Fuchs’ imposing folio of “Commentaries on the history of plants” is widely considered to be the most beautiful herbal ever published. The author was professor of medicine at Tübingen – appropriately, for systematic botany has its origins in medical science. The careful study of the qualities of plants and the details that serve to distinguish one species from another was the foundation of pharmacy for over two millennia. Just as Alfred North Whitehead claimed that all western philosophy could be considered “a footnote to Plato,” all western botany for 1,500 years might well be called a footnote to the first-century Greek physician Dioscorides.
Like most botanical books of its time, “Fuchs’ Herbal” (as it is commonly known) consists largely of “commentaries” on Dioscorides. The superb illustrations, however, present a commentary on nothing but Nature itself. They are not copied from earlier manuscripts, as so often in the Dioscoridian tradition, but taken from life by three artists whose essential contribution Fuchs acknowledged at the end by including portraits of painter, draftsman, and engraver. Their 512 largely full-page woodcuts illustrate some 400 German and 100 foreign plants, and include the first published representation of maize – Fuchs called it “Turkish corn.” The collaboration was so successful that Fuchs’ Herbal was frequently reprinted or pirated in less costly and much reduced format for student or field use. This Octavo Edition, from the Warnock Library, continues the tradition, offering the convenience of a pocket edition with all the magnificence and accuracy of the original folio.
The original book imaged for this digital edition:
15 1/4 x 10 inches (387 x 254 mm)
Over a decade, while Fuchs was establishing himself as a physician and professor of medicine at the University of Tübingen, he also systematically tackled the many tasks that his revolutionary herbal demanded. As he took his medical students on botanical excursions in the countryside around Tübingen, he collected specimens. The garden attached to his house was stocked with rare plants solicited from friends around Europe. At his own expense, he engaged three first-rate artists: one to make watercolor paintings of the living plants, the second to turn the paintings into outline drawings on the woodblocks, and the third to cut the blocks. He assembled a large botanical library – editions of the classical authors he revered, the medieval writers he despised, other new herbals inspired by Brunfels – and began the labor of copying out the Latin and Greek passages to quote and comment upon. The final tally was 511 woodcuts, all drawn from living plants. Most of Fuchs’ 343 chapters described familiar German plants, but they also included novelties recently introduced to Europe from America, Africa, and Asia.
Most sixteenth and seventeenth century herbals courted their readers’ interest with a decorative title page, laden with ornate woodcut borders of mythological figures, elegant gardens, and portraits of ancient heroes of medicine. Fuchs, by contrast, primarily offered an expanded title
that served simultaneously as advertisement and summary of contents. What catches the eye most forcibly on the title page of this copy of Fuchs’ herbal are the marks of censorship. Here, and on many other surviving copies, slashes of ink have struck through the names of the author and printer (view 3), and (on the reverse, view 4) the portrait of Fuchs. The objection was not to the book’s content, but to the religious beliefs of Fuchs and his publisher. No activity – even one as benign as the study of plants – could avoid being touched by the conflicts of Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe.
Clarity and verisimilitude were aspects of the illustrations that Fuchs cared passionately about. He paid a unique tribute to his three artists by including their names and self-created portraits at the end of the book (view 465): Albert Meyer, drawing a corn-cockle; Heinrich Füllmaurer, transferring the drawing to the woodblock; and Veit Rudolph Speckle, praised in Fuchs’ dedicatory epistle as “by far the best engraver in Strassburg.” These artists could – it is obvious from these portraits of the author and themselves – employ all the tricks of Renaissance draftsmanship and blockcutting, revelling in the subtleties of cross-hatching and shading. But, to convey “the natural form of the plants,” Fuchs insisted on a far more restrained style. Turn to any page of the herbal itself, and Fuchs’ success in getting the artists to share his goals of clarity and botanical accuracy is evident. The uncluttered lines of the woodcuts made it possible to set an unknown plant – or its picture – next to each of Fuchs’ pictures and compare them, feature by feature. The illustrations made it possible to overcome the lack of a technical botanical vocabulary: well into the seventeenth century, the single word, folium, could mean either “leaf” or “petal”!