…Hear me, my darling, speaking sooth,
Gather the fleet flower of your youth,
Take ye your pleasure at the best;
Be merry ere your beauty flit,
For length of days will tarnish it
Like roses that were loveliest.– Pierre de Ronsard
The ingenious allusions to roses that have prevailed in poetry for centuries, the use of roses in celebrations and ceremonies in Antiquity, the cult that roses became for certain populations in modern times seem to be subjects worthy of an introduction to a piece of work dedicated to the reproduction for the reader of that most beautiful of flowers in the fullness of its glory. Instead, since this literary approach to roses has been taken so eruditely by Rosenberg in his Rhodologie and with so much grace and elegance by President d’Orbessan in his Essai sur les roses, readers are simply referred to these works.
In this way, the banal repetitions of some writers who, in dissertations of this nature, have not hesitated to appropriate the erudite research of these two writers without bothering to cite them are avoided. This text takes a different approach. In offering this collection of Roses to the public, this text will present, at the same time, a record of the efforts that pictorial art has made in their regard, from the time that this imagery has been applied to botany, to the present day.
If it is true, as the wise author of Elementary Theory of Botany (1813) said: “The most precise description can hardly portray a plant as well as a general view of its form,” it is particularly true of the rose and its many varieties. In fact, among the flowers that have received the gift of mutability in the highest degree, none can be compared to the rose, whose beautiful forms and varied colours are so multiple, that a picture book dedicated exclusively to the rose has become indispensable to anyone who wishes to know and classify these flowers.
The naturalists of Antiquity saw the advantage of representing figuratively the species that they described. Pliny and other ancient writers cite a book entitled Rhizotomicum, in which the author, Cratevas, a Greek botanist who lived under Mithridates, undertook to paint plants and to record the names and properties of each one. It seems the manuscript was destroyed when the Turks took Constantinople in 1453. At the time of the Renaissance, we begin to see writings on natural history illustrated by wood engravings. Hortus Sanitatis by the German botanist Johannes de Cuba, Treatise on Agriculture by Piero Crescenzi (which contains several plates from Hortus Sanitatis), and the Promptuarium Medicinae by Jacques Dondi, are the first works to use this type of engraving applied to plants.
Still, the imperfection of these representations made them useless for natural history, and it was not until long after their publication that the art of wood engraving was perfected to the point of being able to produce more or less tolerable likenesses, as can be seen in the works of Conrad Gesner, Fuchs, Matthiole, Castor Durante, Tabernaemontanus and that of Lobel, Clusius, and the Bauhin brothers, without being, nevertheless, great resources for scholars.
In fact, all of these authors, with the exception of Fuchs, so reduced the scale of their engravings as to render the objects that they represent nearly unrecognisable and virtually useless to those who consult them. Botany did not gain any real benefit from this procedure until the art of copper engraving began to replace wood engraving and began to be applied to the representation of plants.
In any case, these plant representations have been extremely useful to natural history, and each century has seen them become more perfect, mainly in France, to the degree that they can be seen today. But their advantages have been particularly appreciated since the advent of colour plate printing, a modern invention that has replaced illuminated manuscripts with such success…
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