The scribes of the Middle Ages wrote predominantly in iron gall ink, the product of an elegant four-ingredient recipe. Certain wasps implant their eggs in the leaves and smaller branches of oak trees. This process produces in the tree a gall: a lump of tannin-rich material in which the larvae grow. When ground and boiled in water with a sprinkle of iron sulfate and some gum of arabic, the mixture of insect and vegetable chemicals in the gall with the mineral of the iron forms a pigment stable enough to carry around in a little flagon and acid enough to stain parchment for a few millennia.
It’s not hard to find the ingredients, as long as you know what to look for. To learn about oak gall, an aspiring European ink maker would consult a botanical guide called a herbal. Just as useful to a nun in her walled herb garden, a commercial pharmacist, and a parent in a medical emergency, the herbal was in high demand but, until the advent of the printing press, expensive to produce. Publishers in the earliest years of mechanical printing activated this latent market, and herbals became one of the first popular printed nonfiction genres. These pre-Linnaean textbooks established graphic design protocols that have shaped the way curious minds learn and process plant science ever since.
In “Seeds of Knowledge,” a small exhibition at the Morgan Library in Manhattan, a couple dozen books sit open depicting plants in various media. One of the books is a herbarium, a varietal that contains real, five-hundred-year-old field samples, but most are fine European herbals from the early fifteenth to late sixteenth centuries. The show is laid out in a roughly chronological circle, so that by standing in the doorway and turning your head you take in the transformation in design principles that distinguishes the medieval scriptorium from the marketplace bustle and type of the early modern flower business.
The exhibition’s curator, John McQuillen, explained to me that the transition between hand-illuminated manuscripts and printed paper matter was at times bumpy. “A lot of early printers,” he said, “tried to print a book that was too radically different from the manuscript, and they failed miserably.” One book in the show demonstrates the well-bridged gap. Pliny the Elder’s Historia naturalis, printed in Venice in 1513 by Melchior Sessa for Alessandro Benedetti, is on display, open to a page with an inset illustration of men grinding potions at the edge of a sprouting wood. The scene has been printed mechanically, but it has more of a narrative than a diagrammatic quality, and the detailed coloring—one man has red stockings, another blue—makes it almost indistinguishable from a medieval science manuscript.
But the makers of incunabula—the first books printed by machine, prior to the beginning of publishing proper in 1500—struggled to render diagrams as precisely as those drawn by the human hand. For example, the show includes three printed copies of the Macer floridus, a text attributed to the eleventh-century French physician Odo of Meung. It is written in Latin verse, possibly to help a scholar remember it, with rhythm organizing wild thyme—“called serpillum in Latin because, as is commonly said, it creeps forth near the ground”—and its properties for treating headaches (“grind wild thyme with vinegar and oil of roses”), delivering a woman of “some of her menses,” and driving off venomous beasts with its smoke. The earliest exhibited copy of the Macer floridus, made in 1482 in Milan, has no illustrations. Two copies printed a few years later, in 1495–6, boast somewhat clunky woodcut diagrams. The 1496 Genevan Macer floridus has been colored by hand, its red poppies glowing, but the detail still struggles to appear, the differences between species lost in ink.
At the end of the central vitrine sits Basilius Besler’s 1613 Hortus Eystettensis, a volume almost twenty-three inches high and more than three feet wide, when placed open. The spread shows five slender yet enormous tulip plants. They are slightly idealized, since the flowers’ luxuriant petals are opened perfectly symmetrically and facing the viewer, which never happens with tulips; they look like supermodels doing impossible poses. But they are also a record of the species before centuries of selective breeding, while still being recognizably tulips. The printer has tucked his mark behind one of the stems.
Hanging on the wall nearby is a gorgeous poster-sized drawing of “White Swallowwort (Vincetoxicum officinale)” (ca. 1577–87) by Jacopo Ligozzi. “By the time we get here,” McQuillen said, gesturing at the Ligozzi, the prints become “more abstracted and out of the human context. There’s an increasing naturalism and also an increasing detachment.” The particular charm of early books like the Buch der Natur of Konrad von Megenberg, printed in 1478 and among the first German-language herbals, is lost—that book set its tree species amid dimensionally complex landscape illustrations, while the Ligozzi is intentionally 2D—but there’s a new kind of subjective loveliness growing underneath the technique. The outlines of the leaves and stems are fine and delicate over its green ink wash, precise and chaotic the same way that outlines and color move against each other in the background foliage of a Hayao Miyazaki movie.
As the illustrations grew more refined, the white space swelled. Designers like the printer of the Buch der Natur developed the first graphic design values for print, but their methods and products also changed rapidly. The books from the end of the sixteenth century show that publishers were able to buy predictable quantities of paper and operate at scale, allowing them to plan their layouts ahead of time and let more white space onto the pages while adding apparatuses like indexes. McQuillen thought that the first herbal with an index for ailments—“So you could go: headache, look there”—was made around 1496. These herbals were alphabetized, he told me, “but only by the first letter of the Latin name. So in some cases ‘celery’ would come before ‘cattle.’” A big book of this sort might sit in your doctor’s office. He would look up a symptom in the index and find the corresponding plant page for a cure for, say, diarrhea (“A lot of recipes for diarrhea,” McQuillen noted).
Amid the printed splendor on display at “Seeds of Knowledge,” it’s easy to miss one of the exhibition’s glories: the elegant and minimal tenth-century manuscript of De materia medica by Dioscorides, a physician, pharmacologist, and writer born in the first century in Anazarbos, near Tarsus in present-day Turkey, which was at the time a global center of pharmaceutical research. This was the most practical of the antique texts on pharmaceutical techniques. Copies were made in Dioscorides’ lifetime and throughout the Middle Ages, but a blockbuster new translation into Latin, published in Paris in 1516 by the polymath Henri Estienne, aka Henricus Stephanus, made De materia medica an indispensable textbook for the early modern European thinker. The copy in the exhibition, one of the oldest surviving examples, was written in Greek in Constantinople around 900 CE. (Other books testify to long international journeys, like the herbal with annotations written in both English and an early version of Czech.)
Most of the printed herbals in the rest of the exhibition are in some sense based on De materia medica, mixed with other sources and updated to include vernacular translations, new kinds of illustration, and regional specifics, addressing gaps in the antique authorities. People like Dioscorides, Theophrastus, and Pliny the Elder all wrote about the flora and fauna of the Mediterranean, where they lived, rather than that of Northern Europe, where the early modern herbal was especially popular. For example, the Herbarum vivae eicones (Living Images of Herbs) of Otto Brunfels (1488–1534) is opened to a spread entirely depicting white water lilies by Hans Weiditz the Younger, who is often credited with inventing naturalistic scientific illustration. The leaves are ragged and the roots, yanked out of the water, trail in space. On pages near the drawings is information about some forty German species that the ancient scholars missed. (The water lilies that grow on the Nile are usually blue.) A curious student or a merchant in a fifteenth-century city in Germany might learn all about non-native plants like licorice or cumin from Dioscorides, but local scholars needed to supplement the books with information closer to home.
One scholar took a radically new approach. Hieronymous Harder, assisted by his son and sons-in-law, plucked actual plant samples from places like the Swabian Alps and the Lake Constance region of Germany for the exhibition’s 1594 Herbarium. Its title page calls the book “A Living Herbal.” It is a record of Harder’s observations as well as an archive of centuries-old plant matter, pressed and rearranged for best display, with labels in German and Latin; he added unpressable specimens like bulbs in watercolor outline.
In a side room, McQuillen showed me some extra herbals and textbooks from the Morgan collection. One natural history guide shows a little spider sitting in a symmetrical web, labeled venym-spynner in English handwriting. I asked him about poisons. “There’s an Italian herbal that was printed in about 1480,” he said after a moment’s thought:
Very, very small, crude illustrations. But they’ll be things like a little rabbit by the root of a tree, to show that rabbits don’t like them, so plant them to avoid rabbits, or a snake by a plant that’s an antidote to snake bites. It didn’t get much traction.
We cooed over pages diagramming aloe, sweet basil, absinthe, and several books with women’s names in them, marking their ownership.
When I stepped out of “Seeds of Knowledge” and crossed the Morgan’s vast foyer to find the side room I was reminded of the show’s tiny physical size, which is also emphasized by the enormous and exultant catalog. Printed by Silvana Editoriale in Milan on heavy matte paper and designed to within an inch of its life, money radiates off the volume the way it must once have sung from Besler’s massive tulip book.
Most of the books in the show come from the private collection of one Dr. Peter Goop. In his introduction to the catalog, he writes that it “contains so much of my life that it is something of a challenge to introduce it.” He thanks his wife, named—what else?—Dorothea, who “has always given me free rein to live my life and passions, allowing me to devote time, money, and energy to my great collecting passion, botanical works of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.”
Goop has his father and grandfather to thank for his hobby as well. “My grandfather taught me to sow and prick out and plant when I was just a boy, thus giving me first-hand experience of the wonders of nature at an early age,” he writes. His father taught him to keep a self-sufficient garden, then later—and Goop adds this almost casually—let him help with “the creation of a magnificent, world-famous collection of Russian decorated eggs.” He must mean Adulph Peter Goop, renowned collector of Fabergé eggs, who in 2010 gave the so-called Apple Blossom Egg to the grateful state of Liechtenstein. It resides today in the Liechtensteinisches Landesmuseum in Vaduz, one of the rare Fabergé eggs that sits on its side rather than upright. The green of its body is from nephrite, not apples.
Goop’s interest in early modern herbals, which form the bulk of his collection, is ultimately ecological, McQuillen explained: “Liechtenstein is beautiful and mountainous, but there’s very little actually arable and useful land—thirty square miles. You can’t farm it.” The principle of conservancy fed the Goop collection, a hope to preserve both the natural world and the previous generations’ own attempts at preservation. Goop invited a small Morgan Library delegation to Liechtenstein to view the collection, where, McQuillen remembered, the Hortus Eystettensis stunned them.
Goop has higher intellectual principles than J. P. Morgan, who bought manuscripts if he liked their pictures but rarely read them. Still, like the Apple Blossom Egg and the Morgan Library itself, the Hortus Eystettensis is a symbol of riches. Private wealth is almost a third theme in “Seeds of Knowledge,” after transformations in the botany and book businesses. McQuillen pointed out images of expensive new imports: sunflowers from Peru, plantains from the Americas, tulips and marigolds which came to northern Europe from Turkey. They were extravagant goods and so were the books containing their portraits. When a client wanted to buy a herbal like the ones exhibited here, McQuillen said, they chose from two editions: the basic, in black and white, or the deluxe, with all plates fully colored.
The gigantic tulip book exhibited in the banker’s personal treasure chest reads now like a joke, since its petals were painted just as capitalism was on the brink of inventing credit and, as if the next step were obvious, blowing a speculated market bubble into the business of tulip bulbs. The relation between ink and leaf and smashed markets is almost painful to see born so beautiful: the sunflowers appear in the herbals on account of their marvelous beauty and scale, but also because nobody had figured out how to squeeze the oil out of them yet.