Hortus Eystettensis: The Beautifully Illustrated Book of Plants That Changed Botanical Art Overnight (1613)

If you made it big in sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Bavaria, you showed it by cre­at­ing a gar­den with all the plants in the known world. That’s what Johann Kon­rad von Gem­min­gen, Prince-Bish­op of Eich­stätt did, any­way, and he was­n’t about to let his botan­i­cal won­der­land die with him. To that end, he engaged a spe­cial­ist by the name of Basil­ius Besler to doc­u­ment the whole thing, and with a lav­ish­ness nev­er before seen in books in its cat­e­go­ry.

The medieval and Renais­sance world had its “herbals” (as pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture), many of which tend­ed toward the util­i­tar­i­an, focus­ing on the culi­nary or med­ical prop­er­ties of plants; Hor­tus Eystet­ten­sis would take the form at once to new artis­tic and sci­en­tif­ic heights.

When the book came out in 1613, after six­teen years of research and pro­duc­tion, von Gem­min­gen was already dead. But it proved suc­cess­ful enough as a prod­uct that Besler made suf­fi­cient mon­ey to set him­self up with a house in a fash­ion­able part of Nurem­berg for the price of just five copies — five copies of the extrav­a­gant (and extrav­a­gant­ly expen­sive) hand-col­ored edi­tion, at least.

Hor­tus Eystet­ten­sis “changed botan­i­cal art almost overnight,” writes David Marsh in a detailed blog post on the book’s cre­ation and lega­cy at The Gar­dens Trust. “Now, sud­den­ly plants were being por­trayed as beau­ti­ful objects in their own right,” with depic­tions that could attain life size, all cat­e­go­rized in a sys­tem­at­ic man­ner antic­i­pat­ing clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tems to come. Marsh sees the project as exem­pli­fy­ing a cou­ple major cul­tur­al ideas of its time: one was “the collector’s cab­i­net of curiosi­ties or wun­derkam­mer, which helped reveal a gentleman’s inter­est and knowl­edge of the world around him.” Anoth­er was the con­cept of the per­fect gar­den, which “should, if at all pos­si­ble, rep­re­sent Eden and con­tain as wide a range of plants and oth­er fea­tures as pos­si­ble.”

This lev­el of ambi­tion has always had its costs, to the con­sumer as well as the pro­duc­er: Marsh notes that a 2006 repli­ca of Hor­tus Eystet­ten­sis had a price tag of $10,000, though a more afford­able edi­tion has since been made avail­able from Taschen, the major pub­lish­er most like­ly to under­stand Besler’s uncom­pro­mis­ing aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty in the craft of books. But you can also read it for free online at an edi­tion dig­i­tized by Teylers Muse­um in the Nether­lands, which, in a sense, brings von Gem­min­gen’s project full-cir­cle: he sought to encom­pass the whole world in his gar­den, and now his gar­den — in Besler’s rich­ly detailed ren­der­ing — is open to the whole world.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

Behold 900+ Mag­nif­i­cent Botan­i­cal Col­lages Cre­at­ed by a 72-Year-Old Wid­ow, Start­ing in 1772

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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