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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Artists of the Work

One of the great illustrated books of the Renaissance and landmark in botanical and medical history is De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Notable commentaries on the history of plants). The herbal was written by Leonhart Fuchs of Germany. In commemoration of his work, the genus Fuchsia was named for the author. The publication is also remarkable for its prominent recognition of those who contributed to its production.

Title page and page 897, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, Smithsonian Libraries
An unusual tribute to the trio of illustrators occupies the recto of the next to last leaf. Following 924 pages of text and 509 woodcuts of plants in the massive folio are portraits of Albrecht Meyer, Heinrich Füllmaurer and Veit Rudolph Specklin (or Speckle). The heading proclaims “Pictores operis.” That is, “Artists of the work.”

Heinrich Füllmaurer and Albrecht Meyer
Meyer, of Basel, the “delineator,” is shown drawing a corn cockle (Agrostemma githago) in a vase. This artist holds a brush attached to a quill, working in either watercolor or pen and ink, sketching the flowers. Occupying the same table and frame is Füllmaurer, of Herrenberg. In a compression of time, he is transferring Meyer’s original image onto the smooth surface of a woodblock from either parchment or paper.

Veit Rudolph Specklin
Specklin, who lived in Strasbourg, is the “sculptor”, the relief engraver or block cutter (“Formschneider”). Appearing a little rough around the edges, he is in a separate portrait, below in the larger and more prominent position, and simply grasps his cloak. Interesting for our modern sensibilities, this artisan, the carver and not the artist, would have been by far the more highly paid.

Specklin would have carefully cut away with a knife all the wood around Füllmaurer’s drawing of Meyer’s image on the block, the lines left in relief. This raised surface would have been carefully inked with a dabber, then a damp piece of paper placed over the surface, before passing through the printing press. It was painstaking work for all involved.

De historia stirpium was printed in Basel at the press of Michael Isingrin, in 1542. The botanical illustrations were created from direct observation, not, as in earlier herbals, based on a long tradition of manuscript images, sometimes far removed from an accurate portrayal. The preface declares the drawings were made from life because “a picture expresses things more surely and fixes them more deeply in the mind than the bare words of text.”

Fuchs at age 41.
The title page verso from the hand-colored copy in the Wellcome Library, London.

The author appears at the beginning of the book, in a full-page portrait on the verso of the title page. Fuchs, dressed in doctor’s robes of a rich brocade and fur collar (perhaps a play on Fuchs’ name, German for fox), is seen as both a scholar with his university hat and an observer with his keen look. He holds germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys; also known as birds’ eyes or angels’ eyes). While Fuchs generously acknowledges his skilled craftsman, he was in control of the book. He wrote at the beginning that the artists were not allowed to indulge their whims. The author would have paid their fees, not the publisher. He states in the preface that he did not want shading in the woodcuts of the plants, preferring to emphasize clarity with the fine lines of the woodcuts. Although some copies were hand-colored according to the directions of Isingrin, many, if not the majority, of extant volumes of the herbal are uncolored, not obscuring any botanical details of their portrayals.

The Smithsonian Libraries has an uncolored first edition of De historia stirpium, donated by Bern Dibner. It is one of the Dibner Library’s Heralds of science, where is noted that this “celebrated herbal” contains the “first vocabulary of botanical terms.” This copy has been digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library (link here and source of all the uncolored illustrations in this post). The portraits of the artists, whose work contributed so much to the success and beauty of the folio, appear opposite page number 896.

Julia Blakely, Special Collectors Cataloger
Smithsonian Libraries 


The woodcuts are of approximately 400 plants grown in Germany and 100 foreign, five from the New World, including corn (pictured above). This is the first illustration of maize in a printed book although there were earlier written descriptions. Fuchs believed the source of the plant was "Turcicum Frumentum."

Below left is foxglove. Fuchs assigned the name Digitalis purpurea to this medicinal plant because the flower could be fitted over a finger (digit). Its common German name is “fingerhut” (finger hat). Below center, The great Arts and Crafts Movement figure, William Morris, owned a copy of De historia stirpium. It has been said that some of his textile designs were inspired by the herbal such as the feathery leaves of Seseli (center). Below right is the mandrake. The accurate representations of specimens and identifications in both Latin and German were meant as a ready reference tool for medical students, apothecaries and doctors.

French botanist Charles Plumier (1646-1704) was the first to describe Fuchsia, and he named it after his German predecessor, Leonhart Fuchs. Photograph Department of Botany, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian.

Much of the information for this blog post stemmed from a Rare Book School class I recently attended, The Illustrated Scientific Book to 1800, taught by British antiquarian dealer and scholar, Roger Gaskell, assisted by Folger Library curator, Caroline Duroselle-Melish. A primary focus was learning how to describe and analyze images in order to interpret a publication. I was assigned to present a short talk on Fuchs' herbal, preserved in one of my places of work, the Dibner Library. The course was held at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, with one whole day devoted for visits to the Smithsonian Libraries, hosted by Leslie Overstreet, curator of the Cullman Library, and Lilla Vekerdy, Head of the Special Collections Department. Both librarians are pictured above, presenting a selection from their holdings to the Rare Book School students. Photographs by Roger Gaskell.

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