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  • Leonhart Fuchs on the Importance of Pictures
  • Sachiko Kusukawa

If not for the attractive plant with overhanging flute-like flowers that was named after him, Leonhart Fuchs (1501–66) is best known today as one of the pioneers of accurate representations of plants in histories of scientific illustrations.1 The pictures in Fuchs’s Remarkable Commentaries on the History of Plants (1542) have been appreciated usually for their “naturalistic” features (i.e., pictures drawn from observing a plant specimen), as well as for their tendency to discard individual blemishes and portray a universal or ideal “type” of a plant where several varieties of species could be incorporated into one bush, or where various stages of the same plant may be depicted in one figure.2 On the other hand no historian of botany who has examined the text these pictures accompanied has found that such qualities as observation from nature or a sense of “ideal type” contributed to Fuchs’s theoretical understanding of [End Page 403] plants: he lacked any sense of the family genera or Linnean classification, for he had simply adopted an alphabetical ordering.3

Fuchs himself considered his pictures remarkable—as he was at pains to point out—and he believed his pictures were absolutely crucial for his commentary on plants. My immediate aim in this paper, therefore, is to offer an interpretation of Fuchs’s Remarkable Commentaries on the History of Plants which does not split the work into artistically positive and botanically negative elements. As I shall argue, the uniqueness and so the controversial nature of Fuchs’s enterprise lies in the kind of argument and procedure he believed to be valid for an academic study of plants. More generally, I hope to use this reassessment of Fuchs’s work to show how pictures could be as controversial as texts and how the uses of texts and pictures together form past acts which require historical explanation.

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Figure 1.

The Artists. Leonhart Fuchs, De historia stirpium, 1542, verso of last folio page. Reproduced by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

In 1542 Fuchs published his Remarkable Commentaries on the History of Plants Belaboured with Great Expense and Vigilance with More than Five Hundred Live Images of Plants Attached. It begins with a picture of Fuchs, the author, at the age of forty-one and ends with that of the artists (fig. 1). Although the division of labor depicted here seems to have been a standard one for printing illustrated books in this period,4 it is unusual that we know their names. Albrecht Meyer did the drawings from life, Heinrich Füllmaurer transferred the drawings to woodblocks, and Veit Rudolf Speckle cut those woodblocks.5 Fuchs was proud of one of the artists in particular: “the woodcutter [sculptor] Veit Rudolf Speckle, by far the best in Strasbourg, excellently imitated the admirable industry of painters: he has so skilfully expressed the outlines of each picture by carving [sculpendo] that he seems to compete with the painter for glory and victory.”6 A comparison between the painter and the sculptor had been a favorite topic in the Renaissance genre of paragone—Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Castiglione, and Michaelangelo composed treatises on it—where the [End Page 404] relative merits of various mimetic arts were discussed.7 Fuchs’s comment on Speckle is more nuanced, however, than a polite competition between the arts over their mimetic skills: Fuchs announces that Speckle is worthy of praise in producing a picture—normally the domain of the painter (pictor)—with the specialized skill of carving of the cutter (sculptor). This is surely an appreciation of the particular skill involved in producing replicable pictures for printed books, just as Erasmus had, a generation earlier, acknowledged in Albrecht Dürer’s prowess at engraving the potential for reproducibility in a print culture.8 Indeed, of the artists involved in printing, it was the woodcutter who could expect to be paid most in this period—nearly fifteen times more than the artist who originally drew the pictures.9

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Figure 2.

Atriplex. Theodore Dorsten, Botanicon, 1540, fol. 35r. Reproduced...

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pp. 403-427
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