Basilius Besler (1561–1629) was a respected Nuremberg apothecary and botanist, best known for his monumental Hortus Eystettensis. He was curator of the garden of Johann Konrad von Gemmingen, prince bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria. The bishop was an enthusiastic botanist who derived great pleasure from his garden, which rivaled Hortus Botanicus Leiden among early European botanical gardens outside Italy.
The gardens surrounded the bishop's palace, Willibaldsburg, which was built on a hill overlooking the town. These gardens had been started in 1596 and designed by Besler's colleague, Joachim Camerarius the Younger (1534–1598), a physician and botanist. Upon Camerarius' death in 1598, Besler had the remainder of Camerarius' plants moved to Eichstätt and carried on the work of planting and supervision. The bishop commissioned Besler to compile a codex of the plants growing in his garden, a task which Besler took sixteen years to complete, the bishop dying shortly before the work was published. Besler had the assistance of his brother and a group of skilled German draughtsmen and engravers, including Sebastian Schedel, an accomplished painter, and Wolfgang Kilian, a skilled engraver from Augsburg. Kilian and his team engraved the initial copper plates, but after the bishop’s death, the operations moved to Nürnberg and a new team of engravers, among whom were Johannes Leypold, Georg Gärtner, Levin and Friedrich van Hulsen, Peter Isselburg, Heinrich Ulrich, Dominicus Custos and Servatius Raeven. Camerarius' nephew, Ludwig Jungermann (1572–1653), was a botanist and wrote the lion's share of the descriptive text.
The work was named Hortus Eystettensis (Garden of Eichstätt). The emphasis in botanicals of previous centuries had been on medicinal and culinary herbs, and these had usually been depicted in a crude manner. The images were often inadequate for identification, and had little claim to being aesthetic. The Hortus Eystettensis changed botanical art overnight. The plates were of garden flowers, herbs and vegetables, exotic plants such as castor-oil and arum lilies. These were depicted near life-size, producing rich detail. The layout was artistically pleasing and quite modern in concept, with the hand-colouring adding greatly to the final effect. The work was first published in 1613 and consisted of 367 copper engravings, with an average of three plants per page, so that a total of 1084 species were depicted. The first edition printed 300 copies, which took four years to sell. The book was printed on large sheets measuring 57 x 46 cm. Two versions were produced, cheap black and white for use as a reference book, and a luxury version without text, printed on quality paper and lavishly hand-coloured. The luxury version sold for an exorbitant 500 florins, while the plain, uncoloured copies went for 35 florins each. Besler could finally purchase a comfortable home in a fashionable part of Nürnberg at a price of 2 500 florins – five coloured copies' worth of ‘Hortus Eystettensis'.
The work generally reflected the four seasons, showing first the flowering and then the fruiting stages. "Winter" was sparsely represented with a mere 7 plates. "Spring" was a season of abundance with 134 plates illustrating 454 plants and "Summer" in full swing showed 505 plants on 184 plates. "Autumn" closed off the work with 42 plates and 98 species. The modern French translation of the herbal appears under the title Herbier des quatres saisons, and Italian version (1998) is L'erbario delle quattro stagioni.
Descriptions of the plants were in Latin and showed remarkable anticipation of the binomial system, in that the captions often consisted of the first two or three words of the description. Besler's portrait appears on the frontispiece holding a sprig of basil, punning on his name. The work was published twice more in Nuremberg, in 1640 and 1713, using the same plates, plates which were destroyed by the Royal Mint of Munich in 1817.
The gardens were sacked by invading Swedish troops under Herzog Bernhard von Weimar in 1633-4; following Hortus Eystettensis they have been reconstructed and opened to the public in 1998.
Media related to Basilius Besler at Wikimedia Commons
- Online version of the Teylers Museum copy of the Hortus Eystettensis 1613 luxury edition (hand-coloured, text in manuscript).
- Biography at basilius-besler.com
- Hortus Eystettensis at the Service de la documentation University of Strasbourg