Of all the gardening books released thus far in 2006, there is one that stands out in the crowd. This extraordinary title from Prestel is “Florilegium Imperiale-Botanical Illustrations for Francis I of Austria” by H. Walter Lack.
Whether you’re interested in garden history or botanical art, one look at this will let you know it is no ordinary title. No review of this book can possibly be adequate. You simply need to experience this first hand.
This book accomplishes two feats through its unique plates and text. With this publication, readers can now enjoy access to these rare botanical illustrations, most of which have never appeared in publication before. In addition, for the first time, gardeners can read the fascinating history and development of the Imperial gardens of Francis I of Austria, the last monarch of the Holy Roman Empire.
Let’s start by looking at the art. This title’s large format does justice to the original watercolors, which were commissioned by Francis I. Matthias Schumtzer spent over 30 years painting every type of flower found in the monarch’s garden. The blossoms were depicted life-size, and show the different parts of the plant, such as the individual flower parts as well as the seeds, fruits, roots, and the like. Now for the very first time, readers can enjoy the lush beauty of this art in book form. There were over one thousand of the original watercolors with only six of those having ever appeared in print before.
“Florilegium Imperiale” features one hundred of the watercolors arranged by plant family. The lush, life-like paintings are presented in full-page images. For each of the plates, there are complete details in English and German on the facing page. These headings give the current Latin name and common names as well as the Latin name it was known by at the time that the artist did the watercolor. In addition, the front and back book covers are illustrated with some of the flowers from the paintings.
All sorts of plants are included here. These range from exotic tropicals that were grown in the greenhouses to hardy and tender bulbs, annual bedding plants, perennials, trees, and shrubs. Some of the plants were introductions from North America, such as magnolia and the tulip poplar. At the time these watercolors were painted, most of these species were newly introduced from far-flung areas of the globe. However, there are some native European plants in the gardens as well, such as violets and bellflowers.
Open the first page and you realize you’re in for a treat. The frontispiece depicts a stunning watercolor of a blue hydrangea. On the page facing the table of contents is a gorgeous double peony.
Impeccably researched and beautiful presented, the text by Lack provides an enlightening background that places the illustrations and the gardens within their historical context. In the introduction, Lack explains how the Austrian monarchy had played a key role in the rise of botany and horticulture in Vienna prior to the reign of Francis I. In the biographical chapter on the emperor, readers will learn how he truly deserved to be known as the “emperor of flowers.”
A chapter is devoted to the gardens and greenhouses with an in-depth account and history of the properties. This section is illustrated with historical materials, including original garden plans, paintings, and historical lithographs.
Lack explains that with one exception that the garden and park at Schonbrunn were opened to the general public in 1779, which was unheard of at that time in Europe.
In addition, the author provides an informative history of the botanical illustrations, how they were done by the artist, and what is known about him.
This book also contains chapters that shed light on the monarch and his gardens. One is an excerpt from a book originally published in 1881. This is entitled “Memories of Emperor Francis and His Garden” by Joseph Pfundheller. In this, Pfundheller writes about the royal family’s use of the gardens and elaborates on the fact that the monarch spent time in the gardens and greenhouse as part of his daily routine.
Following the plates, there’s an informative essay by Marina Heilmeyer, called “On the Trail of Emperor Francis and His Viennese Gardens.” In this, readers will learn what the gardens look like today. This essay is illustrated with lush color photos.
The index includes separate listings for people, places, and the various gardens along with one for the plants listed by Latin name.
The notes on the plates are presented in an easy to use table. Arranged by plate number, these list the current Latin name, date of the painting, and other information.
To protect the book when it isn't in use, this title comes with a specially designed slipcover. Readers will find the ribbon bookmark a convenience.
This title would make a delightful gift gardeners and art lovers.