Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Besler's 'Hortus Eystettensis'

Basil Besler (1591-1629) was an apothecary and botanist from Nuremberg, who managed the gardens of Prince-Bishop Johann Conrad von Gemmingen (approx. 1561-1612) in Eichstatt, Bavaria. The Prince-Bishop’s remarkable garden was one of the most extensive in Europe, containing a huge variety of European shrubs and flowering plants as well as exotic specimens from Asia and the Americas. Besler was commissioned by the Prince-Bishop to compile a codex of the plans in his garden. This encyclopedic resource became the basis for the Hortus Eystettensis (Garden at Eichstätt) which took sixteen years to complete (the Biship died shortly before  printing) and was published in 1613 by Basil Besler and Ludwig Jungermann. The work contains 1086 illustrations of plants from 367 copperplate engravings, most of which were depicted in their natural size. The copperplates were engraved by a group of skilled German draughtsmen and artists including Wolfgang Kilian, Dominicus Custos, and Levin and Friedrich van Hulsen and according to the oversight and drawings by Basilius Besler. The accompanying descriptive text was written primarily by botanist Ludwig Jungermann (1572–1653).

Published one hundred and fifty years before Linnaeus created his thorough system of classification, Besler’s great florilegium represents an impressive early attempt to classify plants for the benefit of botanists, doctors, and apothecaries. Each plant is given a distinct and often descriptive Latin title, and related species are grouped together on the same plate, or over a series of plates. Almost all specimens are shown complete and accurately colored, including delineations of their root systems. While Besler’s work is obviously motivated by a scientific impulse to document and describe a remarkable collection of species, the beautiful presentation and dramatic stylization of the illustrations also convey a sense of the visual grandeur of the Bishop’s great garden. Each specimen is placed on the page with an artist’s understanding of formal and spatial relations. Most notably, the stylized depiction of foliage and root systems betrays a lively baroque sensibility, as the plants seem to dance across the page.

Basil Besler’s great botanical work is a landmark of botanical documentation and pre-Linnaean classification, as well as one of the most splendidly stylized and aesthetically powerful botanical works ever produced.

The work was published twice more in Nuremberg in 1640 and 1713, using the same plates, plates which were destroyed by the Royal Mint of Munich in 1817.
Sadly, the original Eichstatt gardens were sacked by invading Swedish troops under Herzog Bernhard von Weimar in 1633-4; however reconstructed gardens were opened to the public in 1998.

French botanist Charles Plumier honored Besler posthumously by naming a climbing bush Beseleria.

These illustrations of various flowers are among the most dramatic and desirable of Besler’s illustrations. Each is in excellent condition, and would represent wonderful additions to any collection of European botanical art. Please contact Arader Galleries for further information.

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