Rereading Botany: Vienna

illustration 7 from Fungi Austriaci by Leopold Trattinnick, Biodiversity Heritage Library

Years ago I began an accounting process called book debt.  When I acquired books, they were added to the debit column, and when I read them, they became assets.  Over the years, my state of indebtedness has risen and fallen, but I’ve never been debt-free and that’s a comfort.  There is always something waiting to be discovered, but in this time of crisis, my debt has become skewed.  I still have novels to read, but I’ve run out of books on plants.  I could order them online, and I have, but I am just not in a buying mood at the moment.  So I’ve turned to rereading, and have had a great time.  For each post in this series, I’ll focus on one book I’ve revisited.  They are all about visual aspects of botany because that’s what I love and what I’ve turned to in these trying times.

I’ll begin with a brick of a book, Walter Lack’s (2001) Garden Eden: Masterpieces of Botanical Illustration.  An Austrian botanist, he is director of the Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem.  Also a noted historian of botany, Lack wrote Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas (2009) and The Bauers: Joseph, Franz and Ferdinand: Masters of Botanical Illustration (2015), both large-format, well-illustrated works.  Garden Eden is different in that it focuses not on botanists but on botanical images, all in the collection of the Austrian National Library in Vienna.  The works are arranged chronologically from the 6th century to the 20th.  Each entry is a page or two long in three languages: German, French, and English.

If you have any interest in botanical illustration, many of the works in Garden Eden will be familiar to you, but some won’t or at least they weren’t to me.  The first manuscript is the oldest and probably the most valuable in the collection.  The Anicia Juliana Codex (also called the Vienna Dioscorides) was created in the early 6th century and named for its first owner, the Byzantine Princess Anicia Juliana.  The manuscript is an illustrated version of the first-century materia medica text by the physician Dioscorides, a primary source for medical botany well into the Renaissance.  The codex remained in Constantinople until it was taken to Vienna in 1569.  While some of the plant images are stylized, others are realistic enough for identification; an arum and a poppy are among the species pictured in the book.  For major works like this, Lack presents several pages of illustrations, for others, just one on the facing page from the text.

Other well-known works here are the herbals of Otto Brunfels and Leonhart Fuchs, Basilius Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis, Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s Les Liliaceae, and what is considered the most expensive botanical production, John Sibthorp’s Flora Graeca.  All these provide a feast for the eyes, as do works by Georg Ehret and the Bauer Brothers, among my favorite botanical artists.  But what kept me moving through this compendium were the surprises, the works that were little-known, at least to me.  Because this library is in Vienna, there are more German, Austrian, and Eastern European works than in most collections in English-speaking countries.  For example, there are the 16 boxes of large paintings done for Francis I, Emperor of Austria by Matthias Schmutzer.  They are striking even in reproduction.  As often happens when libraries get rearranged, evacuation from Berlin and Cracow during World War II turned up over 1400 preparatory sketches and notes for the paintings, making them even more fascinating, though none of this material is pictured in the book.

Lack notes that until around 1800, “the plant world of the eastern parts of Central Europe was still largely unexplored” (p. 224).  Pál Kitaibel (1757-1817) traveled through Hungary, Austria, Croatia, Ukraine, Romania, and adjacent regions.  He collected specimens which were drawn by his traveling companion Janós Schütz.  Later Kitaibel became a professor of botany in Budapest and worked on a multivolume work with Franz von Waldstein.  The illustrations are distinctive and present a flora that is still intriguing today, as evidenced by the recent Transylvania Florilegium (2017) produced under the patronage of Prince Charles of Britain.

Besides the books and manuscripts that would be expected in a library collection, Lack also includes a few surprises.  There is an 18th-century wood library or xylotheque produced by Johann Bellermann.  It includes samples of 60 different woods, each book-shaped with the “spine” covered in bark and marked with an identifying label, a book title of sorts.  Text and illustrations were also included.  Lack found wax models of macrofungi packed away in boxes in the library and presents several along with illustrations from related books.  Leopold Trattinnick was a botanical curator in Austria in the early 19th century, and fungi were among his interests.  He published several books and had wax models made of a number of edible mushroom species.

Also pictured is a box of notes made by Adam Kollar who worked at the Imperial Court Library in Vienna in the 1760s.  The notes compare the contents of the Anicia Juliana Codex with another ancient manuscript, the Naples Codex, which had been taken to Vienna when Naples was seized by the Austrian emperor in the early 1700s.  Kollar was planning to use this comparison to build an updated version of the works.  All that remains are the notes, but their organization, strung together with cord and neatly arranged in a long box, says something about the orderly minds of scholars and is reminiscent of a card catalogue drawer.  At the end of the book, Lack includes a few 20th century works, but the collection is really a historical one, as the library no longer acquisitions botanical material, now the purview of the University of Vienna Botanical Garden.


Charles, Akeroyd, J., & Mills, C. (2017). The Transylvania Florilegium. London: Addison.

Lack, H. W. (2001). Garden Eden: Masterpieces of Botanical Illustration. Cologne: Taschen.

Lack, H. W. (2009). Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas. Munich: Prestel.

Lack, H. W. (2015). The Bauers: Joseph, Franz and Ferdinand: Masters of Botanical Illustration. Munich: Prestel.