An old Southern good ole boy's claim to fame was being the 'firstest with the mostest'. Could that boast have originated in 17th century Germany? Hortus Eystettensis is the first great flower book. An early (1613) landmark work in size (367 copper plates printed on large paper), scope (over 1000 species), and style (opulent blossoms decoratively arranged), this florilegium was based on a single garden in Eichstatt, Germany, owned by Prince-Bishop Johann Conrad. With a magnificent Renaissance castle as its backdrop, the Bishop's garden contained every known shrub and flowering plant of his day. Comprising eight different gardens on as many levels, this botanical bonanza combined species from around world. This included, of course, 'exotiques' from the Orient and America. In correspondence to Philipp Hainhofer, an Augsburg aristocrat and art dealer, the Bishop comments "I have asked an apothecary, who is helping me establish my garden and propagate plants, … to engrave it in copper, print it, dedicate it to me and thereby find fame and fortune". As the book is the earliest and the largest, and Eichstatt is in southern Germany, that good ole apothecary would have been Bubba, err, Basil Besler.
With the Bishop funding his endeavor, Besler, an apothecary and botanist, set about to create a work of unparalleled importance and beauty. Illustrations range from the medicinal feverfew to the showy irises and lilies. The pages are filled with specimens boldly staring back at the viewer. Daffodils seemingly perform a silent ballet while the flirty little violets hardly shrink at all. Peonies appear as glorious pinwheels of color with one example gone mad as if painted by Van Gough. It is said that the Bishop had over 500 different colors of tulip in his garden. Fifty-four made it to print. Perhaps the best-known portrait is the single head of a sunflower. Today, market value of this print probably exceeds that of the Bishop's entire lands in 1613. Given that imitation is regarded by some as flattery, one hopes that the Bishop and Besler would appreciate the coasters, calendars, and cocktail napkins bearing the sunflower and other images. Besler draws the plants with full blossoms and splendid root systems in a lovely baroque display. By the by, the Italian theory of the day saw plant anatomy as an inverse representation of man with the root representing the head. Think of bulbs and the elders in your family, hmmm? Besler arranges his book by the four seasons, a nod to Camerarius. He presents the plants by their blooming time, or tries to, and illustrates them, almost without exception, in life size. It must be noted that he does compromise science for aesthetics with some groupings by combining plants with no relation to one another but to achieve a pleasing composition. Thus we see a very early artistic consideration in this landmark work that has become the basis for its value in today's market.
Both the noun 'ardor' and the adjective 'arduous' can be used to describe the task of bringing the florilegium to print. Certainly this was a labor of love for the Bishop, who planted parts of the garden himself, and for Besler, creating the compositions of the plants. The original drawings (most of which have survived and can be found in the University Library, Erlangen) took sixteen years to complete. However, little praise is given to the printers of this extensive work. Nicolas Barker, today's leading authority on the Hortus Eystettensis, believes several shops must have been involved perhaps both in Augsberg and Nuremberg. To give you and idea of the time involved, a 21st century printing house would probably take a full day to create one copper plate, test it for color, etc., and obtain a final proof. That is over a full year for the entire book in today's world! Translating that into production time using the printing means available in the early 1600's boggles the mind. Sadly, the Bishop never saw the completion of a work that would immortalize his majestic gardens. He died in 1612, shortly before its completion. The first publication was approximately 300 copies, less that twenty of which were colored at that time. It is a tribute to Besler's genius in creating this magnificent work that it was continuously published for almost 150 years. Only after Linneaus reclassified plants by their sexual systems did the scientific fascination with the florilegium diminish. It has been forever revived by the strength of its appeal as art.
By 1633, the Bishop's renowned garden had become merely a vegetable plot, eventually to be plowed under and lost for all time. For many years, it was believed the copper plates on which the Hortus Eystettensis had been engraved survived until 1817, at which time, it was said, they were melted down by the Royal Mint in Munich. A rather romantic rendition one thinks. However, in 1998, during a reorganization of storage in Vienna's Albertina Graphic Collection, 329 of the original plates were found. The whereabouts of the remainder is a mystery. Think about that next time you see a German copper coin.
Reference: Hortus Eystettensis: The Bishop's Garden & Besler's Magnificent Book. Abrams, NY, 1994.
The Besler Florilegium: Plants of the Four Seasons. Abrams, NY, 1987.
The Garden at Eichstatt: the Book of Plants by Basilius Besler. Taschen, NY, 2001.