In Frankfurt in 1592, one Jacob Hoefnagel, then still just nineteen years old, produced a book of fifty-two engravings based on paintings by his father Joris. The book’s full Latin title translates as: Archetypes and verses by Joris Hoefnagel, his father, are presented, engraved in copper under the guidance of his genius, and freely communicated in friendship to all lovers of the Muses by his son Jacob. The book comprised four sections, each with its own title-page and a dozen engravings of assorted flora and fauna. There follows a selection of images scanned from a reprint of the book produced by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, in 1994.
Joris Hoefnagel was born in Antwerp, in 1542, into a wealthy merchant family. He attended University in Bourges, and Orléans, but religious turmoil cut his studies short. He was in Spain (on business) between 1563 and 1567: his earliest known sketches date from this period. He then spent two years in England before returning to Antwerp in 1570. He was married there the following year, and Jacob, his first child, was born in 1573. He left Antwerp again in 1575, travelling first to Venice, where he received his first artistic commission: to sketch views of the city for an atlas. He visited Germany for the first time the following year, securing an appointment as court painter for Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria. Before settling in Munich, however, the artist continued his travels, spending time in Rome and Naples in 1577.
Hoefnagel remained in Munich until the Counter-Reformation occasioned a change for the worse in the prevailing religious climate, one which obliged him to leave for Frankfurt (in 1591). As he changed cities, he exchanged patrons, leaving the service of Albrecht’s successor Wilhelm V for that of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II. The artist spent three or four years in Frankurt before yet another religious dispute uprooted him: it is thought that he settled next in Vienna, where he lived and worked until his death in 1600 or 1601. Jacob Hoefnagel’s biography is no less eventful: after his father’s death he lived variously in Italy, Prague and Sweden, and seemingly spent as much of his time entangled in financial quarrels of various kinds as he did painting or engraving.
The Archetypa is notable as one of the earliest books in which plants, and, more especially, insects (and other coldbloods) were depicted with any degree of ‘scientific’ accuracy. Even so, it would be a stretch to consider it a prototypical work of natural history, as Hoefnagel’s compositions are highly contrived and artificial. A few of the beasties depicted therein, moreover, are still drawn as much from imagination as from observation. The Archetypa was, we are told, widely used as a source-book by other artists, and its influence can apparently be traced throughout 17th-Century still-life painting.
Each of the Archetypa’s engravings includes a couple of Latin mottoes or verses, and this combination of text and image also lends the work an emblematic quality. The texts are often pious, devotional, or cautionary: many are Biblical or Classical quotations, others were devised by (Joris) Hoefnagel himself. The motto heading the engraving below states, for instance This variety in the ornament of the world: this is the glory of the highest artist. And, on the engraving above: Let us not investigate God’s works inquisitively using human reasoning; but, guided by the works, let us admire instead the artist.