Conrad Gessner: Image and Text

4 Blatt 98

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.