The Hortus Eystettensis: How Paper Type Can Help Decipher Printing History

In 1613, Basilius Besler (1561-1629), a Nuremberg apothecary, published the Hortus Eystettensis (The Garden of Eichstatt), one of the great early flower books. It was not only one of the most expensive books of the early seventeenth century, but with each leaf measuring 570 x 460 mm. (approximately 22 in x 18 in.), the largest. [1]

Johann Conrad von Gemmingen was ordained Bishop of Eichstatt (80 kilometers north of Munich) on 2 July 1595. In 1598, he put Besler in charge of his extensive gardens and soon after agreed to sponsor a book based on them, underwriting the preliminary costs. Universally cited as the author, Besler acted, in fact, as the publisher, engaging the services of artists, engravers, printers, and colorists. He did not write the botanical descriptions – tradition attributes them (at least in part) to Ludwig Jungermann. It took Besler sixteen years to complete the project. Unfortunately, the Bishop couldn’t wait that long: he died in 1612 and never saw the finished work. It had 367 plates depicting over 1,000 plants and flowers. The plates were organized by seasons and they were typically bound in two large volumes. Three hundred copies were printed. [2] A plain, uncolored copy cost 35 florins; a deluxe colored copy, 500. To put these prices in perspective, the Bishop paid his head gardener 60 florins per year. [3]

Not many people are buying copies of the Hortus today – a first edition sells for $500,000 to $1 million. [4] Complete copies are scarce, but individual pages are not: there are hundreds on the market. [5] It is tragic when a book like a Hortus gets broken up and sold page by page, but it is a testament to the beauty of the plates that they are in such demand. Indeed, the plates are what made the Hortus famous in the first place. (The scientific value of the text, even in 1613, was limited.) [6] There is a certain quality to Besler’s plates that sets them apart, a result of both scale and design. Like Audubon’s birds, Besler’s flowers are not only beautiful, but unmistakable (see Illus. 1).


Illus. 1: Plate 101, double common peony. This copy is on watermarked paper with no text verso (i.e., the true "deluxe" issue"). It is possible to see the mark of Wolfgang Kilian in the middle of the smaller illustration. he is credited with six other plates - including the title page - in a list compiled by Nicolas Barker, though not this one.



The Hortus was reprinted from the original plates in 1640 and again c. 1750. The second and third printings were relatively straightforward, but the first was not. Besler printed two issues in 1613: a deluxe issue and a trade issue. Typically, bibliographers distinguish between the two based on whether or not there is text printed on the verso of the plates. No text verso indicating the deluxe issue; text verso indicating the trade – the theory being the deluxe was meant to be colored and text would show through the paper and detract from the image. In deluxe issues, the text (if present at all) was printed on separate sheets (both sides), and interleaved between facing plates. For trade copies, the text on the verso of one plate corresponded to the previous plate (the plates were bound verso, thus facing text recto). Simple enough, but the paper indicates the story may be more complicated. Trade copies (text verso) are found only on inferior paper with no watermark. Deluxe copies, however, are found on both the inferior paper used for trade copies, and a superior, watermarked paper (see Illus. 2). [7]

Illus. 2: The watermark on plate 101 in Illus. 1.

In his book “The Hortus Eystettensis”: The Bishop’s Garden and Besler’s Magnificent Book, Nicolas Barker points out that although priority between the two issues cannot be definitively established, common sense dictates the deluxe issue was printed first. As Barker notes, it would almost double the time required (already considerable) if the two issues were printed separately (i.e., setting up the plates twice); therefore it must be assumed that all copies of each plate were printed at one time, the deluxe sets first to get the best impressions. Given that is the case, it only makes sense that the best paper would also be used first. (Both types of paper were available at the outset). [8] That would mean the deluxe copies should all be on the superior, watermarked paper.

One possibility is that Besler simply ran out of the watermarked paper and had to start printing deluxe copies on inferior paper to meet demand. There are, however, at least fourteen copies of the trade issue with no text verso (eleven colored, three uncolored), and there are probably more. It is unlikely Besler misjudged the demand for deluxe copies by that much – not at 500 florins a copy.


There is another explanation that is more plausible. All of the trade copies are dedicated to Bishop Conrad (the Bishop who initiated the project), as are the deluxe copies on unmarked paper. The deluxe copies on watermarked paper, however, are dedicated to his successor, Bishop Christoph. [9] A scenario that would explain why the dedications correspond to paper type, might look something like this:

1. On 24 April 1611, Besler dates the original dedication page to Bishop Conrad.* [10] Conrad tells Besler he wants twenty presentation copies.

2. Besler orders the paper: regular stock for 280 copies; watermarked paper for 20, a total of 300.

3. Conrad dies 7 November 1612.*

4. Engraving of the plates is completed late 1612 or early 1613 and printing begins. [11] Besler prints 20 sets of the plates on the watermarked paper, and 280 sets on unmarked paper.

5. During or after the printing of the plates – but before letterpress printing begins – the new Bishop (Christoph) announces he needs 20 presentation copies.

6. Besler sets aside 20 copies of the trade issue (on the inferior paper, not originally intended for coloring) which do not yet have text on verso (thus creating “pseudo-deluxe” sets on unmarked paper), and commences printing the letterpress (both on separate sheets and verso of the plates on the balance of the trade copies). Who could have anticipated two Bishops?

7. On 24 August 24 1613, Besler dates a new dedication page to Christoph.*

He then prints the new dedication on watermarked paper and marries it to the deluxe sets on watermarked paper to fulfill Christoph’s bequests. Sets on unmarked paper are used to fulfill Conrad’s bequests. Given Christoph was the new “sponsor” of the project, Besler might very well have been inclined to make up presentation copies for him with the superior watermarked sheets. Conrad would never know. (Because each leaf was printed individually it would be easy to match the Christoph dedications with the watermarked deluxe sets after-the-fact.)

This sequence of events also fits with the few dates we have concerning the book’s publication and Christoph’s arrival in Eichstatt. On 22 July 1613, the Nuremberg City Council demanded an “illuminated” copy of the book to replace the uncolored copy Besler had given them. [12] Besler had many dealings with the Council- no doubt they received one of the first copies. [13] If the plates were finished late 1612 or early 1613, that indicates it took six months to print – three months for the plates and three months for the letterpress.

Christoph was appointed Bishop of Eichstatt on December 4, 1612 (soon after the death of Bishop Conrad), but he was not ordained until April 14, 1613 [14] and did not move to Eichstatt until then. [15] Only when he got there would he have discovered Besler’s project and ordered presentation copies for himself the very time when the plates were printed and the letterpress not yet begun. [16]

One last consideration, not bibliographic, is that Christoph was no man to cross. Eichstatt was famous for its witch-hunts – witch trials took place there throughout the sixteenth century – and dozens had recently been tortured and burned alive when the principality was under the control of Bishop Conrad’s immediate predecessor, Bishop Caspar von Seckendorf, 1590-5. [17] Relative calm returned under Conrad, who was more interested in gardens than witches, but it was short-lived. Christoph, formally Prince-Bishop Johann Christoph von Westerstetten, was one of the most notorious “witch-bishops” of all time. He arrived at Eichstatt from Ellwangen, where he was Prince-Provost in charge of witch-hunts that took hundreds of lives in 1611 alone. At Eichstatt, he burned witches at the stake until 1630, long after the practice had stopped elsewhere. [18] Besler may have found it prudent to use the good paper for his copies.


Of the fifty-two copies documented for this article, [19] all but one conform with the rule Christoph/watermark, Conrad/no watermark, [20] a coincidence that begs explanation. One possibility is the scenario described here: copies on watermarked paper (no text verso) were meant to be colored (deluxe); copies on unmarked paper (text verso) were meant to be left uncolored (trade); copies on unmarked paper with no text verso were not originally meant to be colored but were an ad hoc solution to the problem of two Bishops (and properly a trade variant).

In the case of the Hortus Eystettensis, paper type, dedications, and letterpress all provide clues to the book’s printing history – which may not be over. Long thought melted down, 329 of the 367 plates (including the title-page) were discovered in the Albertina Museum in Vienna in 1994. [21] Hopefully, whoever oversees a fourth edition will record the exact details.


The letterpress for the deluxe and trade issues was printed from the same set of type, almost certainly at the same time. The following illustration shows an image of a letterpress page from a deluxe issue (a leaf with letterpress both sides), superimposed semi-transparently (50 percent) over the letterpress from a trade issue (text verso of plate). The deluxe copy is in the collection of the Stadtbibliothek Nuremberg. [22] Images of the trade issue are from the copy in the Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid. [23]


Illus. 3: Type comparison. The type matches exactly in any small area. The type does not match across the entire image because of physical changes to the paper unique to each copy.


Although the type does not line up exactly across the entire image, the type matches locally. Nonlocal differences are a result of physical changes to the leaves, unique to each copy. In short, the two copies are identical and were printed from the same set of type. This makes perfect sense. As with the plates, printing the letterpress twice would have been extremely time-consuming. In fact, it would have been worse: not only would each page have to be set up twice for printing, but in all likelihood, the type would have to be set twice because the most logical scenario would have a few pages set at a time, printed, then the type broken down and reset for the next few pages. The total number of pages – or formes – set up at any given time would be limited by the type available, unlikely to be enough to set over 400 pages simultaneously. (Nor would 400 formes be easily managed or practical to maintain for any length of time, pointing again to simultaneous letterpress printing.) Because the quality of the plate impression would be far more important (and difficult to achieve), it must be assumed the plates were printed first (the required number of sets with allowance for loss during the second stage of printing), then the letterpress (see Illus. 3).


1. The paper was called “Royal” and was the largest paper available at the time. See Nicolas Barker, “Hortus Eystettensis”: The Bishop’s Garden and Besler’s Magnificent Book (New York: Henry Abrams, 1994), 11. The paper was not folded: it was printed broadside, each sheet constituting one leaf.

2. Barker, 66.

3. Ibid., 17.

4. At the time of writing, there were three uncolored trade copies on the market: (1) Bernard Shapero, Ltd., London, $575,000 (Cuvier’s copy, no less); (2) Graham Arader Galleries, New York, $600,000 (missing two plates); and Antiquariaat Junk, Amsterdam, $750,000. The last copy sold with contemporary color, known as the de Belder copy, went for £993,000 at Christie’s in 2001 (Christie’s Sale BESLER-6503, Lot 3, November 28, 2001). An uncolored deluxe copy (watermarked, dedicated to Christoph) was sold by Christie’s in June, 2008 for $424,725 (Christie’s Sale 7590, Lot 158).

5. A search of the Internet resulted in 1,265 individual plates for sale at 21 dealers, ranging in price from $1,200 to $22,000.

6. In the foreword to the second edition (1640), this is stated as the reason the text is not printed.

7. The watermark is the “Pomme de pin,” Dictionnaire Historique des Marques du Papier, C. M. Briquet. vol. 1, no. 2122 (Hacker Art Books, 1985 reprint). This image is from a deluxe plate (no. 101, double common peony). In a review of Barker’s book (The Library, 17, No. 4 [1995]), David Paisey states the watermark is the arms of Augsburg, a relevant fact, if true, given one of the main engravers (Wolfgang Kilian) lived and worked in Augsburg. He may have sourced the paper – indicating it was purchased before the first Bishop died because only then was engraving moved to Nuremberg (Barker, 16).

8. The “plate” drawings (possibly by Kilian and now in the University Library at Erlangen), which predate all printed copies, are on both unmarked and watermarked paper.

9. This coincidence was noted by Hans Baier in “Die Ausgaben des Hortus Eystettensis 1613-1750,” Aus dem Antiquariat 95 (1970). He argued the copies on unmarked paper dedicated to Conrad (trade) were legitimate and the copies on watermarked paper and dedicated to Christoph (deluxe) were printed later by Besler without permission (in effect, piracies). But they were not printed later as a comparison of the letterpress has shown (see appendix).

10. *Indicates documented date or event. See Barker.

11. There is a note in the Eichstatt archives indicating that at the time of Bishop Conrad’s death, the project was “scarcely half completed.” In all probability, this refers to printing and engraving and indicates that the plates were most likely finished near the end of 1612 or early in 1613 (Barker, 66).

12. Barker, 64. From the Council minutes. This is the first documented reference to the published book.

13. Barker, 16. The first plates were engraved in Augsburg (by Kilian et al.), but engraving was subsequently moved to Nuremberg and the book was likely printed there as well. See Nicolas Barker, ‘Who Printed the Text of the Hortus Eyestettensis?” IN: The German Book 1450-1750, ed. J. Flood and W. Kelly (London: British Library, 1995). Barker suggests more than one printer, which may explain how the book was printed so quickly, i.e., in six months or less.

14. Ecclesiastical dates can be found at:

15. Karen Harvey, The Kiss in History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 51-3. The clothworkers of Eichstatt were allowed to hold their parade in early 1613 only because the new Bishop had not yet taken up residence. (Festivals had been banned in anticipation of his arrival.)

16. In two different copies (Nuremberg, Turin, see Parker, “Hortus Eystettensis”: The Bishop’s Garden and Besler’s Magnificent Book, 36), the colorist (Georg Schneider) has dated the “Ficus Indica” plate May 4, 1613, indicating coloring had started by that time – and probably indicating all the plates had been printed. For logistical reasons it is unlikely coloring would have commenced before complete sets were ready.

17. William Burns, Witch Hunts in Europe and America: An Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), 69.

18. Wolfgang Behringer, Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 225-6; also Jonathan Durrant, Witchcraft, Gender and Society in Early Modern Germany (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

19. This study covered the 17 copies described in Barker’s book (out of 23 total, three having no dedication, three being later editions), 8 copies in the U.S. (one from a description by Christies, Sale 7590, Lot 158, June 2008), 7 copies in England, and 20 in Europe, all identified through online searches. An email was sent to each library with 5 questions: “(1) If there is a dedication page (usually following the title page), who is the book dedicated to? It should be either Bishop Conrad or Bishop Christoph; (2) Is there text on the verso side of the flower plates?; (3) Are the plates colored?; (4) Is there a watermark on the paper (usually a shield with grapes or a pine cone on a stand) seen most easily on the verso of the plates?; and (5) Is there a watermark specifically on the dedication pages?” Not all enquiries resulted in usable entries: in six cases the dedication was missing; three libraries reported their copy lost or stolen. Based on these results (and earlier surveys), there may be as many as 100 extant copies of the 1st edition.

20. The lone exception is a copy in the Austrian National Library that has the Christoph dedication but no watermarks (nor text verso). Because the dedication page is not watermarked either (all other copies dedicated to Christoph have watermarks on both the plates and the dedication), it is possible this is simply an unmarked trade set married to a Christoph dedication run off at a later date (on unmarked paper, all the watermarked paper having been used) to fulfill a belated gift. It should also be noted there are copies that have one or two pages of the “wrong” paper. For example, there is a copy in the Universitats Bibliothek, Leipzig (GR.Fol.1065) which is on unmarked paper, but the portrait (and the portrait only) is on watermarked paper. Such copies are to be expected. Copies would be made up from whatever stock was available at the time – mixed sets were inevitable.

21. R. Doppelbauer, V. Birke, and M. Kiehn, “Die Kupferplatten zum ‘Hortus Eystettensis,'” Wiener Geschichtsbläüüütter, 54, No. 1 (1999): 22-32.

22. The author would like to thank Dr. Christine Sauer for arranging for the digital images of the deluxe copy. Three leaves were compared in this manner. All matched exactly.

23. High quality images of this copy are online:







This peer-reviewed article first appeared in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Volume 103, No. 3, September 2009.

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