This magnificent oversize flower book first published in 1613 documents the plants that were in the personal collection of Johann Conrad von Gemmingen, the Prince Bishop of Eichstätt near Nuremberg, Germany. The early seventeenth century saw the influx of a great many plants new to Europe, especially those from the Ottoman empire and the Americas. Plants began to be valued not only for their culinary and medicinal uses as had been the case through the sixteenth century, but increasingly for their beauty. Plantsmen all over Europe outdid each other to secure new specimens, especially of bulbs such as tulips. The gardens at Eichstätt were begun in the 1590s first with the assistance of the botanist Joachim Camerarius the Younger, and later by Basil Besler, a Nuremberg apothecary with a deep knowledge of plants. Both these men had important contacts in the broader botanical and horticultural community who helped them acquire plants for the Bishop’s gardens. It was Besler who convinced the Bishop to underwrite the costs of an ambitious illustrated catalogue which would include all the plants in the Eichstätt collection. The book includes 367 engraved plates documenting over a thousand different plants comprising 667 species, with accompanying explanatory text for each plate.
Most of the plates include more than one plant and Besler is credited with the dynamic and creative composition of the plates which convey a true sense of the living plant. The naturalistic plant depictions are a departure from the stylized illustrations used in the earlier herbals which relied on woodcuts. Engraving on copper plates allowed the realization of subtler and finer detail than was possible with woodcuts. The engravings were taken from sketches of live specimens drawn and coloured by accomplished artists on-site at Eichstätt or from fresh flowers shipped to the artists in nearby Nuremberg. The drawings were then engraved on copper plates by skilled craftsmen and printed on the largest size paper then available. Two distinct issues were planned from the start and printed simultaneously: approximately twenty-five copies intended for hand-colouring, with the plates printed on high quality paper on one side only for the Bishop and other dignitaries, and a trade edition of about 300 copies on cheaper paper with the plates printed on one side of the page and explanatory text on the other.