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Conrad Gesner

The first tulips in Europe were described by Conrad Gesner (1516-1565), a Swiss botanist and encyclopedist who had seen one in April 1559 in the garden of an Augsburg magistrate. "Tulip in the Garden of Johann Heinrich Herwart" depicts what to Gesner looked like a red lily, which he called Tulipa turcarum. One still can read his scribbled notes about the flower. Two years later in 1561, it was published as a wood block print in his De Hortis Germaniae Liber Recens, the first European illustration of the tulip.

Notice below that, as was typical for the time, the original sketch was drawn as seen, with the result that the woodblock print is reversed.

The popular notion is that Busbecq introduced the tulip to Europe. If so, the bulbs would have had to be sent from Constantinople within a few months of his arrival there early in 1555 and planted in Bavaria later that autumn. Too, given the popularity of the flower by the time of Busbecq's death in 1592, he likely would have claimed credit for its introduction if he thought he had done so, especially since his letters were composed long after he purportedly wrote them. Growing in areas long visited by the Crusaders, it is as likely that tulips were brought in through trade.  The introduction of the tulip to the Netherlands, at least, can be attributed to the botanist Carolus Clusius. In 1753, Linnaeus named the ornamental tulip after Gesner, which still is known as Tulipa gesneriana.


"He [Pliny the Elder] made extracts of everything he read, and always said that there was no book so bad that some good could not be got out of it."

Pliny the Younger, Letters (III.5.10)

Gesner also published Bibliotheca Universalis (1545-1555) in four volumes, a bibliography intended to include all known literature, comprising approximately three thousand authors and ten thousand titles. The intention was to compile a complete list of works in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew "extant or not, ancient and more recent down to the present day, learned and not, published and hiding in libraries." There was a sense that this knowledge might be lost to posterity, especially when Buda in Hungary was sacked by the Ottoman Turks in 1526 and the fabled library of Matthias Corvinus ("The Raven King"), who had reigned from 1458 to 1490, was dispersed. (The manuscript of Heliodorus' Aethiopica, the earliest Greek romance, survived.) 

Because the bibliography was intended to be exhaustive, even books that might have been censured were listed so that the less educated could be warned of them. Because not all the books in the world could be read, it was thought, too, that only the best should be. Ironically, the Bibliotheca itself was placed on the Vatican's list of prohibited books and used by the censors of the Church as a primary source for its Index Librorum Prohibitorum (the Pauline Index of 1559). It was a task made all the more easy since Gesner, himself a Protestant, had indexed titles by subject, including theology (which comprised all of the third volume) and philosophy.


References: Tuliomania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (2007) by Anne Goldgar; Tulipomania (1950) by Wilfrid Blunt; Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010) by Ann M. Blair..

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