Notes on German Culture

This amazingly detailed sunflower image was printed 408 years ago in Nuremberg, Germany

Published in 1613 by Basilius Besler, the book “Hortus Eystettensis” contained the first finely detailed depiction of a Sunflower (Flos solis maior). The emphasis in botanicals of previous centuries had been on medicinal and culinary herbs, and these had usually been depicted in a crude manner. The images were often inadequate for identification, and had little claim to being aesthetic.

Besler’s “Hortus Eystettensis” (Garden of Eichstätt) changed botanical art overnight. The plates were of garden flowers, herbs and vegetables, exotic plants such as castor-oil and arum lilies. These were depicted near life-size, producing rich detail. The layout was artistically pleasing and quite modern in concept, with the hand-coloring adding greatly to the final effect. The first published book consisted of 367 copper engravings, with an average of three plants per page, so that a total of 1084 species were depicted.

The book came about because Johann Konrad von Gemmingen, the Prince Bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria, commissioned Besler to compile a codex of the plants growing in his garden. This task was eagerly accepted and turned into a major project, including a description of each plant as it existed in each season of the year. Besler hired his brother and a group of skilled draftsmen and engravers, including Sebastian Schedel, an accomplished painter, and Wolfgang Kilian, a skilled engraver from Augsburg. Kilian and his team engraved the initial copper plates. Later the operations moved to Nürnberg and a new team of engravers, among whom were Johannes Leypold, Georg Gärtner, Levin and Friedrich van Hulsen, Peter Isselburg, Heinrich Ulrich, Dominicus Custos and Servatius Raeven. A botanist, Ludwig Jungermann, wrote most of the descriptive text. The project took sixteen years to complete it and the bishop never saw the finished book, dying shortly before the work was published.

Besler’s portrait appears on the frontispiece holding a sprig of basil, punning on his name. 

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