The Florilegium

by Jutta Buck

with Cynthia Rice

The first florilegia began to appear in the late 16th century. Unlike herbals, the florilegia contained little or no text. The plates took precedence with beauty and color surpassing medicinal utility. As in the finest herbals, the illustrations in florilegia were accurately drawn from nature, but each artist took great care with the arrangement of flowers and plants, often including small animals, birds and insects in their compositions.

The appearance of the florilegium was accompanied by new printing methods of engraving and etching. In wood engraving the raised portion of the block is inked as the parts which were cut away remain blank. With the two forms of metal engraving it is the sunken parts of the plate that retain the ink after the surface is wiped clean.

The engraver's burin, a pointed steel tool, is used to cut lines in a metal plate. Furrows are filled with the ink before being placed in a high pressure printing press.

With etching, the plate is given a thin coating of acid-resistant resin. The design is then scratched with a needle into the resin exposing the metal beneath. When the image is completed, the plate is submerged in an acid solution that creates furrows in the exposed lines of metal. After this acid bath, the resin is removed and the printing process proceeds as with engraving.

With the discovery of the Americas and other parts of the globe, many expeditions set sail to explore the wonders of a new world. Naturalists, botanists and artists often accompanied the explorers to record indigenous specimens in their writings and drawings.

Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1600) was a gifted artist with a great understanding of nature. Many manuscripts created by Hoefnagel for his royal benefactors were embellished with naturalistically drawn figures of plants and flowers.

Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (c1533-1583), a cartographer and painter, was well known for his account of events on a French expedition to Florida in 1564. Flemish by birth, he eventually settled in England, where he met Lady Mary Sidney who became his patron and made it possible for Le Moyne to concentrate on the study and drawing of plants. In 1586 he published the florilegium, La Clef des Champs, illustrated with woodcuts of English plants and fruits. A group of outstanding watercolors similar to those in this florilegium are in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.












(L) Snowdrop and Painted Lady Butterfly, Jacques LeMoyne de Morgue, 1580, watercolor on paper (R) Ficus carica, Jacques LeMoyne de Morgue, c. 1580, watercolor on paper, 

The first important florilegium, Le Jardin du Roy tres chrestien Henri IV, was published in 1608, in Paris by Pierre Vallet (c.1575-c.1657). This exquisite collection of 73 floral copper engravings was dedicated to the wife of Henri IV, Marie de Medici, who had a passion for flowers and started the fashion for embroidery with floral designs.













(L) Tulips from Le Jardin du Roy, Pierre Vallet, Paris 1608, Etching

(R) Fritillaria imperialis from Le Jardin du RoyPierre Vallet 1608, hand-colored copper engraving

Florilegia, such as the Florilegium Novum (1611), by Johann Theodor de Bry (1562-1620) remained popular in the early 17th century. The Florilegium by Emanuel Sweerts (1561-1629), a Dutch floral trader, was engraved and colored in 1612. It pictured over 300 bulbs and 240 flowering plants, which he offered for sale. The Florilegium was reprinted twice and Sweerts was credited with helping to start the frenzy over tulips in mid-century Holland. 













(L) Moly Indicum Scilla hispaniae Pancratium majus Hispa. from Florilegium Novum, Johann Theodor de Bry, Oppenheim 1612. Copper engraving

(R) Gladiolus from Florilegium, Emanuel Sweerts, Frankfurt a.M.1612. Handcolored copper engraving

Another florilegium, the well-known Hortus Eystettensis was published by Basilius Bessler (1561-1629) at Eichstaett in 1613. At least six engravers worked in making the 374 plates after drawings by Bessler, which illustrated more than a thousand flowers for this monumental work. 

Perhaps the most celebrated florilegium was Hortus Floridus (1614) by Crispijn van der Passe (c.1590-1670). In many of van der Passe’s plates the plants are shown growing in the soil, with butterflies, bees and other insects buzzing among the flowers. Also occasionally included in the composition is a little field mouse, a snail or other creatures moving about the fields.

No less appealing is the Theatrum Florae, published in Paris in 1622, by Daniel Rabel (1578-1637). Some of the exceptional drawings for this volume have survived and are now at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

Martagum Imperiale by Daniel Rabel, ca 1620. Watercolor & gouache on vellum. Bibliotheque nationale, Paris

Given the immense popularity of flowers, plants and floriculture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nurseries of the time employed artists to paint images of plants and flowers that were available for sale. Of particular interest are the tulip albums with their illustrations of the various species of bulbs imported from Turkey for the European market during the frenzy of Tulipomania. In the Netherlands, for example, specialized tulip books were produced by well known artists like Ambrosius Bosschaert the Younger (1609-1645), Jacob Marrel (1614-1681), Anthony Claesz (c.1607-1649) and Pieter Holsteyn the Younger (c. 1614-1687), to name a few.

Study of Tulips, Jacob Marrel

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  • Rosa gallica with Castanea sativa, Mira calligraphiae monumenta (The Model Book of Calligraphy), Joris Hoefnagel ca.1590-1600, Watercolor on vellum. Getty Museum
  • Narcissus pseudonarcissus, Aquilegia vulgais and acorns, Mira calligraphiae monumenta (The Model Book of Calligraphy), Joris Hoefnagel ca.1590-1600, Watercolor on vellum. Getty Museum
  • Tulipa globosa from Hortus Eystettensis, Basilius Bessler, Eichstaett & Nuremberg 1613. Handcolored copper engraving
  • Flos Solis maior from Hortus Eystettensis, Basilius Bessler, Eichstaett & Nuremberg 1613. Handcolored copper engraving
  • Anemone from Hortus Floridus, Crispijn van der Passe 1614
  • Tulipa pumilus, Crispijn van der Passe, the Younger