Conrad Gessner: Drawing as Research

3 Blatt 347r

Monkshood. Gessner Notebook 2, page 347r: University Library Erlangen

For years I’ve been interested in the relationship between art and biology, and have espoused the view that they impact each other. Admittedly, it’s easy to cite examples of science influencing art in everything from perspective in the Renaissance to the many art/science collaborations of the present day (Kemp, 2000). I find it more difficult to discover examples of art really supporting science, aside from its use in communicating science through illustrations. Obviously art was essential to the development of botanical science, but Omar Nasim (2013), whose writings I cited in my last post, provided me with new insights into why this was so. Though he focuses on astronomy and nebula, he makes the case for drawing as a means of discovery. This made a great deal of sense to me and changed the way I look at the relationship between drawing and inquiry; I now see art as more central to discovery.

Nasim’s work led me to investigations by others exploring such links, again, outside of botany. Barbara Wittmann (2013) has analyzed drawings done by a scientific illustrator for a publication on a new species of fish. In attempting to depict its nasal tube, the artist probed it and also used a binocular microscope, varying the depth of field to learn how the structure emerged at the surface. In doing this, he discovered something new about the anatomy of this structure that was then added to the species description. In other words science emerged out of the art, and Wittmann notes: “The central epistemic benefit of drawing is probably based on this methodical alternation between the disintegration of the comprehensive image and the reintegration of detail” (p. 378). She also comments more generally that drawing is a special form of observation, a type of perception training: “professionalizing the gaze” (p. 375).

While Wittmann is writing about present-day research, her point is equally true for much earlier work, as Florike Egmond (2016) demonstrates in her recent book: An Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. This is an impressive study. Reading it convinced me to do this set of posts on Gessner, whose plant notebooks are among the collections of drawings Egmond covers (Difficult to find a stable link for this site; best to search for “Historia plantarum – Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg MS 2386.”). Her argument is that a great deal can be learned about early modern botanical and zoological research by looking not at printed documents, but at manuscripts that never resulted in publications. Obviously, I’m going to focus on Gessner’s work, but she also analyzes several other collections of plant drawings, including those of Felix Platter, Leonhart Fuchs, Pietro Antonio Michiel, and Charles de Saint Omer’s Libri picturati (de Koning et al., 2008), all preserved in European archives. Her contention is that many interesting visual aspects of these documents rarely found their way into print. So there is a lot that can be learned from studying them, and particularly from studying entire collections. In them patterns of presentation, and therefore patterns of thought, become more obvious.

Egmond gives special attention to Gessner’s work because his images provide particularly good examples of several techniques she examines. Most obviously, plants are portrayed in isolation, decontextualized against blank backgrounds. As she points out, this is hardly a new approach since medieval herbals also displayed plants in this way to make them easier to identify. Since these manuscripts were primarily used in medicine, distinguishing the correct plant was important, and this quest for accuracy was crucial in the development of botanical science.

In most early modern representations, the entire plant is depicted, often including the flowers and roots. Exceptions are made for shrubs and trees too large for this portrayal; then a branch stands in for the whole in a technique called pars pro toto. But Gessner and his contemporaries realized that neither of these depiction types gave the full story of the species. Rarely are flowers and fruits found on a plant at the same time, and often young plants look very different from more mature ones. It was not uncommon for book illustrations to show both flowers and fruit on the same plant, in a sense conflating the seasons. However, less frequent in publications were additional drawings of close-ups of plant parts, sometimes at different amounts of enlargement: what Egmond refers to as zooming. This was seen more often in the drawings she examined, especially in Gessner’s. Even though he worked before the age of the microscope, there is evidence from his description of tiny foraminifera that Gessner used a magnifying glass (Ali, 2014), and this might have been the case for some of his plant research as well. For example, a cross-section through a flower may be presented twice as large as in the accompanying image of the entire plant, and next to that might be a further enlargement focusing on the anther. These were presented next to each other to lead the viewer from one to the next, making the series of images intelligible.

It is simply a joy to study the pages of Gessner’s notebooks; the more time spent with them, the more information the images convey. But there is also associated text that is much richer than that found in the other collections Egmond analyzes. In the next post, I’ll delve into the relationships between the images and texts in Gessner’s work.


Ali, S. (2014). The Cell: Organisation, Functions and Regulatory Mechanisms. New York, NY: Pearson.

de Koning, J., van Uffelen, G., Zemanek, A., & Zemanek, B. (Eds.). (2008). Drawn After Nature: The Complete Botanical Watercolours of the 16th-Century Libri Picturati. Zeist, the Netherlands: KNNV Publishing.

Egmond, F. (2016). Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Kemp, M. (2000). Visualizations. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Wittmann, B. (2013). Outlining species: Drawing as a research technique in contemporary biology. Science in Context, 26(2), 363–391.


One thought on “Conrad Gessner: Drawing as Research

  1. Pingback: Conrad Gessner: Image and Text | Herbarium World

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