Leonhart Fuchs. De Historia Stirpium Comentarii Insignes. Basel: In Officina Insigriniana, 1542. Gift of Marion Brown Sprague ’29.

     
 

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European writing on natural history was heavily influenced by classical authorities such as Pliny and the Greek physician Dioscorides well into the sixteenth century.  The discovery of new plants and animals from around the world brought the authority of the ancients into question, and also created the need for updated works that incorporated the new finds into the existing structures of knowledge.  De Historia Stirpium, published first in 1542, conforms to the norms of botanical writing of the time by depending heavily on ancient Greek and Roman texts about plants, but with the addition of newly discovered species. The author, Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566), was a Bavarian botanist and personal physician to Georg, Margrave of Brandenburg.  Like many botanists of the sixteenth century, Fuchs’s interest in the classification and depiction of new plants emerged from a concern for their medicinal uses.

Fuchs’s approach to botanical illustrations was innovative for his era. He argued that accurate pictures were essential to a book about nature, and so he gave prominent credit to the artists who worked on the book, an unusual practice at the time.  The principal artist, Albrecht Meyer, drew the plants from real specimens, but in an idealized way, without blemishes or abnormalities.  Some images include multiple varieties of the species or multiple stages of the plant’s development on the same plant. The illustration of a cherry tree shown here depicts the tree both in bloom and bearing fruit simultaneously. Although this would be impossible in reality, Fuchs was convinced that demonstrating multiple stages of a plant’s development was the most efficient way to provide information about the species.

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