Detail of a hand-colored copper-plate engraving of a vining pea-like plant with blue flowers.

Commelin’s Worldwide Botanical Web

By Harold J. Cook ~

Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.

Two volumes of a large book, one open to display a stunning illustration of a cactus.
“Euphorbium Cerei,” from the North African coast (The “euphorbium” of antiquity was reputed to be a powerful purgative; Commelin discusses whether this is that same plant) in Horti medici Amstelodamensis, 1697–1701
National Library of Medicine #2327003R
Photography by Arne Svenson

Horti Medici Amstelodamensis Rariorum … Plantarum Historia (the  title translates to: Description and Images . . . of the Rare Plants of the East and West Indies in the Medical Garden of Amsterdam, and of Other Exotic Plants Collected with Zeal and Effort in the Residences of Amsterdam), usually ascribed to Jan Commelin (1629–92) and Caspar Commelin (1667–1731), is one of several beautiful botanical atlases published in the Dutch Republic in the years prior to the work of taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–78). The atlas is based on the collections of the botanical garden in Amsterdam, a garden (or hortus) that had become one of the most important nodes in a network of collectors that stretched around the globe. Some collectors were academics (mostly professors who taught about the uses of plants in medicine), but most were enthusiasts, including some leading citizens of Amsterdam, who took a keen interest in growing unusual specimens in their own gardens and keeping up-to-date with descriptions of the latest findings.

A hand-colored copper-plate engraving of a vining pea-like plant with blue flowers.
“Flos Clytorius Breynii” (the clitoris-shaped flower described by Jacobus Breyn in his 1678 Exoticarum Plantarum Centuria Prima) in Horti medici Amstelodamensis, 1697–1701
National Library of Medicine #2327003R

Gardens like Amsterdam’s were simultaneously sites for study; centers for the collection, acclimatization, and distribution of living plants; civic institutions for people seeking both pleasure and edification about God’s creation; and displays of the ingenuity, power, luxury, and world-embracing connections of the city’s patricians. Dutch printers, in turn, were adept in catering to the market of enthusiasts and academics through publications that ranged from simple lists to gorgeous atlases with lengthy descriptions and copper-plate engravings that could be hand-colored (for an extra fee). Possessing such an atlas allowed plant collectors else-where to experience vicariously the exotic riches cultivated in one of Europe’s major entrepôts. The publication of a grand display piece required coordination among botanical experts, artists, engravers, and printers. Jan Commelin thus might be considered more the initiator of the enterprise than simply its “author”—indeed, he died in 1692, five years before publication of the first volume. Having become wealthy in the pharmaceutical trade, and having published a book in 1672 about his methods of raising citrus fruits in heated greenhouses at his private gardens near Haarlem, he was chosen to be a governor of the city’s hortus in 1682 when it was reestablished outside the city walls. He and Joan Huydecoper (1625–1704) used their connections to acquire exotic plants from both the East and West Indies. They also commissioned excellent artists to make accurate watercolors of rare plants (the Moninckx Atlas).

Commelin himself wrote careful descriptions in Dutch of each exotic’s appearance and time of blossoming, provenance, and names given in other publications. After his death, the governors of the garden, Huydecoper and Commelin’s successor, Franciscus de Vroede (1641–1706), saw the first volume through the press. Working chiefly with the printing firm of Blaeu, they commissioned the celebrated physician Frederick Ruysch (1638–1731) and Frans Kiggelaer (1648–1722), a pharmacist from The Hague, to edit and annotate Commelin’s descriptions and translate them into Latin, had the accompanying watercolors turned into engravings, and added a dedication and preface. Jan’s nephew Caspar Commelin, a physician and his successor as garden botanist, brought out the second volume in 1701. The resultant masterwork delighted botanical enthusiasts of the day.

Learn more about herbals in the historical collections of the National Library of Medicine.

Harold J. Cook is John F. Nickoll Professor of History at Brown University and from 2000 to 2009 was Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. He has published extensively on early modern science and medicine.

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