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The Art of Botanical Illustration
Herbals and Early Works
Ortus Sanitatis

Herbals are books containing the names and descriptions of plants and their medicinal properties. In the Middle Ages, western European herbals were based on the works of classical authors, in particular Pedanios Dioscorides, the ancient Greek writer who was the father of medical botany. Dioscorides' greatest work De materia medica, written about 60 A.D., was the basis for western pharmaceutical and herbal writing for the next 1500 years. With the invention of the printing press, the knowledge of botany became more wide-spread. The earliest printed herbals were merely copies of manuscript works, reproduced without reference to live specimens. They were filled with errors caused by the mistranscription and misunderstanding of earlier works. Not until the early sixteenth century when botanists began to study live plants, would herbals include scientifically accurate images.

Ortus Sanitatis; de herbis et plantis... Strasbourg: Reinhard Beck, anno 1517.

One of the earliest extant printed herbals in Europe, the Ortus Sanitatis was derived from Medieval works, which were themselves copies of Greek manuscripts. The crude woodblock illustrations were taken from the German Herbarius (1485). By relying on the illustrations in earlier herbals, rather than studying actual plant specimens, the illustrators reproduced many of their predecessors' errors,including the depiction of mythical flowers such as the narcissus with human heads for flowers.

Petri Andreae Matthioli

Pietro Andrea Mattioli, 1500-1577.
Petri Andreae Matthioli senensis medici : commentarij in sex libros Pedacij Dioscoridis Anazarbei De medica materia. Venetiis : Ex Officina Valgrisiana, 1565.

Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist, is known today for his translations and commentary on the works of the Greek botanist Pedanios Dioscorides. Of the many editions of De medica materia that Mattioli produced, the most important is this 1565 edition which contains large woodcuts done by Giorgio Liberale and Wolfgang Meyerpeck. Because the engravers had to work within the confines of a small wood block, the images of the plants connform to a rectangular shape, even when that does not reflect the actual growth pattern. The artists did try to make the images attractive, however, filling the space with foliage and using shading to add depth.

Rembert Dodoens, 1517-1585.
A nievve herball; or, Historie of plantes: wherein is contayned the vvhole discourse and perfect description of all sortes of herbes and plantes: ... and that not onely of those which are here growyng in this our cuntrie of Englande but of all others also of forrayne realmes commonly used in physicke. At London, by my Gerard Dewes ..., 1578.

Dodoens's Nievve Herball used the woodblocks from an earlier work De Historia Stirpium published by Leonhart Fuchs in 1542. Fuchs did look to living plants for his designs, but then "improved" them by removing any natural imperfections and by showing a plant in the flowering and fruiting stages simultaneously.

John Gerard, 1545-1612.
The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes gathered by John Gerarde of London master in chirvrgerie ; Very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Johnson citizen and apothecarye of London. London: Printed by Adam Islip, Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers, 1633.

Gerard included about 182 flowering British plants, never before described in print, which significantly expanded the knowledge of native plants. The woodcuts in the first edition were largely made from blocks previously used by the Dutch printer Plantin. This second edition includes additional plates done after illustrations by Thomas Johnson or his assistant, John Goodyer.

Herbier de la France

Pierre Bulliard,1752-1793.
Herbier de la France, ou, Collection complette des plantes... A Paris : Chez Garnery ... Bleuet jeune ..., 1780-1791.

Herbier de la France is considered an herbal because it illustrates and orders plants according to the traditional divisions--medicinal, poisonous, edible. All of the six hundred plates were drawn, engraved and color printed by Bulliard. His use of three tint plates over an engraved outline was far ahead of his time. The delicacy of his color and line and the way that the images fill the page make this one of the loveliest of the eighteenth century botanical works.



Hortus floridus

Crispijn van de Passe, d. 1670.
Hortus floridus in quo rariorum & minus vulgarium florum icones ad vivam varamq<ue> formam accuratissime delineatae. Extant Arnheimij, apud Ioannem Ianssonium, bibliopolam ibid [1614-1616].

Perhaps the greatest of the early horticultural works using copperplate engraving, Hortus Floridus shows the great control and detail possible with this technique. Van de Passe was a member of a famous family of Dutch engravers and went on to become a Professor of Drawing at a school for the education of the royal pages in Paris. Unlike the stiff and artificial look of most seventeenth century botanical works, Hortus Floridus shows the plants planted in the earth, sometimes accompanied by insects or animals. Most of the flowers shown in the book are tulips, crocuses, and other flowering bulbs. The Dutch enthusiasm for collecting and planting these flowers led to the "tulipomania" of 1636 and 1637, when speculation in the investment of tulip bulbs caused a natonwide financial crisis.

Le Jardin du Roy

Pierre Vallet, fl. 1600
Le Jardin du Roy Très Chrestien, Loys XIII, Roy de France et de Navare ... A Paris: Et se vandent au Logis de l'auteur, Rue du Four,1623.

Vallet presents a selection of plants from the French Royal Gardens. Although the illustrations are botanically correct, the work is not a gardening book, but a pattern book for painters, embroiderers, and tapestry weavers. Vallet was, himself, not only a royal gardener but also a royal embroiderer. As a further aid to the artist and designer, the text describes the colors of the flowers represented in the uncolored plates.

Paradisi In Sole

John Parkinson, 1567-1650.
Paradisi In Sole Paradisus Terrestris, or A Garden of all sorts of pleasant, flowers which our English ayre will permit to the noursed vp... London: Printed by Hvmfrey Lownes and Robert Yovng at the signe of the Starre on Bread-street hill, 1629.

Parkinson was the apothecary to James I and botanist to Charles I. Paradisi is the earliest important treatise on horticulture published in England and marked the transition between the herbal which focused solely on the medicinal use of plants and the modern gardening book which viewed plants as ornament and objects of beauty. The original woodcuts for the book were made by A. Switzer, a German artist working in England.


Giovanni Battista Ferrari, 1584-1655.
Flora: ouero, Cvltvra di fiori del Roma. Facciotti: 1638.

Giovanni Battista Ferrari, a Jesuit priest, intended this work to be both a serious work of botany and an object of beauty. Flora is a manual on ornamental flowers and their cultivation. The illustrations, done in copperplate engraving, are a mix of new designs by well known artists of the period and others copied from florilegia being published at that time in Northern Europe. One of the artists was Anna Maria Variana (active in Rome circa 1630), possibly the first woman professional botanical illustrator.

Variae ac multiformes florum

Nicolas Robert, 1614-1684.
Variae ac multiformes florum species appressae ad viuum et aeneis tabulis incisae = diverses fleurs dessinees et gravees d'apres le naturel. London: Scolar Press, 1975. Facsimile of the Paris ed., ca. 1660, from a copy in the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Robert started out as a painter of ornamental flower pictures but his work became more botanically oriented after he was hired by the Duke of Orleans to draw the rare and exotic plants and animals brought to the Duke's gardens. Scholars believe that the Scottish botanist Robert Morison, director of the gardens, encouraged Robert to take a more scientific approach to his subject.

Caspari Commelin

Caspar Commelin, 1667?-1731.
Caspari Commelin ... Praeludia botanica ad publicas plantarum exoticarum demonstrationes ... Lugduni Batavorum: Apud Fredericum Haringh, 1703.

Commelin was a Dutch physician and botanist and held the chair of botany at the university at Amsterdam. He was instrumental in making the Amsterdam botanical garden one of the finest of its time. Because Holland was a trading center for its colonies around the world, new plant specimens were constantly being brought back to the gardens. The plate "Geranium aftricanum" was the first depiction and description of the geranium and fixes the date of its introduction into European gardens. The plate was engraved by Pieter Sluyter.


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Last modified: 12/21/10
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