I’ve always loved plants and flowers but I’m not a very good gardener. I tell people that if I had to farm for a living I would starve! So some time a go I got into photographing plants and flowers. Here’s one:
But before we had color photography to produce an image of plants, flowers, trees, weeds, leaves, etc, they were drawn, painted, engraved, etched, sculpted etc. Historically the earliest efforts to record plant likenesses seems to correspond to the domestication of plants – there is precious little if any paleolithic plant paintings on the inside of caves compared to the wonderfully detailed cave paintings of animals. They had the artistic chops – just no interest in painting plants – it was wall-to-wall big game buffalo, bison, and all manner of man and beast.
Actually, it wasn’t until the fourth and fifth century BC that we start seeing plants being systematically drawn and painted and labeled with names and uses for the plants – herbals if you will. I mean, if a given herb has curative properties and you want to make sure you pick the right stuff – or better yet have your assistant pick the right stuff – it might not be a bad idea to draw a picture of the plant and describe it. The difference between a mushroom and a toadstool is the difference between life and death!
Anyhow, starting with these first herbals, The Art of Botanical Illustration, An Illustrated History With 170 Illustrations, Including 16 in Full Color by Wilifrid Blunt tells the story of how the art of botanical illustration evolved and matured into a cross between hard-science and fine-art. From the editor’s Preface on page xxiii (does anybody know why book prefaces are numbered with Roman Numerals? I’m not complaining, I just wonder why.):
Plant illustration ranges from the purely botanical to the purely artistic, from a drawing of a magnified root-section to a water-colour of a vase of roses. Between these two extremes lies a vast body of drawings and paintings with a combined scientific and aesthetic appeal – botanical records which are at the same time works of art. It is the history and development of this type of plant illustration that Mr. Blunt has, for the first time, explored and recorded in the present volume.
… We feel that he has succeeded in writing a really valuable book which not only does full justice to the individual artists and their work, but also brings out, in a fascinating way, how developments in botany, for example the discovery and introduction of new species, and also advances in the techniques of reproduction, have influenced plant illustration throughout its history… This volume will, we hope, enable the many lovers of flower-painting and drawings to study and appreciate them in the future with a fuller realisation of their botanical and artistic significance.
Besides the spelling of “color” and “realization” it is abundantly clear that this was written by someone from England. English authors have a wonderful command of English prose – I just love reading stuff by them and this book, besides being about a cool topic with tons of cool pictures, is all written in England-style English so it reads really well and is satisfying to read even if you don’t begin to care at all about flowers, plants, botanical stuff and don’t want to look at totally bitchen flower and plant pictures – the book has tons of color and b & w repros of cool botanical art stuff.
The motivator for the first fully illustrated systematic scientific / artistic treatment of botanical art was the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides (40 AD – 90 AD) who spent his professional medical career in the Roman army. He wrote a book on herbs and their healing powers, and botanical medicine in general which was the standard text used by Greeks, Romans, Medieval Europeans, Arabs and even all the way to distant India for 1500 years; the epic and all encompassing De Materia Medica. It was the major pharmaceutical treatise and was never lost or out of print. It was the book on the pharmacological properties of plants.
De Materia Medica (Latin for “On Medical Material“) is an encyclopaedia and pharmacopoeia of herbs and the medicines that can be obtained from them. The five-volume work describes many drugs known to be effective, including aconite, aloes, colocynth, colchicum, henbane, opium and squill. In all, about 600 plants are covered, along with some animals and mineral substances, and around 1000 medicines made from them.
The work was written between 50 and 70 AD by Pedanius Dioscorides, a Roman physician of Greek origin. It was widely read for more than 1,500 years until supplanted by revised herbals in the Renaissance, making it one of the longest-lasting of all natural history books.
De Materia Medica was circulated as illustrated manuscripts, copied by hand, in Greek, Latin and Arabic throughout the mediaeval period. From the sixteenth century on, Dioscorides’ text was translated into Italian, German, Spanish, and French, and in 1655 into English. It formed the basis for herbals in these languages by men such as Leonhart Fuchs, Valerius Cordus, Lobelius, Rembert Dodoens, Carolus Clusius, John Gerard and William Turner. Gradually such herbals included more and more direct observations, supplementing and eventually supplanting the classical text. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Materia_Medica
Interestingly though, the original De Materia Medica was not illustrated. The first illustrated version is called the Vienna Dioscurides and was done in 512 AD by an anonymous artist for the Western Roman imperial princess Juliana Anicia, the daughter of Emperor Anicius Olybrius.
The manuscript has 383 extant full-page illustrations of plants out of the original 435 illustrations. The illustrations fall into two groups. There are those that faithfully follow earlier classical models and present a quite naturalistic illustration of each plant. There are also other illustrations that are more abstract. The majority of the illustrations were painted in a naturalistic style so as to aid a pharmacologist in the recognition of each plant. However, it is believed that these illustrations were made as copies of an earlier herbal and were not drawn from nature. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_Dioscurides
Bramble (Rubus fructicosus) from the Vienna Dioscorides
This version and others like it were copied over and over for hundreds of years – and the illustrations were mostly just copied. The idea of going out in the field and observing nature was foreign to the medieval scholastic mentality; and I would suppose that even though the illustrations were in the book, there probably weren’t that many copies made of it anyhow and a lot of the medical practice was most likely taught as an oral tradition. But as limited as the original De Materia Medica was, and as sterile and unoriginal the copies were, it was the first actual book describing plants and their healing properties and the Vienna Dioscurides was the first instance of botanical illustration – showing the plant with the aim of describing it’s appearance and it’s properties.
But it wasn’t until the fifteenth century that careful, realistic, and natural drawings and paintings of plants became the norm – up until then they were added as decorations in purely artistic work, and copies of old manuscripts for technical applications. Through the Renaissance there was a gradual move toward realism and accuracy in portraying plants artistically; and techniques of painting and drawing evolved as well. And though they didn’t really specialize in botanical art, two artistic giants established the benchmark for excellence in realism in plant portrayal: Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer. Here’s one by Dürer that is realistic enough that each plant in the painting can be identified – he even shows some of the roots:
Das Grosse Rasenstück, Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
And one of a lilly by da Vinci:
OK, now we’re talking! Not only beautiful, but faithful, realistic works. Botanical illustration would eventually evolve in the directions pointed to by these two visionaries.
This only takes us through chapter 3 of 24 – so there’s a way to go on reviewing The Art of Botanical Illustration, An Illustrated History With 170 Illustrations, Including 16 in Full Color by Wilifrid Blunt but we’ll keep at it!