Smelling the Paper Flowers: Nature Brought to Life from Ad vivum to Virtuality

By Saara Penttinen |

An ad vivum image is often understood as meaning something created “from life”, as in as a direct result of natural observation. The phrase was somewhat fashionable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, used by naturalists, poets, and scholars trying to depict the relationship between art and nature. There is, however, more than meets the eye in the phrase. The relationship between nature and the representation was endlessly more complex than a one-way street like this. In fact, a more direct translation, “to life”, could actually be more fitting. The term was often used to refer to the faithful likeness to the original – or something even beyond just likeness. To put it briefly, a representation was never merely a representation, experience did not necessarily have to be direct, and the lifelikeness was often all in the eyes of the beholder.

At the library of the London Natural History Museum, one of the partners at Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, you will find a beautiful example of ad vivum imagery, the rare coloured edition of Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii Iacobus F: genio duce ab ipso scalpta, omnibus philomusis amicé D: ac perbenigné communicat. As the book in question adequately demonstrates the complexities of first and secondhand observations in the early modern world, it is somewhat ironic that, given the current circumstances, this copy could only be examined in a detailed digital facsimile. Whether or not this piece can therefore be regarded as an ad vivum work in itself, is up for debate.

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Joris Hoefnagel’s Archetypa. Image courtesy of The Natural History Museum, AN 423501, [p.8].
The Flemish father-and-son collaboration and an influential masterpiece in the genre of natural history illustrations, the Archetypa, is has been praised not only as a basis of the Dutch still-life genre alongside earlier prints by the same author, but also as the first publication, in the creation of which a microscope was used. Both claims are somewhat controversial, but one thing that is certain is that the engravings were used as models for countless natural history works up until the nineteenth century.

Published in 1592 in Frankfurt, the book is a collection of 48 engravings of insects, plants and small animals created mostly by the then only 19-year-old Jacob Hoefnagel. He based them on the designs and the natural history studies of his better-known multitalented father: the printmaker, painter, and miniatyrist, Joris (or Georg) Hoefnagel. Since the plates are fairly uneven in quality, the members of the famous de Bry family, also based in Frankfurt at the time, have been suspected to be the engravers of some of them. According to the USTC, it exists as at least 8 copies. Additional three copies reside in the Natural History Museum Library. The copy in question [USTC, forthcoming; AN 232287] is rare as it is coloured and also has some contemporary annotations, mostly referring to other works and authors of natural history, such as Ulisse Aldrovandi.

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Joris Hoefnagel’s Archetypa. Image courtesy of The Natural History Museum, AN 423501, [p.24].
It is easy to see some of the complexities of ad vivum here: first, there was the naturalist, Joris, observing nature, possibly through a microscope, creating sketches by direct observation – then there was the son, Jacob (or possibly in some cases, one of the de Brys) taking these sketches and making the engravings, and printing them into a book. An unknown person then added colour to the printed work, and later, the images were examined and used to create an endless succession of new images. The relationship to the original butterfly or the mouse can be assumed to have faded away by each representation.

But was this how ad vivum was understood at the time of the Hoefnagels? The answer is of course: no. One of the most cited early modern scholars and naturalists, Conrad Gessner, wrote about ad vivum in one of his letters researched by Sachiko Kusukawa. To him, ad vivum was all in the eyes of the beholder: a true ad vivum image was able to provoke the same response in the viewer as the actual natural object could have done. It could make the person sense also other senses: to smell the scent of flowers, to hear the buzz of busy bees. Therefore, the replication of images from a book like the Hoefnagel’s Archetypa was not only making copies of copies, but in fact, since the images themselves were able to catch the essences of the things depicted, a secondhand observation could be regarded as good as a firsthand observation. In other words, an ad vivum image had the power to bring its subject to life in the senses of the beholder, and thus enabled the creation of images of the same quality.

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Joris Hoefnagel’s Archetypa. Image courtesy of The Natural History Museum, AN 232287, [p.20].
My own research subject, virtuality, is a concept as multifaceted and often misunderstood as ad vivum, but these are not the only things the two have in common. The everyday understanding of virtuality as indeed something ‘as good as’ the real thing originates from the fifteenth century having its basis in the very effect on the beholder as well. To take away the common understandings embedded in modern technologies, the philosophical roots still stand: something artificial standing in for the real thing, and all the problems and possibilities that come from this idea.

The images of Hoefnagel can be understood as representations of natural things, but then again, the Archetypa was an emblem book, a popular genre at the time originating from Medieval bestiaries: each page had a text in connection with an image, explaining the relationship between the title and the image. All this was to be contemplated upon; Moreover, the actual thing contemplated upon was not the natural thing itself, but the miracle of its creation by God. Therefore, the engravings had the same function as the objects in the cabinets of curiosity at the time. There was more than met the eye in the images, more than the senses could be fooled to convey.

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Joris Hoefnagel’s Archetypa. Image courtesy of The Natural History Museum, AN 232287, [p.43].
Is it the same thing to look at an image as to look at the real object? The two things can’t be paralleled, but in search of a more authentic alternative, no one questions that an image can, to some extent, substitute or even replace the real thing. Especially nowadays, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we should be getting very accustomed to the idea of the world being at least partially virtual, or ad vivum. The human mind can fill in the rest, thankfully: we can immerse ourselves into different worlds. We can, in fact, smell the paper flowers.



Ad vivum? Visual Materials and the Vocabulary of Life-Likeness in Europe before 1800. Eds. Balfe Thomas, Woodall, Joanna, & Zittel, Claus. Brill, Leiden 2019.

Ruestow, Edward G.: The Microscope in the Dutch Republic: The Shaping of Discovery. Cambridge University Press, New York 1996.

Kusukawa, Sachiko: “Conrad Gessner on an ‘Ad Vivum’ Image” in Ways of Making and Knowing: The Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge. Eds. Smith, Pamela H., Meyers, Amy R.W., & Cook, Harold J. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2014.

Vignau-Wilberg, Thea: Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii 1592. Natur, Dichtung und Wissenschaft in der Kunst um 1600, München 1994.

Welsch, Wolfgang: Virtual to Begin With? in Subjektivität und Öffentlichkeit –  Kulturwissenschaftliche Grundlagenprobleme virtueller Welten, eds. Mike Sandbothe & Winfrien Marotzki, pp. 25–60. Herbert von Halem Verlag, Köln 2000.

Saara Penttinen is a PhD Student at the University of Turku department of European and World History working on virtual worlds in seventeenth-century English cabinets of curiosity. She was a visiting associate at the Department of English at Queen Mary University of London in winter-spring 2019–2020. In summer 2019 she attended the USTC summer programme. Follow her @PenttinenSaara and

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