Conrad Gessner: Image and Text

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Tree Mallow and Bryony. Gessner Notebook 1, page 98r: University Library Erlangen

As I have mentioned in earlier posts (123), the sheets of plant drawings that Conrad Gessner produced in the years before his death in 1565 are an astounding visual treasure and also contain many written notes (Difficult to find a stable link for this site; best to search for “Historia plantarum – Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg MS 2386.”). Most are his, though a number are the work of Thomas Penny, an English botanist, who was staying with Gessner in 1565 and working on the collection (Raven, 1968). Some of Penny’s notes describe his observations on particular plants or refer to specimens he collected; many of Gessner’s deal with characteristics of the plants including their habitats, growing habit, and rarity. Along with Gessner’s observations, there are quotes from writers including Pliny, Galen, and Rembert Dodoens and from correspondents such as Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Johannes Kentmann and Ulisse Aldrovandi. The notebooks really are a meeting place of many minds, of many perspectives on the same plant.

The concept of a particular species apparently changed over time as notes and drawings were added and amended. Sachiko Kusukawa (2015) uses as an example a specimen that Gessner first encountered in 1654 and couldn’t identify. He made a drawing and kept adding information over the years as he encountered the plant—in life and as a specimen—until finally, he discovered it was the tobacco plant, which had recently been introduced to Europe from the New World. This is a beautiful example of building the concept of a species over time, and he did this with about 800 plants. Long before Egmond worked on this collection, it was carefully and lovingly studied by Heinrich Zoller et al. who produced an eight-volume facsimile edition in 1972. There is a set at the New York Botanical Garden Library, and I’ve poured over it, even though the text is in German. It includes transcriptions of the information on each page as well as numerous commentaries. All the notebook pages are reproduced in color, though only some are full-page illustrations.

It was when examining this work that I came to appreciate the close association between text and image that Egmond discusses. The combination of drawing and writing helps to guide attention and control sight (Hoffmann & Wittmann, 2013), supporting Gross and Harmon’s (2013) view that a scientific argument, such as the idea of a species, is an interplay of the visual and verbal. Lorraine Daston (2008) writes of the need for systematic observation in order to make discoveries and brings in Ludwig Fleck’s (1979) concept that direct perception of form takes time; it is a gradual process. In another article, she argues that note taking binds together the practices of observing and reading, something that is very evident in Gessner’s notebooks (Daston, 2004).

Egmond adds to this analysis by emphasizing the gradual nature of this enterprise. Gessner’s concepts slowly accreted as he gathered more information; the sheets were his way of organizing his knowledge, both visual and textual. It would be wonderful to know how herbarium specimens fit in here; there are a few references to them in his notes and letters, but they were obviously kept separately which is probably why they were lost over time. Shortly before Gessner died of the plague in late 1565, he gave his entire collection, including manuscripts, to his friend Kaspar Wolf, who also suffered from ill health and only managed to have a few woodcuts of Gessner’s plants published. Wolf in turn sold the collection to Joachim Camerarius the Younger, who also published a few Gessner illustrations. Two hundred years later, C.J. Trew acquired the drawings and blocks. Many of these were published by C.C. Schmiedel, but they came into a very different world and did not have much of an impact (Arber, 1938).

I would like to think that work on Gessner’s notebooks by historians such as Sachiko Kusukawa (2012), Brian Ogilve (2006), and particularly Florike Egmond (2016), will lead to renewed interest in what he accomplished, particularly in terms of the way he developed and organized botanical knowledge. Long after Gessner’s time, drawing remained an important part of biological inquiry in zoology, botany, microbiology, and cell biology. Yes, many biologists like Gessner employed artists, but they often took on some of the drawing themselves, again like Gessner. I contend that working with artists was in some way similar to drawing that images were negotiated through what Daston and Galison (2007) call four-eyed sight.

Another bright spot in the field of Gessner plant studies is the attention now being paid to a third notebook that is not in Erlangen, but at the Tartu University Library in Estonia (Leu, 2016). There are some animal illustrations, but a good portion of the manuscript is made up of copies of drawings from a Johannes Kentmann manuscript. Kentmann was a good friend and frequent correspondent and collaborator of Gessner’s. While the Gessner notebook is not yet available electronically, the Kentmann manuscript is (Kusukawa, 2009). It’s worth looking at for two reasons. First for the beauty and detail of the images found there. But more importantly for how different these are from Gessner’s work. He may have started by having the Kentmann images copied, but then went on to add to them. They served as a guide to what else Gessner wanted to learn about a species: what did its flowers and seeds look like; when did it bloom; where did it grow and how common was it? Kentmann provided one reference within the larger context created by Gessner in his massive and unfinished research project.


Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Daston, L. (2004). Taking note(s). Isis, 95(3), 443–448.

Daston, L. (2008). On Scientific Observation. Isis, 99(1), 97–100.

Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone.

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

Fleck, L. (1979). Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gross, A. G., & Harmon, J. E. (2013). Science from Sight to Insight: How Scientists Illustrate Meaning. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hoffmann, C., & Wittmann, B. (2013). Introduction: Knowledge in the making: Drawing and writing as research techniques. Science in Context, 26(2), 203–213.

Kusukawa, S. (2009). Image, text and “observatio”: The “Codex Kentmanus.” Early Science and Medicine, 14(4), 445–475.

Kusukawa, S. (2012). Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Kusukawa, S. (2015). Drawing as an instrument of knowledge: The case of Conrad Gessner. In A. Payne (Ed.), Vision and Its Instruments: Art, Science and Technology in Early Modern Europe (pp. 36–48). University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Leu, U. B. (2016). The rediscovered third volume of Conrad Gessner’s “Historia Plantarum.” In A. Blair & A. Goeing (Eds.), For the Sake of Learning: Essays in Honor of Anthony Grafton (Vol. 2, pp. 415–422). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Raven, C. E. (1968). English Naturalists from Neckham to Ray (reprint). New York, NY: Kraus.


Zoller, H., Steinmann, M., & Schmid, K. (1972). Conradi Gesneri Historia plantarum (Facsimile). Zürich, Switzerland: Urs Graf-Verlag.


Conrad Gessner: Drawing as Research

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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.

Conrad Gessner: Drawing for the Eye and the Mind


Saw-Wort and Black Pea. Gessner Notebook 2, page 341r: University Library Erlangen.

As I noted in the last post, Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) kept voluminous notes on plants in anticipation of publishing a major work on as many species as possible. Usually, he devoted one page to each species. These notes were both textual and visual. He cited ancient writers as well as his contemporaries. The drawings were almost all in pen-and-ink with watercolor washes over some portion of them to indicate what the plants looked like in life. He had in fact seen many of them growing either during his field trips or in his garden, where he planted as many species as he could acquire from colleagues. He also had an herbarium, which is how I have justified to myself devoting posts to Gessner on a blog called HerbariumWorld. None of it has survived, but there are references to it in his correspondence, and it had a communal aspect, with lending and trading going on among his peers (Kusukawa, 2012). Thomas Penny, who worked on Gessner’s notebooks, had an herbarium, as did Ulisse Aldrovandi, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, and Leonhart Fuchs, all of whom were in contact with Gessner.

There was also trafficking in images. He pleaded with correspondents to send drawings if they couldn’t send the plants themselves. He would even pay for having the image drawn, but was careful to mention that he only wanted rare plants, ones he hadn’t already recorded (Egmond, 2016). Yet he did often need more than one drawing of a plant since he wanted to record the different stages of its life cycle, as well as close-ups of significant structures such as buds, flowers, fruit, and seeds. It is these drawings that I want to focus upon here, and in particular, I will argue that they were at the heart of his research. This is hardly a new idea; several authors mentioned in this and the following posts have made it. However, I want to slightly broaden the context by citing both early 20th-century work on the relationship between art and science, as well as recent research on drawing-as-discovery.

Agnes Arber (1879-1960), a British plant morphologist, was trained as an artist by her father, a professional landscape painter. She created all the illustrations for her dozens of articles and three monographs on monocot morphology. Toward the end of her life she produced a work on the philosophy of biology called The Mind and the Eye (1954). She argues that for plant morphologists, there is no divide between art and science. Art is key to this work because there is much about the visible characteristics of a plant that cannot be put into words: “Artistic expression offers a mode of translation of sense data into thought, without subjecting them to the narrowing influence of an inadequate verbal framework; the verb, to illustrate, retains, in this sense, something of its ancient meaning—to illuminate.” (Arber, 1954, pp. 121). In Gessner’s time students of botany were relying on ancient texts for information on plants, and this was proving inadequate for two reasons. First, the plants described were Mediterranean species that didn’t necessarily grow in northern Europe. Also, the information focused on medicinal uses, while Gessner and his colleagues wanted broader data; they were becoming interested more generally in plant characteristics—in plants for their own sake (Ogilve, 2006). They learned by really looking at plants, recording their observations, and also studying plants in the field. Drawing was integral to this process. They did not yet have the words to describe all they saw, and as Arber wrote, words could “narrow” or distort the observations.

The work of another scientist/philosopher from a different time and discipline can also illuminate Gessner’s work. Investigating the astronomical research of John Herschel and William Parsons on nebulae during the first half of the 19th century, Omar Nasim (2013) argues that drawing was essential to the discovery process, that in a very real sense nebulae as scientific objects were created by sketches because “drawings are productive epistemic explorations and avenues into the nature of something” (p. 35). Nasim contends that nebulae were so gossamer and difficult to observe, let alone describe, that they only became real to those, like Herschel, who observed them, by being pinned down in drawings. He writes that drawing was crucial to the development of the concept of the nebula because this practice involves “exploratory, attention-directing, discriminating, and stabilizing activities” (p. 37), all necessary for discovery.

Like Gessner and Arber, Herschel’s art was his research. It wasn’t just how he communicated his ideas, it was how he created them. His observations became real and more understandable through drawings: “The process begins at the intimate level of an individual observer as he begins to mark down, usually in a manner peculiar to him, a variety of inscriptions in his observing notebook. Familiarization at this personal, visceral, and haptic level therefore acquaints one with what is being seen, with how to draw what is seen, and with the object’s known, unknown, and challenging features” (Nasim 2013, p. 16). Gessner’s notebooks indicate such a process. It’s obvious that drawings were central to his work, that they made looking concrete. Sachiko Kusukawa (2012) notes, the drawing then became an object of further study. In the next post, I want to examine why I consider these ideas so important.


Arber, A. R. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: University Press.

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

Kusukawa, S. (2012). Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Nasim, O. W. (2013). Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Conrad Gessner: Publish or Perish

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Hollyhock and Mallow. Gessner Notebook 2, page 338v: University Library Erlangen

The five-hundredth and first anniversary of Conrad Gessner’s (1516-1565) birth was celebrated this year, with the Biodiversity Heritage Library hosting a webinar on the Smithsonian’s Rare Book Library’s collection of Gessner works. He was a prolific writer, publishing 72 books, many of them compilations of contemporary knowledge in a number of different fields. His major aim seemed to be to organize information. In the BHL webinar, his five-volume Historia animalium (1551-1558) was highlighted, known more for its impressive woodcut illustrations than for the text, which was primarily an amalgam of information from ancient writers. Gessner was planning a companion publication on plants, but he didn’t live to see it into print. This is why he is better known for his zoological rather than for his botanical work, despite evidence from his letters and surviving manuscripts that he was more devoted to the study of plants than to anything else.

This could be a case of knowledge perishing because it wasn’t published, if it were not for a pair of notebooks at the University Library Erlangen, Germany. They contain over 800 pages of pen-and-ink drawings, most at least partially painted with watercolors. They are a joy simply to look at and PDFs of the two volumes are available on the web (Difficult to find a stable link for this site; best to search for “Historia plantarum – Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg MS 2386.”). It is these notebooks that I want to discuss in this series of posts. Gessner did have an herbarium, but it’s not extant, so it would seem that this collection is not a fitting topic for a blog called HerbariumWorld. However, I can’t resist spending time looking at these images and delving into their meaning, and in fact, herbaria are part of this tale because they were important to Gessner’s studies, and there is evidence for this in the notebooks. But before I plunge into them, I should say a little more about his background.

Gessner was born in Zürich in 1516, was trained in the classics, taught Greek for three years, and eventually gained a doctorate in medicine from the University of Basel. He then became the city physician for Zürich, where he spent the rest of his life. However, his main passion seemed have been for collecting information and organizing it into publications. Besides the Historia animalium he wrote books on fossils, on medicine, and on the history of words; in addition, he published bibliographies on other subjects. These works supplemented his meager salary as a physician, but obviously, beyond monetary aims, he had a fire to learn, and this was nowhere more apparent than in his work on plants. He published Historiae plantarum, an edition of Dioscorides’s first-century text on medicinal plants and herbal, with commentary by Valerius Cordus (1515-44) who had died at a young age of malaria. Gessner also published Cordus’s manuscript Historia stirpium, which is considered important because of its excellent descriptions of plants. In 1542, Gessner produced a work shown in the Smithsonian webinar: Catalogus plantarum, a list of plant names in Latin, Greek, German, and French. It was an attempt to organize plant knowledge, reconciling names across language barriers so physicians and apothecaries could be more certain that they were all referring to the same plant. This was very much in the style of Gessner’s work in other areas. He was a compiler, and to do this he relied on the assistance of others who had the knowledge and source material he needed.

Ann Blair (2011) has written on how early modern scholars, including Gessner, amassed and organized information, and last year I heard her speak on “Credit, Thanks and Blame in the Works of Conrad Gessner.” She focused on printed acknowledgments in his publications, including dedications, title pages, appendices, and notes. It is remarkable what she has been able to glean from these. Because books were so costly and rare, Gessner could not hope to own all the ones he wanted to consult, so he relied on the collections of others. He either went to visit other bibliophiles or asked, and sometimes begged, for books to be sent to him. In either case, he thanked his lenders profusely when he published using their sources. He was hardly unique in this type of exchange, though some of his dedications do border on groveling. This was not only out of gratitude, but to smooth the way for further lending. However, Gessner didn’t just want to consult books, and this is where the herbarium specimens come in. Since he was interested in acquiring information on essentially all known animals and plants for his planned publications on these organisms, he requested information, drawings, and specimens—sometimes alive and sometimes preserved—of everything from rodents to lilies, insects to fungi. In return he promised not only acknowledgement but, if the sender had unearthed a new species, Gessner would gladly name it for him.

Blair notes that Gessner listed 81 individuals who assisted him with Historia animalium. He was obviously well connected and his voluminous correspondence, much of which still exists, indicates how important this community was to him, and how much he relied on it and also contributed to it in order to keep the information flowing. For at least the last ten years of his life, Gessner was planning an ambitious work on plants as a companion piece to Historia animalium, one that would treat as broad a spectrum of species as possible and would be illustrated.   I’ll describe this project in the following posts with an emphasis on how images were central to his research.


Blair, A. (2011). Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

History and Herbaria: Digital Humanities Projects


Reconstructing Sloane Website

In the previous post, I discussed the digitization of herbarium specimens. Now I want to jump to what may seem an unrelated topic: the digital humanities, a field that seems to defy precise definition. Most simply, it’s the use of computer technology in the humanities and may involve anything from digitizing texts and doing computerized textual analyses to linking various studies of a historical period across several disciplines such as philosophy, history, and art. One large-scale endeavor is Mapping the Republic of Letters, a Stanford University project presenting the correspondence of some of the great minds of that republic, including Condorcet, Franklin, Voltaire, Locke, and Galileo. These are separate projects, but each is available within the Republic of Letters portal. Not only is there correspondence, but also a variety of graphic displays of how these figures related to a host of others with whom they corresponded, including, for example, a map of where Franklin’s correspondents lived. In other words, there is visual support for the idea that these individuals did indeed inhabit a wide-ranging republic united through letters. A rich example of what digital humanities can achieve, the site also links to publications that have grown out of the various projects.

Since all fields are ultimately interrelated, it’s not surprising that some of these websites have scientific content. For example, there is Reconstructing Sloane coordinated by the botanist Charlie Jarvis of the Natural History Museum, London (NHM). It required collaboration among that institution, the British Museum (BM), and the British Library (BL), all of which grew out of Hans Sloane’s (1660-1753) massive collections, with the library and natural history museum eventually developing individual identities at separate locations. This is one reason why collaboration is so important. For a particular plant species, there may be specimens at NHM, manuscripts at the BL, and illustrations at the NHM, BM, or BL. In his massive study of the Sloane Herbarium, J. E. Dandy (1958) noted the difficulty of trying to identify handwriting on herbarium labels because the related letters and other manuscripts were in the BL and the specimens in NHM; both were too valuable to leave their home institutions. In the age before easy photocopying, this was hardly a trivial issue.

But for many projects, collections are much farther afield. Specimens alone may be spread over several herbaria. Add to this field notebooks, letters, and articles in long out-of-date publications, and the task becomes ever more daunting. However, as with science itself, it is often a good tactic to begin with a relatively simple system to work out technical difficulties; once a foundation has been laid larger and more complex projects can follow. The British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) was a prolific author, letter writer, and collector so digitizing his letters and specimens was hardly a simple task. However, it was doable because most of the material was housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where he had served as director. A similar project was undertaken at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, where the German botanist George Engelmann (1809-1884) had been adviser to the garden’s founder Henry Shaw. This site links not only to correspondence and other papers, but to herbarium specimens and printed references as well. Another successful project involves the work of Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854) who was director of the Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta. This website includes his correspondence, specimens, and plant illustrations he commissioned from Indian artists. For a particular genus, material in all these categories can be found with one search. This site could serve as a useful model for other web portals linking various kinds of collections.

Exploring the back ends—the software and coding—involved in such projects, leads to an appreciation for how difficult they are to pull off. I am hardly in a position to discuss this topic, but I know enough to realize the massiveness of such endeavors and their expense. First, scanning or photographing materials is labor intensive, as is inputting the metadata that makes the images scientifically valuable and also searchable. A horde of volunteers seems an appealing solution, but someone has to organize them and control the quality of their work. Then there is the software platform for the data so there is enough metadata for each item that it can be linked to a variety of other items in multiple ways. To create something that works well for a particular project requires extensive coding for customization, even if the basic software is “out of the box.” Software and coding are two large-budget items, no matter how simple the project, and to do such an undertaking well is not “simple” at all. The disheartening thing is that any solution will probably look dated and unwieldy ten years from now.

In early digitization efforts, just scanning items seemed to be a great step forward, and many treasures became available online as a result. Two of my favorites are the Conrad Gessner’s (1516-1565) botanical notebooks, Historia Plantarum, in the library of the University of Erlangen-Nuremburg University in Germany. These are two PDFs of about 500 and 350 pages each, with each page a gem—a watercolor of one or more plants with notations by Gessner and a number of others. The PDF format means that while the images are available, they are not searchable. There is a massive reference work on the notebooks that has thumbnail-sized images of all the pages and enlargements of some (Zoller, Steinmann & Schmid, 1972). The explanatory text, in German, is rich, both giving the text that accompanies each image and also providing commentary on them. It would be an amazing resource if all this were available online in a searchable format. But there is not a great deal of interest in this from the botanical community because the work is pre-Linnaean by over 150 years, therefore the names are not relevant to accepted plant binomials. However, the information that is noted including uses of the plants, where they were collected, and by whom is a great historical resource.

Such a project could provide an excellent model for what the digital humanities could achieve. It’s value to art history alone would be immeasurable. Gessner’s work dates from the Northern European Renaissance and suggests the attention to naturalistic detail that was evident in the high art of the period. These images are also of value to historians of science because they tell a great deal about what a botanist of that time valued in terms of information about plants. Not only is the plant as a whole realistically pictured, but there are also enlargements of seeds, flowers, and fruits. While the emphasis on flower structure is not as great as it would become from Linnaeus’s time onward, it’s obvious that seeds were greatly valued as were the differences among those from various species. Just the use of magnification is interesting for its time. While Gessner is my dream endeavor, there are many project that have already been realized that deserve note. I’ll describe several in my next post.

Dandy, J. E. (1958). The Sloane Herbarium. London: British Museum.

Zoller, H., Steinmann, M., & Schmid, K. (1972). Conradi Gesneri Historia Plantarum. Dietikon-Zürich: Urs Graf-Verlag.