A Brief History of Botanical Art

First Florilegia

By Jutta Buck 

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 16, Issue 3


The first florilegia began to appear in the late sixteenth century. Unlike the herbals, the florilegium contained only minimum text or none at all. The emphasis was on the plates which were meant to show the pure beauty and color of each flower, rather than to inform on its botanical and medicinal values. As in the best herbals preceding them, the illustrations in the florilegia were very accurately drawn from nature but each artist took great care with the arrangement of different specimens of flowers and plants, often including small animals, birds and insects in their compositions, covering the space of the page.  

The appearance of the florilegium was accompanied by a new printing method. The creators of the florilegia could now choose between the more sophisticated techniques 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 of the plate has been wiped clean.  

The line-engravers tool is a burin or a graver, a pointed steel device used to cut lines in a metal plate. Furrows are cleanly cut out and then filled with the ink before being placed under the high pressure printing press.  

Etching is the art of engraving with acid on metal. The plate, usually of copper, is given a thin coating of acid-resistant resin. The intended design is then scratched with a needle onto the prepared surface of the plate exposing the metal without touching it. When the image is completed, the plate is submerged in an acid solution that attacks the exposed lines. After the lines are bitten to the desired depth, the plate is taken out of the acid bath and all resin is removed. The printing process then proceeds as in line-engraving. 

One such florilegium was created by Emanuel Sweerts, a Dutch floral trader. His engraved and colored Florilegium, first published in 1612 pictured over 300 bulbs and over 240 flowering plants, which he offered for sale with great success. The Florilegium was reprinted twice in subsequent years, and Sweerts was credited with helping to start the frenzy over tulips in mid-century Holland. The index was printed in Latin, Dutch, German and French, attesting to its international popularity. 

  • Aphricanus, c 1612, from Emanuel Sweerts Florilegium, an engraved volume that served as a catalog to Sweerts many bulb and flowering plants
  • Gladiolus, taken from Sweerts Florilegium of 1612