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Hortus Eystettensis

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The Prince Bishop of Eichstätt’s garden

This magnificent pictorial record of 667 species (amounting to upwards of a thousand flowers) growing in the garden of the Prince Bishop of Eichstätt, Johann Konrad von Gemmingen (1561-1612), was the work of a Nuremburg apothecary Basil Besler (1561-1629). The wealthy Johann Konrad von Gemmingen, Prince Bishop from 1695 to his death in 1612, created an extensive garden, built up on eight different terraces around his palace on the Willibaldsburg, overlooking the Bavarian city of Eichstätt. Besler was in charge of the gardens after the original designer, Joachim Camerarius, died in 1598 and he was commissioned by the Prince Bishop to undertake this book, probably around 1600, though Besler claimed in the first edition of 1613 that he had intermittently spent 16 years on the project. Most of the engravings were done between 1610-1612, but as they were taken from original drawings of plants growing in the gardens (many by Besler himself), this time frame is not surprising. Though the book was not finished before the Prince Bishop died in 1612 he had the satisfaction of sending individual plates to his friends.

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Besler, Hortus Eystettensis (Nuremberg?, 1640), title page.

Worth bought the later edition of 1640, printed at Nuremberg and, like its predecessor, it was an enormous tome. It was probably the most expensive book collection of flowers or Florilegium of its time, consisting of 367 plates of copper engravings. These were undertaken by a team of six engravers led by Wolfgang Kilian (1581-1662) from Augsburg. Divided into sections for Spring, Summer and Autumn flowering plants, botanical accuracy was often sacrificed to decorative effect and plant genera were often mixed on the same page to balance compositions and, possibly, by squeezing in some smaller plants in blank spaces to cut down costs. It is therefore sometimes more difficult to identify plants than in the woodcuts of Clusius and earlier herbals. Some of this may also be due to varieties of bulb which are no longer in cultivation (we see this in the case of Besler’s anemones, which is discussed below).

According to Blunt (1950), though the Latin preface contained the threat of legal action against any plagiarisers or those who would break the book up to sell it in parts, Besler himself may not have been innocent of the charge of plagiarism, as some of the engravings show considerable similarity to those produced by other florilegium designers – such as Johann Theodor de Bry (1561-1623?) in his Florilegium Novum, published in 1612. However, as Blunt reminds us, in the complicated world of print makers and their sources, it is always possible that de Bry may have seen some of the individual sheets which the Prince Bishop had circulated.

Unfortunately most of the Prince Bishop’s successors had little interest in gardens and they went into decline, particularly after the capture of the Willibaldsburg Palace by the Swedes in 1633 during the Thirty Years War when the garden was little more than a vegetable garden. Although attempts were made in the nineteenth century to restore it, by the time Hobhouse (p122) describes it in 1992, it was only ‘a wild shrubbery’. Happily a restoration of the gardens was undertaken in 1998.

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Besler, Hortus Eystettensis (Nuremberg?, 1640), Anemones.

Anemones, called after the Greek word for wind, have been grown for centuries from the time of the ancient Egyptians. No medicinal values were described by Dioscorides and Pliny. A further plant brought into Europe through Constantinople, the coronaria or Poppy or Plush Anemones were a particular favourite of aristocratic gardeners in the seventeenth century. Franceso Caetani (1613-1683), Duke of Sermoneta, who loved anemones even more than tulips, had over 230 different varieties of anemones, totalling 29,000 plants, in his gardens at Cisterna near Rome in the mid seventeenth century (Hobhouse, 1992, p 129).

As can be seen in this plate Folio no 31, their names are in fact elaborate descriptions of the variety – the plant in the centre is called Anemone tenuifolia flore purpureo violaceae or anemone with slender leaves with a purplish violet flower whereas the plants on the left and right (II and III) are examples of anemone latifolia or broad leaved anemone. The one on the left (III) is purplish coloured whereas the one on the right III is described as flore cocci. (short for coccineus) has a deep red flower and is also described as being a ‘double’ (plena) flowered variety.

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Besler, Hortus Eystettensis (Nuremberg?, 1640), Corona Imperialis.

The Crown Imperial Fritillary which Besler called Corona Imperialis florum classe duplici, a member of the Liliceace family, is a native of Western Asia extending as far east as Pakistan and Kashmir. As noted by Linnaeus who christened it Fritillaria imperialis L, it came into Europe through Constantinople around 1570 and Clusius grew it in his own garden in Vienna in 1580 as well as in the Botanic Garden.   Described by Gerard and other herbal writers, it was the first plant to be described in detail, complete with woodcut, in Parkinson’s Paradisus (1629). This striking plant was often the crowning flower in the magnificent floral bouquet still lives of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Fastidious gardeners in the past have been put off growing this plant due to the strong fox-like smell from its bulbs, but this is unlikely to put off modern gardeners who have to put up with the scent and depredations of Mr Fox himself. Christian legend has it that the plant hangs its head in shame and sheds tears (the ‘cleare shining sweet water’ as described by Gerard) at the bottom of each bell since, unlike all the other plants, it failed to bow its head as Jesus was going to Calvary. The form in this Hortus image seems to be a double form (duplici) with two tiers of flower heads. An image of a seed head and an individual flower are on either side of the main plant. The wild forms are usually terracotta coloured although yellow forms introduced by 1665 are more common in gardens.

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Besler, Hortus Eystettensis (Nuremberg?, 1640), Malua Rosea multiplex.

Hollyhocks or Alcea rosea L. also grew in the Hortus, not the first princely garden to display them. Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605?) saw ‘hollyhocks and other rare plants’ in Grand Duke Francesco I de Medici’s garden at Pratolino in the 1570s (Hobhouse, 1992, p 148). The two examples of Malva rosea, as they were then called, in the Hortus, on page 88 of the Summer flowering section, were white and pink coloured (incarnato=flesh coloured).  Alceas, called from the Greek alkaia, a form of mallow, are biennial or short living perennials of the Malvaceae family, and are cottage garden favourites with a large number of cultivars being available.

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Besler, Hortus Eystettensis (Nuremberg?, 1640), Ficus Indica Eystettensis.

Many of the plants grown in the garden were not hardy. The engraving of the large Cactus which Besler calls Ficus Indica Eystaatenen, now called Opunitia ficus–indica, is sunk in a pot surrounded by a wooden framework to which a wooden cage or sacking material could be added for winter (Hobhouse). These are only some of the many treasures awaiting botanical enthusiasts in the Hortus Eystettensis. This beautiful book can be viewed in a digitized copy provided by the University of Missouri  Botanic garden:

An informative history of the British Library’s richly coloured copy, which took a year to paint and ended up in George III’s Library, and a short history of the garden, can be found at:


Blunt, Wilfred (1950), The Art of Botanical Illustration (London), pp. 95-97

Fisher, C. (2013), The Golden Age of Flowers (London: British Library).

Hobhouse, P. (1992) Plants in Garden history (London: Pavilion Books).

Linnaeus, C. (1753), Species Plantarum (Stockholm), vol 1, p. 303.

Mitchell, P. (1973) Great Flower Painters Four Centuries of Floral Art (New York: The Overlook Press).

Pavord, A. (1992) Bulb (London: Mitchell Beazley), pp 214-215.

Pollock, M. Griffiths, M., (1998), The Royal Horticultural Society Shorter Dictionary of Gardening (London: Macmillan), p. 24.

Stearn, W. T.  (2008) Botanical Latin 4th (Oregon: Timber Press).

Whiteside, K. (1991) Classical Bulbs for the Modern Garden. (New York: Villard Books).

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