s at Gottorf.
If we don’t know much about Holtzbecker’s life at least we have a little knowledge of some of his work. In addition to the large scale Gottorf and Moller florilegia he is known to have painted at least three others. All were in manuscript form and painted in gouache, and mostly on vellum, an expensive material, with only one on paper.
However like other artists of the time [see this earlier post] he did not paint directly onto the vellum because mistakes there were impossible to correct. Instead he would make sketches of the living flowers and plants which he then used to create coloured studies that he collected together in a pattern book. It was the images in this that were then copied onto the vellum. This meant that he could paint plants out of season, and work on several florilegia at once, but as a result the paintings in different volumes can be quite similar although he did manage to alter small details.
Because there is little text or documentation Holtzbecker’s work is difficult to date but we known when the Eberhard Anckelmann Florilegium, a record of the gardens of another important Hamburg family, was bound. It was commissioned by Eberhard Anckelmann (1599–1664) who first acquired the garden on the edge of the old city in 1646.
Now in the British Museum it is bound in red leather with gold tooling and with the date 1660 and the initials of Eberhard on the front and those of his son Caspar on the back implying that Eberhard had died. It has a floral garland frontispiece, the family’s coat-of-arms and an index with about 7o pages of illustrations divided into three sections: bulbous plants, plants with roots, and finally trees and grasses.
In his turn Caspar Anckelmann became another very senior figure in the city’s hierarchy and is known to have enlarged his father’s garden considerably to 6000 m2. He commissioned Holtzbecker to create a second album for him to show his new additions, which included some rare exotics.
The Caspar Anckelmann Florilegium runs to 211 pages and is now in the Kupferstichkabinett Berlin. Many of the plants, even including the less common ones, can also be found in other florilegia but Caspar’s album is particularly significant because it also includes a meticulously detailed painting of the garden itself.
There is one further extant florilegium which is now recognised as being by Holtzbecker. It used to be known as the Husum Florilegium because it was thought that it had been commissioned by Frederick III’s wife Maria Elisabeth who owned Husum Castle from 1639 until her death in 1684. She was a keen gardener so it was assumed she had commissioned Holtzbecker to record the plants growing in the new gardens she created there.
However there is no hard documentary evidence to support this, although like the Gottorfer Codex it was taken by Denmark when they seized Schleswig in the 18thc and it is with the Gottorfer Codex in the library in Copenhagen. However many of the paintings are very similar in style and content and indeed the floral garland on the opening page is a direct copy as you will have seen a few paragraphs back.
The paintings in the florilegium were published in 2013 with an introductory essay by Hanne Kolend Poulsen of the Danish Royal National Library, which includes another theory about who might have commissioned the paintings. As far as I can see they have not been digitised so the images here are scanned from the book.
In 1665 Johann Major, superintendent of the botanic garden at the newly founded University of Kiel published a lecture about abnormalities in plant growth. [Not available digitally] In it he described an unusual carnation he had seen in a florilegium at Gottorf Castle. But it was not the Gottorfer Codex but one he called the Staphorst Florilegium which recorded the plants in the garden of Nicolaus Staphorst, a Hamburg cleric who died in 1652.
The carnation had a secondary flower emerging from the main one – an extremely uncommon occurrence – and the image in this florilegia, is the earliest and indeed, the only early one known, so it’s likely that this florilegium is the one that Major saw.
The album has recently been restored, and because there was no agreement about its commissioner, it has been renamed the Green Florilegium after its green velour cover. It has 395 illustrations spread over 178 pages, although there were originally a few more which are thought to have been cut out.
So thanks to painstaking research Holtzbecker has been restored too his rightful place as a talented botanical artist who work has preserved the contents of a group of important gardens in Northern Europe, and showing in the process how quickly new plant introductions spread around the continent, and how much they were valued by their wealthy owners. And the paintings are quite nice too!