DO/Conversations

Quiescit anima libris. The spirit finds rest in books (and in museum objects, archival photographs, and garden sculpture). This is a Dumbarton Oaks project. For more about Dumbarton Oaks, visit www.doaks.org.

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Charles Plumier and his Ferns

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate 1. This image also appears in Charles Plumier’s Traité des fougères de l’Amérique, plate 1.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate I. This image also appears in Charles Plumier’s Traité des fougères de l’Amérique, plate I.

For the authors who appeared last week, ferns were among the many plants worth discussing. For Charles Plumier, however, a pioneer in the field of natural history, ferns were a central interest.

Born in Marseilles in 1646, Plumier joined the Franciscan Order of Minims as a young man; this was a strict, nearly vegan group (allowing members to eat fish, but no meat or dairy) named for their status as the least, in Latin minimus, of the Franciscan orders. Plumier would be a lifelong member of this order, which allowed him to pursue his curiosity in many fields.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate I

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate IV.

After studying math and the turning of wood, Plumier found his great love, natural history, where he could also take advantage of his careful, craftsman’s eye. He rose to become the “Botaniste du Roy” to the king of France, in an age when increasing prestige was attached to that title. Plumier went on three botanical expeditions to the Caribbean, producing nearly 6,000 drawings of plants and animals. Plumier then died in 1704, just before he could start another botanical expedition, this time to Peru.

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Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate XXV.

Plumier’s Traité des fougères de l’Amérique (1705) may be the earliest printed book dedicated exclusively to ferns. This careful treatise, which came out the year after his death, was unfortunately just the beginning of Plumier’s work, with numerous projected works on plant and animal groups left unfinished and unpublished when he died.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate IV.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate VI.

Why did Plumier begin his projected series of publications with a volume on ferns? Many botanical works of this period—including Plumier’s Description des plantes (1693), with which his Traité des fougères shared many images and upon which it expanded—placed ferns close to the beginning of their sections on plants. One could speculate that this placement resulted from a sense that ferns were an ancient botanical lineage, displaying an understanding of plant evolution avant la lettre. Plumier may have begun his planned series of books with a treatise on ferns because he found them interesting, because it was conventional to start with ferns before turning to plants that produce fruits and flowers, or for both reasons.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate IV.

Charles Plumier, Description des plantes de l’Amérique avec leurs figures, plate XI.

Hollsten, Laura. “An Antillean Plant of Beauty, a French Botanist, and a German Name: Naming Plants in the Early Modern Atlantic World.” Estonian Journal of Ecology 61, no. 1 (2012): 37–50. doi:10.3176/eco.2012.1.05.

Mottram, Roy. “Charles Plumier, the King’s Botanist: His Life and Work. With a Facsimile of the Original Cactus Plates and Text from Botanicon Americanum (1689-1697).” Bradleya 20 (2002): 79–120.

Pietsch, Theodore W. “Charles Plumier (1646–1704) and His Drawings of French and American Fishes.” Archives of Natural History 28, no. 1 (February 1, 2001): 1–57. doi:10.3366/anh.2001.28.1.1.

Whitmore, P. J. S. The Order of Minims in Seventeenth-Century France. International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives internationales d’histoire des idees 20. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967.

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“A Smell that is Not Good”: Ferns in Early Modern Medicine

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

Although flowers predominate in most early books of medicine printed in Europe, ferns have long been used alongside them. While many books about the development of botany and medicine do mention ferns, they have received little attention as a distinct category. This post highlights a selection of ferns that appear in medicinal plant books published in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and eighteenth centuries.

Jacob Meydenbach, Ortus sanitatis, chapter CC.

Jacob Meydenbach, Ortus sanitatis, chapter CC.

This fern, which the text describes as a plant that “has neither a trunk, nor a flower, nor fruit” and “has a smell that is not good,” comes from the oldest book in Dumbarton Oaks’ Rare Book Collection. The Ortus sanitatis, or “Garden of Health,” was an herbal published in 1491 as a reference work for doctors and apothecaries. Among the uses the text claims for this fern is that, when dried and ground and made into a poultice, it would cure congestion. The numerous “manicules”, or little hands pointing to important passages in the section on each plant’s use, show that this was a working copy.

In this herbal, the images of plants are stylized and conventionalized. The fern above is leafy and generic, with no root and no venation—the image does look like a fern, but we need the label contained in the text to confirm our identification. Although the fern woodcut does not repeat, some of the other entries in the Ortus sanitatis even share the same image for different plant species. Paying someone to create new illustrations was expensive, so plants that looked similar enough could share the same image.

Antoine Du Pinet, Historia plantarum, 630-631.

Antoine Du Pinet, Historia plantarum, 630-631.

Antoine Du Pinet’s pocket herbal (1567), published nearly 80 years later than Meydenbach’s book, and heavily indebted to Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s Commentary on Dioscorides, shows ferns that display increased botanical specificity. Both ferns in the image have root systems, unlike that in the Ortus, and the leaves are more distinctly rendered. The fern on the recto has numerous small blades, while the fern on the verso has larger and more rounded blades, with the sporangia visible. (‘Sporangia’ are the structures that enclose ferns’ spores.) While the leaves are rendered in broad strokes, this herbal accounts for more than one species of fern.

Giovanni Battista Morandi, Historia botanica practica, plate 4.

Giovanni Battista Morandi, Historia botanica practica, plate 4.

The illustrations’ specificity increases again in a third book about plants’ medical uses, Morandi’s Historia botanica practica (1744). While Meydenbach’s herbal made it possible to tell that the image was of a fern and Du Pinet’s book made a few distinctions between the ferns included, Morandi’s four ferns multiply the differences between the species pictured. More attention is now given to leaf shapes, root forms, venation, and sporangia than in the two earlier works, making it increasingly easy to use the images to identify a fern specimen.

Du Pinet, Antoine. Historia plantarum. Lyon: the widow of Gabriel Coterius, 1567.

Meydenbach, Jacob. Ortus sanitatis. Mainz: 1491.

Morandi, Giovanni Battista. Historia botanica practica. Milan: Petrus Franciscus Malatesta, 1744.

Depicting ferns

by sarahkburke

A nature print by Henry Bradbury in Thomas Moore's The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

A nature print by Henry Bradbury in Thomas Moore’s The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

Ferns are relatively flat, making them particularly amenable to a variety of illustration techniques and decorative uses. Of course ferns have been depicted primarily using the standard illustration processes of a given period, specifically engravings and chromolithographs when we look at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But their format has led to a striking variety of documentary technologies. Ferns are (metaphorically, if not biologically) fruitful sites for experimentation with illustration techniques.

Anna Atkins, "Title page of British Ferns'" (1852)  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Anna Atkins, “Title page of British Ferns'” (1852) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Perhaps the best-known examples of fern illustration are the cyanotypes produced by Anna Atkins, who used this early photographic method to document seaweeds and ferns. The cyanotype process is familiar to us today from architectural blueprints—and is widely available for both children’s art projects and home crafters. The technique entails placing objects on sensitized paper, exposing it to light, and then washing the paper to fix the negative image on a dark blue background. The cyanotype process is a type of photogram, a general term for creating a negative image on light-sensitive paper, no camera required. Dumbarton Oaks holds three photograms of ferns, all nineteenth-century French, and therefore of the same period as Atkins and fern mania.

One of three French photograms at Dumbarton Oaks

One of three French photograms at Dumbarton Oaks

The Victorian fad for ferns also led to experiments with using ferns as stencils for paint or for smoke, using soot from candle smoke to produce negative images of ferns on blank paper. Ferns appeared in a wide variety of decorative arts, including ceramics and architectural details. For more on this trend, see a previous post on this blog.

Another experimental type of image often associated with ferns is the nature print. While photograms make a negative image of an item against a darker background, nature printing most often uses the physical specimen to make an impression on a printing plate.

The two most familiar names in the history of this technique are Alois Auer, of Vienna’s Imperial Printing Office, and Henry Bradbury, who produced the illustrations for Thomas Moore’s The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855). These illustrations make use of the softness of lead plates. Ferns were placed between a plate of lead and a plate of steel, exposed to pressure, and then removed; the lead would retain an impression of the specimen, and could be used to produce an electrotype plate for printing. It is obvious that Bradbury’s plates were created from specimens—one can see the flaws and characteristics of the specific plants. The plates do an excellent job of depicting fronds and stems, including veins and other minutiae. In many cases the roots are reduced to a blur. In some instances the locations of sporangia have been added by hand—a creative attempt to compensate for something left out in the process of creating the nature print.

Nature printing described in the preface to Thomas Moore's The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

Nature printing described in the preface to Thomas Moore’s The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

 

Both Auer and Bradbury were active in the 1850s, and each developed methods that entailed using a plant to create a plate. Over the centuries, there have also been many examples of printing directly from a plant. One fifteenth-century example, which includes a fern, is now found in the Universitätsbibliothek Salzburg.

A new acquisition to the Dumbarton Oaks collection is Johann Hieronymus Kniphof’s 1733 “herbarium vivum.” He continued this effort in several subsequent publications, but this was his first, and it is a fascinating example of experiments in capturing the likeness of a plant. Scientifically, many of the illustrations lack important details; the more useful parts of many illustrations have been added after the fact, by hand. But there is something particularly compelling about the desire to document a specimen with such fidelity.

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof's book of nature prints (1733)

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof’s book of nature prints (1733)

For comparison, here is the same print without the hand coloring, from ULB Sachsen-Anhalt.

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof's book of nature prints (1733), without hand coloring

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof’s book of nature prints (1733), without hand coloring

Photograms and nature prints were for the most part superseded by advances in photographic reproduction in the late nineteenth century. Much has been written about the meaning of changing modes of botanical representation—a quick nod to Daston and Gallison’s Objectivity will have to suffice for now—but it should be said that although there may be a general trajectory by which one can track changing trends, there are always interesting experiments occurring around the periphery.

Happy Halloween!

by doconversationsblog

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“The head of St. John the Baptist, which is cut off and honored in the cathedral church of Ambianens”

Charles du Fresne du Cange, Historia Byzantina duplici commentario illustrata (Lutetiae Parisiorum: Apud Ludovicium Billaine, 1680), 101 [3rd set]. http://id.lib.harvard.edu/aleph/009582157/catalog

The Online Exhibit is Live!

by doconversationsblog

http://www.doaks.org/library-archives/library/library-exhibitions/standing-on-ceremony-processions-pathways-and-plazas

The online exhibit is live. Check it out!

The plaza of Tenochtitlan, Historia de Nueva España, a 1770 edition of Hernán Cortés’s writings

The plaza of Tenochtitlan, Historia de Nueva España, a 1770 edition of Hernán Cortés’s writings. Here, the engraving says, “eight or ten thousand Indians danced.”

Friday Updates!

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

Hello to all our readers! I just want to make a note about the schedule for the blog for this coming year, separately from our regular posts. Because I was hired, among other things, to do social media, there will now be blog posts here every Friday until next July! We’ll have some special posts at other times of the week, too, but from now on there will be a regularly scheduled update each Friday. Look for the first one in this new schedule tomorrow!

2012 in review

by sarahkburke

WordPress crunched the numbers and prepared a report on this blog.  We had about 6,700 views in 2012.  Curious about more stats?  Click through below…

Click here to see the complete report.

by sarahkburke

John Evelyn, “The Oak Tree,” Silva (1776)

See the full HOLLIS record.