Amsterdam’s Hortus Medicus and the Commelins
Pictured above is the 1697–1701 edition of Horti medici amstelodamensis. Johannes Commelin (1629–1692) and his nephew, Caspar Commelin, Jr. (1667–1731), documented many of the plants arriving in Amsterdam from the Indies and South America. Linnaeus was one of many scientists who used these images to learn about tropical plants.
Amsterdam’s Hortus Medicus (later renamed Hortus Botanicus) began as a medicinal herb garden in 1638. In 1682, the Amsterdam city council nominated Johannes Commelin and Joan Huydecoper van Maarseveen (1625–1704) as garden commissioners, under whose leadership the Hortus Medicus grew into one of the richest collections of exotic plants in Europe. Successful spice merchant and botanist Commelin and burgomaster Huydecoper both had contacts with private plant collectors in Holland and with members of the Dutch East (VOC) and West India Companies (WIC), of whom they requested exotic plants for the Hortus. Although both Commelin and Huydecoper maintained their own herbaria, the Hortus had no herbarium we know of, instead preserving botanical knowledge in the form of watercolors and descriptions of the plants in the garden.
Commelin worked on a publication of his descriptions and enlisted artists for illustrations of the rarer plants of the Hortus Medicus in the 1680s. Following his death in 1692, his nephew Caspar Commelin finished the two volumes, resulting in Horti medici amstelodamensis (1697–1701). The frontispiece depicts Flora holding the Amsterdam coat of arms, surrounded by Europe, America, Asia, and Africa offering her botanical gifts, which are given to the public in the background. The artwork represents the garden’s importance in accumulating exotic plants and sharing their beauty and utility with the people.
The watercolors for this volume were done primarily by father-daughter pair Jan and Maria Moninckx. The Moninckx artists, along with two others (including Maria Sybilla Merian’s other daughter, Johanna Helena Herolt), made watercolors of the exotic plants of the Hortus, resulting in the nine-volume Moninckx Atlas (1686–1756). Of the nine volumes, eight relate to the Commelin period at the Hortus, and of the 420 watercolors, 271 were made by Jan Moninckx. Not depicted in the Atlas was Old World coffee (Coffea arabica). Amsterdam specimens were introduced to the New World in 1714, beginning the Brazilian coffee industry.
The works of the Commelins and the botanists and artists at the Hortus Medicus became essential reference materials for those interested in exotic plants. The pre-Linnaean Horti medici and other early Amsterdam volumes were referenced by botanists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Johannes Commelin and the Hortus Medicus are responsible for significant movement of plant knowledge and specimens, introducing exotic plants to the Netherlands as well as introducing new plant species to overseas territories.
Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam. “Visitor Information: De Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam.” http://dehortus.nl/en/Visitor-information (accessed December 3, 2013).
MacPhail, Ian. Hortus Botanicus: The Botanic Garden & the Book. With Joseph Ewan. Lisle, IL: Morton Arboretum, 1972.
Wijnands, D. O. The Botany of the Commelins. Rotterdam: A. A. Balkema; Salem, NH: MBS, 1983.
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