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Faber, [Mexicanarum Plantarum Imagines, ?1613]

In 1613 the young Accademia dei Lincei in Rome was attempting to publish the results of Francisco Hernández's expedition to New Spain (Mexico). While it would take almost another 40 years to finish the work, which they referred to as Tesoro Messicano but whose official title was Rerum Medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus (1651), the Lincei already had commissioned many of the botanical woodcuts they would use in the final publication. They printed some of these woodcuts for a potential patron of the Accademia and a lover of botany, the Prince-Bishop of Bamberg, Germany, Johann Gottfried von Aschhausen (1575–1622). Two members of the Accademia wrote dedicatory poems for Aschhausen, one in Greek by Luca Valerio (1552–1618) and one in Latin by Johann Faber, and a title page was added. They printed several copies of the little book. In 1958 Rachel Hunt purchased a copy of this rare work from a New York bookseller for her collection, and now the Library has digitized the book.

However, the Hunt copy does not have a title page. In 1958 Rachel Hunt (1882–1963), her personal librarian Jane Quinby (1901–1979) and the bibliographer Allan Henry Stevenson (1903–1970) were working on the Catalogue of Botanical Books in the Collection of Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt (Hunt Catalogue; 1958–1961). Without a title page from which to work and pressed for time as the first volume was going to press, they surmised in an addenda:

Since we believe that the 1649 (1651) edition was made up from the sheets of the unpublished "edition" of 1628, it is possible that these woodcuts could have been printed in that year or even a little earlier (1958–1961, vol. 1, p. 424).

They also knew that there might be another copy in the Vatican library. The Hunt copy has both poems and 68 woodcuts all bound together in vellum. The writing on the spine is mostly faded, but three ink letters are visible and legible — Plã or Plá — as well as the number 316 in red. All of the woodcuts are numbered in pencil, and eight are labeled in pencil with the names ascribed in the 1651 Thesaurus to the same woodcut. It is unclear if these markings were made after Rachel purchased the volume or by a previous owner. There are no ownership marks visible inside the book besides Rachel's and Hunt Institute's.

The Vatican copy's title page reads [transcribed from a photocopy]:

Illustriss. ac reverendiss. domino D. Ioanni Godefrido episcopo Bambergensi S.R.I principi Caesareo ad Paulum V. Pont. Max. legato Litterarum fautori & Litteratorum_, Patrono celeberrimo Ut se devoti animi affectu deditos, aliquo quamvis voluntati impari officio testarentur; Paucas hasce MEXICANARUM Plantarum Imagines, è Rerum Medicarum Novi Orbis Thesauro suo depromptas. Lyncei Rome obtulerunt.

Hunt Institute's adjunct research scholar, Alain Touwaide, kindly translated Valerio and Faber's dedications, neither of which are especially eloquent. The Greek is "tortuous," filled with Homeric words and odd imagery, including a reindeer. Both poems praise the prince-bishop of Bamberg, wish him happiness and honor forever and offer him the great gifts of Mexico, i.e., the plant woodcuts.

On the verso of about half of the plates in the Hunt Institute copy, one can see an impression of another of the woodcuts, sometimes with remnants of ink. The impressions range from almost near complete ones of the whole woodcut, to just a hint of leaves, and they are not reversed. Showing its octavo construction, each group of eight plates is related. The first eight woodcuts are a set. Woodcut 1 has an impression of woodcut 5, and woodcut 5 an impression of woodcut 1. Woodcuts 2 and 6, 3 and 7, and 4 and 8 are pairs in the same way. Then the pattern starts over, each group of 8 plates being a set, though as stated before not all woodcuts have these impressions. Some groups have no impressions at all.


Francisco Hernández (1514–1587), physician to King Philip II of Spain (1527–1598), made the first scientific expedition to the New World in 1571. Philip II sent him to what is now central Mexico to look for plants, animals and minerals of medicinal value. Hernández returned to Spain in 1577 with notes on more than 3,000 plants and hundreds of animals. Many entries had accompanying paintings done by Hernández's native Mexican assistants. Perhaps King Philip thought Hernández's manuscript was excessive and disorderly because he had Nardo Antonio Recchi (?–1595), his new physician, go through the manuscript and copy the information for the plants that Recchi thought would be most useful in Spain. This included making copies of the related paintings. No publication materialized in Spain. Recchi took his manuscript and paintings to his native Italy, where his nephew, Marco Antonio Petilio (?–1622), inherited it after Recchi died. Hernández died, too, having never seen his work published.

Around 1610 the Accademia dei Lincei, a new scientific society in Rome founded by Federico Cesi, Prince of Acquasparta (1585–1630), that included Galileo (1564–1642) amongst its members, acquired Recchi's manuscript from Petilio. They also were able to copy Recchi's paintings although Petilio did not let them out of his possession. Several times over the course of more than 40 years the Lincei came close to finishing the work, even having much of the text and images printed by 1628, but for many reasons — they added information and commentaries here and there, members of the Academy resigned and died, patrons came and went, etc. — the Lincei weren't able to release a finished product until 1651. A portion by Johann Faber (1570–1640) was printed and circulated along with a title page in 1628. Maybe this is the early printing from which Hunt, Quinby and Stevenson thought the 68 woodcuts came. However, Faber's text was zoological.

By 1651 the Lincei was done. Rerum Medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus featured nearly 800 illustrations, 67 of which were in the little book for Prince-Bishop Aschhausen. Presumably the Lincei decided the remaining woodcut was inaccurate and had it redone (plate 28). Over the long process of publishing Hernández's work, the Lincei constantly acquired new information about the plants they were describing from others who had traveled to Mexico, like missionaries, and by observing the New World plants they had collected to grow in their gardens. Thus the woodcuts, based on Recchi's copies of Hernández's paintings, were edited or redone to reflect what the Lincei had learned.

There has been a lot of speculation about who the artists and engravers were for the Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus, but two names show up in the literature repeatedly. In his Le Vite de' Pittori, Scultori, Architetti, ed Intagliatori ... (1642), Giovanni Baglione, a 17th-century artist and historian, mentioned that Isabella Cattani Parasole's engravings could be observed in Prince Cesi of Acquasparta's "book of plants." Parasole (?1575–?1625) was known for her book on embroidery and lacework design, for which she carved the woodcuts. Castore Durante commissioned her to make the illustrations for his Herbario Nuovo (1585). Her husband, Leonardo, engraved those woodcuts. If she was involved with the Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus, it is unclear if she was an artist, an engraver or both. Contracts and receipts dating from 1618 to 1619 in the Lincean records confirm that the Lincei paid the engraver, Giovanni Giorgio Nuvolstella (dates unknown), and his assistant, Nicolo Martini, for their work on the Mexican woodcuts. Baglione confirms Nuvolstella's involvement, saying he finished those woodcuts that Parasole could not complete. It cannot be said for certain that Nuvolstella was involved as early as 1613 when the volume for Johann Gottfried was printed nor that Parasole was involved at all with the Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus. However, a comparison of the woodcuts in Durante's Herbario Nuovo and those in the Thesaurus shows a striking similarity in aesthetics, suggesting that Parasole was at least an influence. Simon Varey (2000) mistakenly reversed names and identified Johann Gottfried as an artist who did sample illustrations for Cesi, which were printed in the Mexicanarum Plantarum Imagines. However, of course, it is Cesi who proposed to give Johann Gottfried a sample of illustrations.

Other copies

At least two members of the Lincei received copies of the little book they made for Prince-Bishop Aschhausen, Giambattista della Porta (?1535–1615) and Fabio Colonna (1567–1650). Tobia Aldini (fl.1600s), curator of the Farnese gardens in Rome possibly received one. The copy in the Vatican Library is the Barberini Collection. Cardinal Francesco Barberini became a member of the Lincei in 1623, and was an early patron of the Academy. His uncle, Maffeo Barberini was Pope Urban VIII from 1623 to 1644 and was also a patron of the sciences and arts. One of these Barberinis received the copy that still survives in the Vatican.

Scholars have been aware of the Vatican copy since at least 1860 when D. Salvatore Proja mentioned it in his essay on Hernández and the Lincei. During the 20th century, several scholars included descriptions of it in their publications on Hernández or the Lincei. It is not clear which of them observed the book firsthand and which took their information from another scholar's work. While the Vatican's current catalog record says the book has 68 woodcuts, like Hunt Institute's, at least one scholar states that the Vatican's copy has 62, and many others state 167. I have not verified the true number at this time.

Several 19th-century, European catalogues listed a copy for sale or auction. I speculate that one single copy passed through several dealers' hands. It was first in the possession of the French bookseller Maisonneuve. Charles Leclerc (1843–1889) compiled a catalogue, Bibliotheca Americana (1878), for Maisonneuve, listing a copy as having a title page, two dedications and 68 woodcuts with handwritten plant names in Mexican (probably Nahuatl) and Latin. A book with the same description went up for auction in 1880, but without a title page, at Puttick and Simpson's in London, who stated that it came from the collection of an "eminent Mexican bibliophile" (Maisonneuve?, Leclerc?, someone else?). Finally in 1881 it was listed for sale by Bernard Quaritch and presumably sold. Germán Somolinos D'Ardois (1960) mentioned a copy sold "recientemente" [recently] in Boston. No other copies could be located in WorldCat.

Much about this book still remains a mystery, particularly its provenance. But now, almost 60 years after Rachel Hunt purchased the unassuming little volume, we know the circumstances of its creation and can update another record in the rich Hunt Institute Library catalogue.


Baglione, G. 1642. Le Vite de' Pittori, Scultori, et Architetti. Rome: Andrea Fei. https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_407y3olIvg0C/page/n4/mode/2up.

Freedberg, D. 2002. The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Guerra, F. 1986. La Leyenda del Tesoro Messicano. Convegno Celebrativo del IV Centenario della Nascita de Federico Cesi (1986 : Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei).

Leclerc, C. 1878. Bibliotheca Americana: Histoire, Géographie, Voyages, Archéologie et Linguistique des Deux Amériques et de Iles Philippines. Paris: Maisonneuve et cie, Libraires-Editeurs. Lot 1131. [Sale catalogue.] https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=txu.059173017573345&view=1up&seq=7.

Puttick and Simpson. 1880. Bibliotheca Mexicana, or A Catalogue of the Library of Rare Books and Important Manuscripts Relating to Mexico and Other Parts of Spanish America, Formed by the Late Señor Don José Fernando Ramirez.... London: Puttick and Simpson. Lot 1124, Fifth Day's Sale. [Auction catalogue, 7–13 July.] https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=txu.059173017574993&view=1up&seq=5.

Quaritch, B. 1881. Catalogue of Works on Natural History, Physics, Mathematics, and Other Sciences, Offered for Sale at the Cash Prices Affixed by Bernard Quaritch. London: Quaritch. Vol. 1. Lot 2497. [Sale catalogue.] https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uva.x030511232&view=1up&seq=5.

Quinby, J. and A. H. Stevenson. 1958–1961. Catalogue of Botanical Books in the Collection of Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt. 2 vols., vol. 2 in 2 pts. Pittsburgh: Hunt Botanical Library.

Salvatore Proja, D. 1860. Ricerche critico-bibliografiche intorno all Storia naturale del Messico di Fr. Hernandez esposta in dieci libri da N.A. Recchi ed illustrata dagli accademici Lincei. Atti dell'Accademia Pontificia de'Nuovi Lincei 13(13): 441–477. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/7739986.

Somolinos D'Ardois, G. 1960. Obras completas. [México]: México Universidad Nacional de México.

Varey, S. 2000. The Mexican Treasury: The Writings of Dr. Francisco Hernández. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Varey, S., R. Chabrán and D. B. Weiner, eds. 2000. Searching for the Secrets of Nature: The Life and Works of Dr. Francisco Hernández. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.


This book is available as a PDF.

The versos also are available as a PDF.

Selected Artworks

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