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Hippoglossum et al: Besler 1713

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  • Title: Hippoglossum, Primula Veris Anglicana flore pleno, Sanicula montana altera
  • Author: Basilius Besler
  • Date: 1713
  • Medium: Hand-colored copperplate engraving
  • Condition: Very Good +
  • Inches: 17 3/4 x 22 1/4 [Paper]
  • Centimeters: 45.09 x 56.52 [Paper]
  • Product ID: 108

Image of botanical specimens including primrose and wood sanicle.

Basilius Besler (1561–1629), Nuremberg apothecary and botanist, changed the course of botanical illustration with the publication of his masterwork Hortus Eystettensis in 1613. While in the employ of Johann Konrad von Gemmingen, prince bishop of Eichstätt, Bavaria, Besler produced an illustrated codex (also known as a florilegium, literally 'a gathering of flowers') that recorded every plant growing in the bishop’s prized botanical garden. Begun in 1596, this botanical garden was the only one of its kind in Germany, and indeed in the world outside of Italy. Compiling the codex proved a monumental task which took a full sixteen years to complete, the bishop dying shortly before its publication. Though a Swedish invasion from 1633-34 destroyed the gardens, in 1998 they were reconstructed and reopened to the public of Eichstätt.

The iconic botanical images of Hortus Eystettensis are known for their vibrant opaque color and wide variety of specimens. Almost always, Besler is cited as the author of the Hortus Eystettensis. However, a more accurate assessment of his contribution would label him the publisher of the work, as Besler organized and coordinated the efforts of artists, engravers, printers, and colorists to produce the richly-illustrated book.

The process of documenting the garden’s contents began with Besler sketching each botanical specimen in color. His original drawings, now housed at the University Library Erlangen, were then translated by a team of at least six engravers into reproducible, uncolored copperplate engravings. These black-and-white images were then hand colored by a team of colorists. Besler’s original sketches contained information which would have indicated to a colorist both the specific colors as well as the intensity of each hue they ought to employ in a particular image.

The first edition of Hortus Eystettensis, published in 1613, contained 367 copperplate engravings. Each engraving contains about three plants each for a total of 1,084 species in the codex. The 1613 printing was released in two editions. The first was published without text on high-quality paper and contained elaborately-detailed hand coloring; these volumes would have been enjoyed as luxury items by the aristocracy due to the great expense associated with the coloring process. The second version was considerably less expensive, printed in black and white with descriptive text. This less-costly volume functioned as a scientific reference book intended for apothecaries and others. Two more editions of Hortus Eystettensis were printed in 1640 and 1713, and a fourth edition was attempted in 1750. This proved a commercial failure, however, and the plates were then melted down.

While the codex follows the order of the four seasons, with 366 plates for every day of the year (including leap years), the distribution of plates per season is a bit uneven; though spring and summer each have 134 and 184 corresponding plates, respectively, the codex contains only 42 plates for autumn, and a mere 7 for winter.