Flora Danica is a comprehensive atlas of botany, containing 3,240 folio-sized copper engraved plates of all the wild plants native to Denmark.
This incredible work, comprising 51 parts and three supplements, originally proposed by Georg Christian Oeder in 1753, then professor of botany, lasted 123 years and was finally completed in 1883.
In 1752 dr. Oeder was appointed professor of botany. Originally dr. Oeder was meant to be appointed professor at the University of Copenhagen, but this was thwarted by the opposition among academics, and instead Oeder got the post as professor at the Botanic Garden in Copenhagen.
In 1753 Oeder proposed the publication of a Flora Danica, containing folio-sized engravings of all wild plants native to the crown lands of the Danish king.
The aim was to popularize botany in general, thereby enhancing the knowledge of the useful and harmful properties of the various plants.
This project was a typical product of the Age of Enlightenment. Dr. Oeder nurtured ambitious plans and had a wish to create a single, complete work to which other countries could contribute, leaving out plants already described in Flora Danica.
The idea was to distribute the engravings to all regions of Denmark, and experts were meant to send back comments and new findings to dr. Oeder´s botanic institute in Copenhagen.
The original idea behind Flora Danica was very ambitious.
The work was meant to consist of both engraved plates and a series of texts.
The texts were to treat both botany in general as well as the useful and harmful properties of the plants (applied botany).
According to the plan the work only gave information on purely botanical aspects covering:
1) An introduction to botany
2) A complete list of plants that had been found
3) A detailed description of the plants
The applied botany was to be dealt with by a society of which Oeder became the secretary. While the engraved plates were completed, the texts largely remained mere ideas. Oeder published his introduction to botany, and part of the list of plants (the cryptogamous, or flowerless, plants). The remaining part was never finished, not even the texts that were to describe the applied botany.
The declared purpose of Flora Danica was “a work that is meant to treat all plants that, by nature and without the help of man, grow in the wild and are native to crown lands of the Danish king (both Norway and Denmark, at the time) and other possessions in Europe”.
This limitation means that both the farmer and the rose enthusiast will look in vain for descriptions of the plants that are part of their every day work. Wild grasses and wild roses are represented - and some of them very beautiful, indeed - but neither the Ingrid Bergman rose nor the stiff wheat ear can be found.
Limiting the scope to wild plants also raises some serious doubts: When is it legitimate to describe a plant as being “wild”, and when is it cultivated? Research is in constant progress, and the individual parts of Flora Danica can only express the state of research at the time of the publication.
Decisions of this historical kind, of course, cannot be 100% accurate, and errors occur.
In principle the plants were to be depicted life-size, and - except for a few mosses - the idea was to draw only one plant per plate. This would give the owners the option of sorting them systematically, when a sufficient number of plates had been published. Dr. Oeder drew up a direct comparison with a herbarium.
Large plants, however, had to be depicted in reduced size accompanied by life-size details. A magnifying glass had to be used for small plants. The detailed parts of the plants that distinguish the various species were to be depicted in separate drawings. Each part contained a sheet that listed the names of the species, the particular part of the plant, and location.
The artist and engraver of Oeder's botanical work were father and son, the engraver Michael Rössler (1705-77) and his son Martin Rössler (1727-82), the painter, both recruited from Nuremberg in Germany.
With almost 125 years of work before the completion of the project, some changes will, inevitably, occur along the way. Not only did the texts remain uncompleted, but the plans for the engraved plates were also substantially altered over the years, largely due to the political situation.
The first reduction of the work was effectuated after 1814, when the double monarchy of Denmark-Norway was abolished, and Norway entered into a union with Sweden. After that only very few Norwegian plants were included in Flora Danica. The second change was seen after 1864, when the duchies of Schleswig end Holstein were ceded, and the German section disappeared from the work.
At the Nordic natural science meeting (Nordisk Forskermøde) in 1847, however, it was proposed to make Flora Danica a Scandinavian work. Thus three supplementary volumes of an additional 180 plates were issued, containing the remaining Norwegian plants and the more important plants only occurring in Sweden. In this way Flora Danica became a far more well-rounded work covering not only plants native to Denmark, but also the North Atlantic dependencies, i.e. the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland. The flora of these areas is, of course, very different from the flora of Southern Denmark , and the flora of Northern Scandinavia provides a transition between these areas.
The engravings for Flora Danica are made on copper plates, now held at the Botanical Museum Copenhagen, apart from the plates that didn't survive when the castle of Christiansborg burned down in 1884.
Copper engraving is a graphic technique, developed in the beginning of the 1400s. A polished copper plate is covered by a thin layer of wax, through which the motif is drawn. A piece of paper covered in ink on the back may also be used. The motif must be drawn as a mirror-image to achieve the right print.
Next the motif is engraved into the copper plate using burins of various shapes. By varying the engraving technique it is possible to develop a considerable variation of expression. Metallic turnings are scratched out.
The finished plate is now covered in ink and dried, leaving only the colour in the furrows. Prints are then made in a press. This technique only allows one colour to be printed. Consequently coloured copper engravings are always hand coloured after printing.
The production was resumed when the daughter of King Christian IX, Alexandra, was married to the later English King Edward VII.
In 1862 a committee of influential society ladies decided to have a Flora Danica dinner set made as a wedding present. In many ways this set differed from the original. It was now possible to choose among all the plates that served as models for the original set, in addition to 1,440 new ones.
The ladies chose the flowers they liked best and aesthetic considerations, therefore, carried great weight. Since then Flora Danica has been on sale through Royal Scandinavia (the Royal Porcelain Factory).
Since then Flora Danica has been on the sales list of the Royal Porcelain Factory (Royal Scandinavia).
The decorations on the Flora Danica dinner set were not chosen from aesthetic criteria. In tune with the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment it was decided to make exact “scientific” copies of the engravings chosen from the highly praised book Flora Danica.
It wasn't easy, however, to transfer the pictures from the square plates to the round or oval shape of the dinner set, and sometimes compromises had to be made.
Originally Flora Danica was published in two versions; a hand-coloured version and another one in black and white. And neither of them came cheaply! The coloured booklet, consisting of sixty illustrations, was sold at a price of 9 rix-dollars - the equivalent to the monthly pay of a carpenter - while the black and white version came at a price slightly less than half of that, or “only” 4 rix-dollars.
Please compare the two versions.
The black and white version was distributed throughout Denmark and Norway providing all dioceses with a measured amount of copies.
The idea was to present the work to enthusiasts of botany all over the kingdom whereby anyone was invited to send back comments, information or observations to Copenhagen.
In the following an extract of some of the most beautiful prints can be seen.
Throughout the 125 years it took to create the work a total of 3,240 plates were produced. A complete presentation of the collection is, of course, impossible in this context.
Through our home page, though, we invite everyone to explore the complete collection of the 3,240 engravings:
Curator — Ditte Maria Bergstrøm
Inspirator and text — Torsten Schlichtkrulll