The Groundwork of Modern Taxonomy

by Jutta Buck

with Cynthia Rice

Three botanists, Flemish and French, changed the prevailing belief that the plants of Europe were a unique plant community  Mathias Lobelius or Mathias de L’Obel  (1538-1611) born in Lille, France, studied the plants of southern France, Carolus Clusius or Charles de L’Ecluse (1526-1609) born at Arras, France, explored in Austria-Hungary, and Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585) born in Malines, Flanders, examined plants of the Netherlands. Their efforts laid the groundwork for Bauhin and Linnaeus, pioneers of modern botanical taxonomy. Their writings were mainly published by Plantin, a well-known publisher in Antwerp. The illustrations in their books came almost entirely from woodcuts in Plantin's collection, many by the well regarded Flemish artist, Pierre van der Borcht (1545-1608).

          Title page from Carolus Clusius Rariorum plantarum historia, Plantin, Antwerp 1601

(L) Tulipa praecox from Carolus Clusius Rariorum plantarum historia, Plantin, Antwerp 1601. Woodcut

(R) Turnip from Rembert Dodoens Stirpium historiae pemptades sex, sive libri, Plantin, Antwerp 1616. Woodcut

During the second part of the sixteenth century the interest in native flowers and plants and those introduced to Europe by travelers and explorers inspired a new generation of artists and botanists. Plants like the oriental hyacinth, the Fritillaria imperialis, new species of Narcissus, and the tulip, excited the imagination of young painters. Suddenly the cultivation of flowers became fashionable and beauty triumphed over herbal usefulness. Wealthy patrons commissioned gifted artists to paint the flowers and plants growing in their gardens.

Jacobo Ligozzi (1547-1626), like Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer, combined artistic sensitivity and scientific precision in his paintings of flowers, plants and other natural subjects. Although Ligozzi painted primarily indigenous plants, he occasionally drew exotic species at the request of his patrons, the Medici family. A large collection of Ligozzi’s botanical drawings can be found at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The Medici also sponsored an important female artist, Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), who was well known for lovely portraits of flowers, fruit, plants and later, still lifes.

Dittany (Dictamus albus) by Giovanna Garzoni. N.d. Gouache on vellum. Uffizi, Florence


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  • The Mandrake, Mandragoa autumnalis by Jacopo Ligozzi. N.d. Gouache on paper. Uffizi, Florence
  • Mourning Iris (Iris susuana) and Spanish Iris (Iris xyphyum) by Jacopo Ligozzi. N.d. Gouache on paper. Uffizi, Florence
  • Ranunculus (Ranunculus asiaticus) by Giovanna Garzoni. N.d.Gouache on vellum. Uffizi, Florence