Swiss Treasure Rooms

Facing pages from Felix Platter’s Herbarium. Bern City Library.

This post in the series (1,2) on the whereabouts of early modern herbaria begins with two notable collections in Switzerland, Felix Platter’s (1536-1614) at the Bern City Library and Caspar Bauhin’s (1560-1624) at the University of Basel’s herbarium.  Both are significant and both were the subject of an article by Davina Benkert (2016), where she does a wonderful job of describing each and comparing them.  As with many collections this old, portions are missing.  Platter eventually bound his specimens and had 18 volumes of which nine survive.  In many cases, he pasted a plant on the right hand page and one or more illustrations on the left.  Among these are prints as well as watercolors, including 77 by Hans Weiditz, the originals of the plates used in Otto Brunfel’s 1530 Herbarum vivae eicones.  Paper being valuable, Weiditz had painted on both sides of each sheet.  Wanting to get the most out of them, Platter cut them out so he could use both plants, sometimes painting in parts that were missing.  He also at times “fiddled” with specimens, such as pasting stamens to the outside of tulip flowers to make them visible.  These practices horrify present-day art historians and botanists, but this was early modern botany and techniques had yet to be codified. 

Bauhin was Platter’s student at the University of Basel and they collected together.  Eventually Bauhin joined the faculty and worked on his plant compendium, Pinax theatri botanici published there in 1623.  They used the specimens differently, so they treated them differently.  Platter used his in teaching and as reference.  Though he had early on kept his specimens loose, he eventually preferred bound volumes because they allowed him to show his collection to visitors, something he relished, without damaging the plants.  He used Bauhin’s classification system.  Even though it hadn’t been published yet, he was obviously privy to the manuscript.   

On the other hand, Bauhin was trying to build a comprehensive collection to use in creating a planned work on taxonomy.  He kept his specimens loose, slipped between folded sheets of paper with identification slips.  This enabled him to reorganize them as his ideas about relationships among them changed, but it also meant fragments and labels could easily slip out.  It also made it easier to remove specimens.  Bauhin’s collection continued to be used for teaching and reference after his death.  His descendants allowed botanists to select specimens, which explains why two-thirds of the originals are gone (Benkert, 2016).  In 1774, what remained was purchased by Werner von Lachenel, a University of Basel botanist who integrated the sheets into his own herbarium.  When the University acquired his herbarium, they then sorted out Bauhin’s sheets, but 400 were in such poor condition they were discarded.  Here at least we have some idea of why the collection is so greatly reduced.  In many cases, the dwindling of a collection isn’t as well documented.  I should add that sometimes items are later found as when 300 of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s specimens (see last post) were discovered in a later Italian collection (Mossetti, 1990).  Again, this might seem horrifying, but it is really a form of borrowing, a common practice; it’s just that in the Bauhin and Aldrovandi cases it was done posthumously. 

Alette Fleischer (2017) has written an article with a great title Leaves on the Loose and subtitled “The Changing Nature of Archiving Plants and Botanical Knowledge” and that deals with these issues.  She notes that when herbaria were unbound all ties could be lost to the history of a sheet and who made it.  She sees the digitization of old collections as a boon to “recombining” specimens, setting them next to each other for comparison.  James Petiver, an avid British collector, amassed over 100 herbaria, which eventually become part of Hans Sloane’s herbarium, now at the Natural History Museum, London.  Fleisher writes that “According to his beliefs on order, Petiver compiled, or more precisely recompiled nearly every herbarium that came into his possession.  .  .  .  He not only took sheets from older herbaria, but also cut out bits of paper and plants and glued these together with other specimens, thereby losing labels, names, and information” (pp. 125-126).

Reading statements like this explains a lot about why the early history of herbaria is fragmentary.  It also makes what is available that much more wonderful.  Particularly wonderful is the website that has been created around Platter’s herbarium, with the pages organized by volume and by species names.  In addition there are webpages with information on Platter and the collection’s history.  It’s thrilling to be able to closely study the pages, especially those with Weiditz images.  The University of Basel herbarium website states the Bauhin herbarium has been imaged, but I could not find a link to it, so I am not sure if it is available online.  In time it probably will be, another wonderful digital treasure.  In the meantime, the Platter volumes would keep anyone with an interest in early modern botany busy for a long time. 


Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a focal point: Knowledge, environment, and image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s herbaria. In S. Burghartz, L. Burkart, & C. Göttler (Eds.), Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden: Brill.

Fleischer, A. (2017). Leaves on the loose: The changing nature of archiving plants and botanical knowledge. Journal of Early Modern Studies, 6(1), 117–135.

Mossetti, U. (1990). Catalogue of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s herbarium: The specimens found in the herbaria of Giuseppe Monti and Ferdinando Bassi. Webbia, 44(1), 151–164.

Specimens, Specimens: Art

Sketch  of Aechmaea by Carl Lindman, Natural History Museum, Stockholm

It’s no secret to those who read this blog that I’m interested in the relationship between botany and art, so it won’t be surprising that I’m particularly pleased to find cases where specimens and drawings end up together on the same sheet or at least in the same folder.  This is less true today than in the past, but even in the early history of herbaria, most collections were mainly if not exclusively made up of dried plants.  After all, the point was to save plant material for reference and future study, especially for when living representatives weren’t available.  But dried plants lose some of their form and a lot of their color, so a number of early modern botanists either drew themselves or collected drawings and prints.  There were two ways to organize these different kinds of evidence; most botanists saved two separate collections:  one of images, the other of specimens.  The great Italian botanist and collector Ulisse Aldrovandi had them bound into different volumes (Findlen, 1994).

On the other hand, the Swiss physician and botanist Felix Platter had specimens on the right hand page, with a drawing or print—or both—often pasted opposite.  Though no one knows how, he managed to acquire original drawings by Hans Weiditz that were the bases of the woodcuts in Otto Brunfels 1530 herbal Herbarum vivae eicones, the first of the early modern books with good botanical illustrations.  Weiditz had done watercolors on both sides of each page.  Platter obviously felt that the information in the drawings was more important than the art as a whole, so he cut around each plant, trying to preserve as much as he could of each.  These scraps are among the images pasted opposite the plant specimens.  Platter’s notebooks provide a fascinating look into what counted as important evidence for botanists of the time and the lengths they would go to in preserving it (Benkert, 2016).

Hans Sloane’s curator, James Empson, was another proponent of juxtapositioning illustrations and specimens, especially for the material Sloane collected in Jamaica.  This was in part to insure that the two collections remained together after Sloane’s death (Rose, 2018).  The plants were drawn by Everard Kick for the plates in Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica and the originals are bound with the specimens, again with plants on the right hand page and art on the left.  There are Chinese botanical drawings pasted into other volumes of Sloane’s collection, and they are now being removed for conservation.  The interplay between images and specimens in the study of plants could be considered so important that until well into the 20th century, they were preserved together in herbaria.  This meant the art was organized taxonomically as the corresponding specimens were and often filed in the same folders.  This was good for taxonomists using the collection but not necessarily for the images.  Chemicals in the plants often seeped into the paper and damaged them as well as the paints.

It’s not surprising that this practice is no longer followed in most herbaria, with the art usually removed to the botanical library.  At some institutions such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew this is a massive and continuing process.  In a large herbarium, it might be impractical to hunt through every folder, though this is what Henry Noltie did at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh where he was a herbarium curator at the time.  But extraction was only the first part of his project.  He then did background research to attempt to reunite drawings that were done by the same artist or were collected by a particular botanist, especially for Indian collections.  This took years because the RBGE’s plant collection is rich in specimens from around the world that were sent back to Edinburgh, often by physicians trained in the city by illustrious botanists like John Hope and John Hutton Balfour.  Noltie has written on his findings in several books (2002, 2007, 2016, 2017).

The same removal process has gone on at many other institutions, with important finds along the way.  Discovering many of Carl Lindman’s specimens from Brazil in the Swedish Museum of Natural History herbarium led curator Mia Ehn to do a study of his  art work, and collections manager Christine Niezgoda has been unearthing beautiful Japanese prints from folders in the Field Museum Herbarium.  This is great for the art, but I am not sure it’s good for taxonomy.  Yes, in this day and age, some of the art is available digitally, but it usually requires a certain amount of hunting to find it since it’s not linked with related specimens:  it isn’t right there with the specimen for side-by-side comparison.  There are more projects to digitize specimens than illustrations, and rightly so, but I would argue that reuniting these items digitally should be a priority, not only for their taxonomic value, but for their cultural value as well.  A great deal of this art was done by indigenous artists who had been trained in botanical illustration, resulting in fascinating styles that blend the two worlds.  The great attention being paid to their work now is part of an effort to bring light to hidden issues in colonization.

There is a tantalizing solution to the linkage issue on the horizon, something I’ve written about here before but it bears repeating as it develops.  The IIIF, a framework that arose out of the library and art worlds, is now gaining interest among botanists.  Roger Hyam who works, appropriately enough at the RBGE, is involved in a project to allow researchers to look at herbarium specimens from different institutions side by side, if they are presented via IIIF.  What if botanical illustrations could also be accessed, and might as throw in photos as well.  I’ll just leave my dream there.


Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a focal point: Knowledge, environment, and image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s herbaria. In S. Burghartz, L. Burkart, & C. Göttler (Eds.), Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden, NLD: Brill.
Findlen, P. (1994). Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Noltie, Henry J. (2016). The Cleghorn Collection: South Indian Botanical Drawings 1845 to 1860. Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Noltie, Henry J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Noltie, Henry J, & Scotland). (2002). The Dapuri drawings: Alexander Gibson and the Bombay Botanic Gardens. Edinburgh: Antique Collectors’ Club.
Noltie, H.J. (2007). Robert Wight and the Botanical Drawings of Rungiah and Govindoo. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Rose, E. D. (2018). Natural history collections and the book: Hans Sloane’s A Voyage to Jamaica (1707–1725) and his Jamaican plants. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 15–33.

History and Herbaria: Other Digital Projects



Botanica Caroliniana Website

As promised in the previous post, here are several projects combining herbarium collections and history. The Bergerbibliothek in Bern, Switzerland has an impressive website for its collection of Felix Platter material. Platter (1536-1614) was a noted physician and botanist who had an extensive herbarium now available on this site. What is even more striking is the collection of illustrations he amassed, including some of the original watercolors done by Hans Weiditz for Otto Brunfels’s groundbreaking herbal of 1530. These drawings were painted on both sides of a page, and Platter wanted to file them according to species, which meant that he or one of his assistants cut out each drawing in an attempt to have good representations of both species that could be filed separately. These were then pasted to individual sheets of paper. Now all of this is available online, giving a good sense of Weiditz’s artistry, if in a somewhat odd format. This questionable treatment does indicate how important Platter considered illustrations in the study of plants at this time, and it’s this valuing that allowed these masterpieces to be preserved. In the many volumes of the Platter herbarium there are also woodcuts and other illustrations. Now all these are searchable, and the specimens and illustrations of a species can be seen at the same time. This was a massive effort and a beautiful result because the Bergerbibliothek’s Platter site also has information on the provenance of the collection and the restoration project to stabilize the volumes.

As you might suspect, I am partial to Renaissance collections and grateful to those European institutions such as the libraries in Erlangen and Bern that have made them freely available. At the Jagiellon Library in Krakow, the Libri Picturati, a collection of botanical illustrations related to Carolus Clusius, has also been published in book form (de Koning et al, 2008), but it’s not yet available electionically. As more of these treasures receive attention, it would be wonderful to have a portal that made them all searchable at the same time, so a user could see how a particular species is treated by a variety of different artists, along with related specimens (A portal like this exists for European cabinets of curiosities). In some cases, as with the Jamaican plants in the Hans Sloane Herbarium at the NHM, the illustrations made by Everhardus Kickius for Sloane’s volumes (1707, 1725) on Jamaica are very similar to the specimens. This is easy to see because the specimen and watercolor are set right next to each other on opposite pages of the bound volumes of his herbarium. The Sloane Herbarium site is searchable, if you know a genus or species you want to see. This type of portal is designed more for biologists than for historians and brings up the issue of how design can limit or discourage access to a site.

Another important project is Botanica Caroliniana, a collaboration between Furman and Clemson Universities. Several historical collections related to the Carolinas have been put online. The first was the Catesby collection of specimens in the Sloane Herbarium at the NHM in London. Each specimen is presented opposite the page in Catesby’s Natural History of the Carolinas that depicts the species, with the accompanying text also displayed. This is a great example of what digitization makes possible: the juxtaposition of images and text from a rare book with specimens from a priceless herbarium. History, botany, art and literature are all involved, and the project was done by institutions of the region of origin of many of the specimens, so it speaks to environmental conservation and respect for the nature of the area.

Another project from South Carolina called Plants and Planter deals with the work of the botanist Henry Ravenel (1814-1887). It presents Ravenel’s specimens and journals, along with journal transcripts. Several institutions— South Carolina University Library, A. C. Moore Herbarium, Clemson University, Converse College, and the University of North Carolina Wilson Library—contributed materials, bringing them together in a searchable format. Some of the specimens on this website were scanned as part of the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) project. This is a massive NSF-funded effort to digitize biological specimens at non-federally sponsored institutions and suggests that these efforts have more than scientific value. Ravenel collected before, during, and after the Civil War, so historically his work is significant. He eventually focused on fungi, and particularly after the war he made large collections that he sold as a way to improve his economic condition. He is considered one of the most significant students of fungi in the 19th century (Haygood, 1987).

There are other collections that could benefit from this type of presentation. Asa Gray’s papers at Harvard have been digitized, and some of them transcribed. Many of the specimens he used in his work have also been digitized at Harvard. However, it would be a massive undertaking, involving very different databases, to create a portal where specimens could be called up with the corresponding text, even though the two collections are physically close together. It’s obvious from the examples of Sloane and Gray, that physical and electronic proximity are very different things. But that doesn’t mean that this is not an ideal to aim for. In the meantime, it’s a comfort to know that smaller projects, like those for Catesby and Ravenel exist.

Crase, D. (2004). Both: A Portrait in Two Parts. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Jarvis, C. (2007). Order Out of Chaos: Linnaean Plant Names and Their Types. London, UK: Linnaean Society.