Johannes Commelin. Horti Medici amstelodamensis rariorum tam Orientalis, quàm Occidentalis Indiae, aliarumque peregrinarum plantarum, magno studio ac labore, sumptibus Civitatis amstelodamensis, longâ annorum serie collectarum, descriptio et icones ad vivum æri incisæ. Amsterdam: P. & J. Blaeu, 1697. Gift of Ethelinda Schaefer Castle ’08.






The practice of collecting natural history specimens moved from the private realm to the public one in the late seventeenth century, with one of the most important examples being the botanical gardens in Amsterdam.  Johannes Commelin (1629-1692) opened the popular gardens in Amsterdam in 1682. Initially it was known as the Hortus Medicus, reflecting the close connection between botany and medicine, but later was re-named the Hortus Botanicus. It is now one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. Commelin began his career as a merchant of herbs and pharmaceuticals. His contacts in the plant trade enabled him to build the botanical garden collections with specimens from distant locales, brought back by traders from the Dutch East India Company. The book shown in Darwin’s Ancestors was written as a guide to the many exotic plants of the garden, objects of curiosity for the average viewer. The second volume opens with an image of the garden’s greenhouses and the distinctive roofs of Amsterdam in the background, but centered on a classically-garbed instructor working with students, graphically showing the continuity between the new work in botany and the ancient authorities, who were still influential.

Although Johannes Commelin wrote the majority of the two volumes, he died before the work was completed and his nephew Caspar Commelin (1667-1731) finished the writing. Caspar also became director of the botanical garden and published natural history books of his own. The Commelins left a legacy of a well-situated public garden full of exotic plants which could be studied by botanists. Linnaeus later studied in the Amsterdam gardens and named the genus Commelina after Johannes and Caspar to honor their contribution to the understanding of the botanical world.  

back                      Next



Bryn Mawr College Special Collections