De herbarum virtutibus (1537) by Aemilius MacerPolish History Museum
Herbarium written in verse
The first Polish herbarium publication was De herbarum virtutibus by Aemilius Macer, printed in 1532 in Florian Ungler’s workshop and then re-edited five years later by Ungler’s widow, Helena.
The print was not yet a classic herbarium, but rather a Latin poem about the medicinal properties of plants. As a valuable supplement, the work was accompanied by over 70 illustrations which bore clear resemblances to those present in equivalent, foreign publications.
On Herbs and their Potency - Title page (1534) by Stefan FalimirzPolish History Museum
The first Polish natural and medical encyclopaedia was the Garden of Health, published by Ungler in 1534, a print better known under the title On Herbs and their Potency. The work is commonly attributed to Stefan Falimirz who was, in fact, only its translator and compiler.
It was based on different texts, most notably the popular Hortus sanitatis. The compilatory nature of the work is also evident from its artwork, which shows signs of having been inspired by various foreign sources.
On Herbs and their Potency - Page with image of asphodel (1534) by Stefan FalimirzPolish History Museum
In the circle of woodcut illustrations
On Herbs and Their Potency was illustrated with a total of over 550 engravings, some of which had been used before to decorate Macer’s work and some for other prints made by Ungler. 503 woodcuts were commissioned specifically for the pharmacopoeia.
Their quality suggests that they were made in one of the local workshops and the artists who created them did not cling to selected patterns but instead often modified them by introducing subtle simplifications or using mirror images of original compositions.
On Herbs and their Potency - Page with image of wild strawberry (1534) by Stefan FalimirzPolish History Museum
Following the example of foreign titles, some printed copies were later coloured which might have made them more attractive to potential buyers.
“[…] my dear Florian not only spared no effort but worked all the time to make sure that this book is meticulously embellished with new lettering and beautiful figures in the most appealing way.”
Successive editions of Ungler's compendium
A few years after Ungler’s death, his widow, Helena, benefited from the popularity of the Garden of Health and published a rework of the print under the title: On Domestic and Overseas Herbs.
On Domestic and Overseas Herbs - Middle pages with illustrations (1542) by Hieronim SpiczyńskiPolish History Museum
Some of the engravings used by Helena were already known from the pharmacopeia published by her husband, but many were new and stood out thanks to the quality of their craftsmanship, which manifested in a greater attention to detail and fidelity to nature.
On Domestic and Overseas Herbs - Middle pages with illustrations (1556) by Hieronim SpiczyńskiPolish History Museum
The same print, its artwork practically unchanged, was published a decade or so later, which was all the more surprising given that, by that time, the compilation had become very much out-dated.
Even more interestingly, another edition of the Garden of Health was published in 1568, this time in Mikołaj Szarfenberger’s workshop, with the title Herbarium Or the Description of Domestic, Foreign and Overseas Herbs.
Herbarium Or the Description of Domestic, Foreign and Overseas Herbs - Middle pages (1568) by Marcin SiennikPolish History Museum
“I printed the Herbarium again because it was much needed and people often enquired after it, asking me to take it into my workshop again and make it available to the Poles, which I gladly did not so much for my own profit, as ad communem utilitatem of the common people.”
Even though the copious notes that can be found on the folios of Marcin Siennik’s Herbarium suggest that the compendium was indeed often consulted and thus very popular, it proved to be the last Polish edition of the Garden of Health.
Text by Aleksandra Jakóbczyk-Gola, Katarzyna Krzak-Weiss, Tomasz Kandziora
Project financed by the Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw