The New Herbal: A Masterpiece of Renaissance Botanical Illustrations Gets Republished in a Beautiful 900-Page Book

We’ve all have heard of the fuch­sia, a flower (or genus of flow­er­ing plant) native to Cen­tral and South Amer­i­ca but now grown far and wide. Though even the least botan­i­cal­ly lit­er­ate among us know it, we may have occa­sion­al trou­ble spelling its name. The key is to remem­ber who the fuch­sia was named for: Leon­hart Fuchs, a Ger­man physi­cian and botanist of the six­teenth cen­tu­ry. More than 450 years after his death, Fuchs is remem­bered as not just the name­sake of a flower, but as the author of an enor­mous book detail­ing the vari­eties of plants and their med­i­c­i­nal uses. His was a land­mark achieve­ment in the form known as the herbal, exam­ples of which we’ve fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture from ninth- and eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Eng­land.

But De His­to­ria Stir­pi­um Com­men­tarii Insignes, as this work was known upon its ini­tial 1542 pub­li­ca­tion in Latin, has worn uncom­mon­ly well through the ages. Or rather, Fuchs’ per­son­al, hand-col­ored orig­i­nal has, com­ing down to us in 2022 as the source for Taschen’s The New Herbal. “A mas­ter­piece of Renais­sance botany and pub­lish­ing,” accord­ing to the pub­lish­er, the book includes “over 500 illus­tra­tions, includ­ing the first visu­al record of New World plant types such as maize, cac­tus, and tobac­co.”

Buy­ers also have their choice of Eng­lish, Ger­man, and French edi­tions, each with its own trans­la­tions of Fuchs’ “essays describ­ing the plants’ fea­tures, ori­gins, and med­i­c­i­nal pow­ers.” (You can also read a Dutch ver­sion of the orig­i­nal online at Utrecht Uni­ver­si­ty Library Spe­cial Col­lec­tions.)

Nat­u­ral­ly, some of the infor­ma­tion con­tained in these near­ly five-cen­tu­ry-old sci­en­tif­ic writ­ings will be a bit dat­ed at this point, but the appeal of the illus­tra­tions has nev­er dimmed. “Fuchs pre­sent­ed each plant with metic­u­lous wood­cut illus­tra­tions, refin­ing the abil­i­ty for swift species iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and set­ting new stan­dards for accu­ra­cy and qual­i­ty in botan­i­cal pub­li­ca­tions.” Over 500 of them go into the book: “Weigh­ing more than 10 pounds,” writes Colos­sal’s Grace Ebert, “the near­ly 900-page vol­ume is an ode to Fuchs’ research and the field of Renais­sance botany, detail­ing plants like the leafy gar­den bal­sam and root-cov­ered man­drake.”

Taschen’s repro­duc­tions of these works of botan­i­cal art look to do jus­tice to Leon­hart Fuchs’ lega­cy, espe­cial­ly in the bril­liance of their col­ors. It’s enough to rein­force the assump­tion that the man has received trib­ute not just through fuch­sia the flower but fuch­sia the col­or as well. But such a dual con­nec­tion turns out to be in doubt: the col­or’s name derives from rosani­line hydrochlo­ride, also known as fuch­sine, orig­i­nal­ly a trade name applied by its man­u­fac­tur­er Renard frères et Franc. The name fus­chine, in turn, derives from fuchs, the Ger­man trans­la­tion of renard. The New Herbal is, of course, a work of botany rather than lin­guis­tics, but it should nev­er­the­less stim­u­late in its behold­ers an aware­ness of the inter­con­nec­tion of knowl­edge that fired up the Renais­sance mind.

via Colos­sal

Relat­ed con­tent:

Two Mil­lion Won­drous Nature Illus­tra­tions Put Online by The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library

Dis­cov­er Emi­ly Dickinson’s Herbar­i­um: A Beau­ti­ful Dig­i­tal Edi­tion of the Poet’s Col­lec­tion of Pressed Plants & Flow­ers Is Now Online

A Beau­ti­ful 1897 Illus­trat­ed Book Shows How Flow­ers Become Art Nou­veau Designs

His­toric Man­u­script Filled with Beau­ti­ful Illus­tra­tions of Cuban Flow­ers & Plants Is Now Online (1826)

A Curi­ous Herbal: 500 Beau­ti­ful Illus­tra­tions of Med­i­c­i­nal Plants Drawn by Eliz­a­beth Black­well in 1737 (to Save Her Fam­i­ly from Finan­cial Ruin)

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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