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Hortus Eystettensis

Image from the Hortus Eystettensis

Hortus Eystettensis
British Library
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In 1611, the Prince Bishop of Eichstätt in Germany was already terminally ill when he determined to record for posterity the spectacular garden he’d created at his palace in Bavaria with plants from around the world. Hundreds of his favourite flowers where carefully drawn and engraved as they bloomed through the four seasons. Published in 1613, the finished catalogue was the largest and most magnificent florilegium ever made. Sadly, the prince bishop never lived to see it: he died the year before.

What does ‘Hortus Eystettensis’ mean?

The Latin title translates as ‘The Garden at Eichstätt’. The garden was the inspiration of Johann Conrad von Gemmingen, who became Prince Bishop of Eichstätt at the end of the 16th century. Eichstätt was one of the oldest dioceses in Germany. The Bishop's palace, the Willibaldsburg, was built on a hill overlooking the city.

Eichstätt was the first major European botanical garden outside Italy. A visitor in 1611 described the palace as being surrounded by terraced gardens: “Each of the eight gardens contained flowers from a different country; they varied in the beds and flowers, especially in the beautiful roses, lilies, tulips.” There were tulips in 500 colours, the bishop told him, almost all different. Many of the plants were imported from overseas through merchants, mostly in the Netherlands.

The garden was begun in 1596 to designs by Joachim Camerarius, a physician and botanist. When Camerarius died two years later, the bishop turned to Basilius Besler, an apothecary in Nürnberg, for guidance on the purchase of specimens for the garden. As an apothecary, Besler had a good working knowledge of botany through the plants he used to make ointments and medicines.

A catalogue of flowers, such as ‘Hortus Eystettensis’, is often known as a florilegium, from the Latin meaning ‘a gathering of flowers’. The word was first used to mean an anthology of choice writings from various authors - a literary bouquet. By the 18th century its sense had shifted from the literary to the literal as florilegium came to refer also to a portfolio of flower pictures.

The popularity of florilegia grew from the 17th century onwards. Scientific interest in natural history and the aristocratic taste for plant collecting were both stimulated by the discovery of exotic new species from hitherto unexplored regions of the globe.

How did this florilegium come about?

The Prince Bishop’s decision to produce an engraved record of his garden at Eichstätt may have been strongly influenced by Basilius Besler. According to the bishop, he sent drawings of his flowers to the Nürnberg apothecary, who “wishes to have them engraved in copper, printed, dedicated to me and to seek his fame and profit with the book…”

Besler clearly saw the book as a profit-making venture, but it was to be at the expense of the bishop, who estimated he would have to finance the project to the tune of 3,000 florins. Fortunately, Johann Conrad was a member of the von Gemmingen family, one of Germany’s oldest and richest. The projected sum was, in fact, modest compared to the fortune the Bishop was already spending on rebuilding the ancient episcopal palace in grander style.

After the death of Johann Conrad, Besler was not so fortunate in his patronage. While the Prince Bishop’s successor was happy to continue with the florilegium, his diocesan court became insistent on tighter financial control. Accusations and disputes over money flew between Eichstätt and Besler, even after the completion of the book in July 1613. The total cost to the diocese was 17,920 florins.

The first print run was 300 copies, which were sold within four years. It was printed on the largest size of paper available at the time, measuring 57 x 46 centimetres. There were two editions: a black and white version with text, intended as a reference book for apothecaries and others; and a luxury version without text but printed on high quality paper and richly hand-coloured throughout.

Such splendour came at high price: each coloured copy sold for a whopping 500 florins. Duke August enquired about buying one for his great library at Wolfenbüttel. But when he heard the price, he 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.”

Even the price of plain copies, “the way it is printed”, rose from 35 to 48 florins as stocks grew short. In the end, Duke August was persuaded to purchase the coloured version, and was so pleased he bought further copies for family and friends.

It’s a measure of the financial success of his project that Besler was able to buy himself a large house in a fashionable district of Nürnberg. The house cost him 2,500 florins – the price of five coloured copies of ‘Hortus Eystettensis'.

Who were the artists involved?

Although ‘Hortus Eystettensis’ is usually known by Besler’s name, his contribution was probably confined to what would be called project management today. He regulated finances and orchestrated the work of the teams of artists and craftsmen.

First, coloured sketches of the flowers were made from life over a period of more than a year. Boxes of fresh cut flowers were sent every week from Eichstätt to Nürnberg, 50 miles to the north. Drawings may also have been copied from existing pictures. Among the artists producing these original drawings was Sebastian Schedel, a talented painter from a well-to-do local family. A few of his drawings for ‘Hortus Eystettensis’ are still to be found in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in a volume called Schedel’s ‘Calendarium’. None of the other artists are known.

As they were finished, the original colour sketches were passed on to the workshop of Wolfgang Kilian in Augsburg. Here they were translated into black-and-white drawings suitable for engraving – a task that needs much skill. Many of these drawings have survived and are now in the library of the University of Erlangen. Some are partly coloured or have written notes for colours as a guide for the final painting of the printed images.

Kilian’s workshop also engraved the first copper plates, but after Bishop Johann Conrad’s death, that stage of the process was moved to Nürnberg and given to a team of engravers. Among them were Johannes Leypold, Georg Gärtner, Levin and Friedrich van Huslen, Peter Isselburg, Hienrich Ulrich and Servatius Raeven.

The final stage for a luxury edition was the meticulous colouring by hand of its 367 printed plates. Nürnberg had several workshops specialising in book illumination of this kind. The Mack family business had been established for over 70 years when Besler commissioned Georg Mack to colour the first copies of ‘Hortus Eystettensis’. These coloured editions are now among the world’s most valuable early printed books.

Can the garden at Eichstätt be seen today?

The palace survives, but garden was less fortunate. During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the Willibaldsburg served as a military fort. In May 1633, it came under siege by Swedish troops. After holding out for 10 days the palace was abandoned. It was captured again five months later, but enemy attacks and defensive trenching had done much to destroy the garden. In 1998, it was recreated using the ‘Hortus Eystettensis’ as a guide.

What’s the history of this copy?

The British Library’s copy of the ‘Hortus Eystettensis’ was painted throughout by Georg Mack. His work took over a year, beginning on 2 March 1614 and ending on 16 April 1615. The use of gold and intricate, but vivid, colours leaves no doubt that this was intended to be a particularly impressive copy, destined, no doubt, for an equally impressive patron. It’s not known who that first owner was, but the great interest in the garden at Eichstätt shown by Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria makes him a possible candidate.

Probably at some time before 1780, this copy was acquired by the British King George III, who was also ruler of the German state of Hanover. The book was rebound with covers bearing the king’s coat of arms. It stayed in the Royal Library until 1824, when George IV presented his father’s collection to the nation in the custody of the British Museum. It was transferred to the British Library on its foundation in 1973.

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