Skip to content

Renaissance Secrets: Secret of the Winter Garden: Transcript

Updated Thursday, 1st September 2005

Follow Claudia Swan's journey uncovering 1,800 valuable paintings - and some surprises about Renaissance life.

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy


There have been times when I have been taken by surprise by what I've found myself researching - a range of topics I never really expected to get into, taking me by surprise, you know moments when I've thought, what am I doing now I'm an art historian

Our understanding of the past comes from relics that time leaves behind. When new discoveries are made, our history changes. Revealing a secret often leads to a better understanding of the past, but sometimes it leads to a greater mystery.

It's very drab, very grey, cold, raining, predictably sort of awful setting. The stairways are huge, classically fascistic architectural gestures, and at the same time that it has this grandness it's also incredibly drab.

Claudia Swan had travelled to Krakow to examine a collection of books that had ended up in Poland by an accident of war. They had been hidden in secret for half a century.

But the books were about to lead Claudia on a journey of discovery which would change her ideas of Renaissance science. She was an art historian entering unknown territory and nothing had quite prepared her for what she was about to see.

Nearly two thousand botanical watercolours, five hundred years old, and painted with stunning accuracy. There was nothing else quite like them in the world.

But where did they come from? Why were they painted? And what could they tell us about the past?

Drawing of apples CLAUDIA SWAN
What I found in Krakow are botanical water colours that are exquisitely rendered and extremely well preserved beyond my expectations. The depth of the colouring, the use of multiple shades of a given colour to render the various flowers, fruits, leaves in certain light conditions…

And the whites were intact! And white in itself, I think it takes a certain level of an artist to apply it quite boldly, to apply whites to render things like certain silky weeds and grasses and grains, completely intact.

Drawing of grasses CLAUDIA SWAN
In the honeysuckle we have a great example of this range of colours from the reds, the red berries, to the greens in the various leaves, and then particularly the whites of the flower - this succulent flower and its pinky-whites, yellow-whites and the whites of the petals.

Who could have owned the watercolours? Who made them? Claudia studied the paintings for clues, but the paintings gave little away. Only one thing seemed certain. These were products of the renaissance. Their vivid detail revealed a fascination with nature that was an obsession of the age.

Artists like Durer and Leonardo, to take the two great examples from Germany and Italy, were obsessed with getting things right. Now this wasn't a question of simply sitting down and photographing things with their eyes as it were, it's a lot more complicated than that. They want to understand how nature works in order to portray nature.

Durer's Great Piece of Turf is perhaps the supreme example, at least in Botany, of his depiction of natural form, and it's spine tingling! So we've got this extraordinary frisson - not just of a piece of turf sitting there, but of this active eye looking at it and saying what's that, how does that work look at that.

Durer represented plants, flowers, animals with an exacting attention that is the hallmark of the Renaissance.

There are a lot of artists who can draw animals well and they can sit the animal down if the animal will stay still and get a decent picture. What Durer can do and you in a sense can't say why he can do this because it's so extraordinary, is he can get this sort of twitching vitality where every bit of the hair of the hare seems to vibrate with nervous energy, and this creature sits there as alive as the day when Durer drew it.



It’s hard to imagine today that in the sixteenth century this was radical art - breaking new ground.


In a way you could characterise the study of nature almost as, as if you're making portraits. The Renaissance is the era of portraiture in a way, not just portraits of individuals which clearly is important, but portraits of plants, portraits of animals, and you begin to get this extraordinary sense of people sitting down and saying: “This is the individual plant, this is the individual animal,” and doing a portrait of it.

But what of Durer’s turf? How is this a portrait? There doesn’t seem to be any definite subject at all. But Durer’s observation was so precise that we can say that this is a portrait - a portrait of an edge of a German meadow in May. Durer has the hand of a great artist, but also the eye of a scientist.

Drawing of roses So what should we make of the mysterious watercolours? Who painted them? Why? And do they share a spirit of enquiry with Durer’s Great Piece of Turf? Claudia realised that to understand this Renaissance art, she had to enter the world of Renaissance science.

The more I looked at these watercolours, the more puzzling I found it that at one and the same time they are highly naturalistic, and there’s something very unnatural going on in a number of cases.

Take for example this blackcurrant, where the artist shows us both the fruit bearing branches of the shrub and flowering branches as well, and has sort of seamlessly shown them all so that we get a sense of the overall growth pattern of the tree - but has shown us the various stages of growth over time in a way we wouldn’t find in nature.

Drawing of blackcurrents NARRATOR
Claudia had come to Poland to reveal a secret, but she had stumbled upon a mystery. These paintings were not only Renaissance art, but Renaissance science; a glimpse of the cutting edge of human knowledge at the end of the sixteenth century. Notes in the margins of the pictures name each plant; painstakingly recorded in a number of languages; Greek, Latin, Italian, French and German. And there were scattered references to possible medicinal uses.



Apples Bust of Carolus Clusius NARRATOR
So how did they relate to real life? And was she getting any closer to a possible owner? Perhaps a scientist or a medical man. One candidate stood out - Carolus Clusius, a famous botanist of the sixteenth century, and a professor at Leiden university in Holland.



Having seen the watercolours in Krakow I raced back to Leiden to answer a whole constellation of questions about the relationship between these works on paper and the actual practice of botany and more broadly medicine at Leiden, at the university, and specifically in the garden in the 1590s.

Leiden was a very young university, it started in 1575 and it was the first university in Holland. The Hortus Botanicus was part of the university, in fact it was part of the medical school of the university, and they needed plants in those days to teach medicine because plants were used for healing people. Garden

But before the university could create a garden they needed an expert and Carolus Clusius was an obvious choice - widely travelled and famous throughout Europe for his botanical knowledge.

He came here after a long and very busy life collecting plants, writing about them in books, translating other people's very famous people's books, and when the university started the garden they wanted to have a very famous person, you could say more or less a status symbol.

Clusius arrived in Leiden in October 1593, and the botanical garden was finished within a year. Its rapid completion was thanks to the appointment of a local pharmacist called Dierk Klout as gardener, who came with an extensive personal plant collection.

The garden was a centre of learning, but also a place where botanical knowledge was being structured and ordered. The flowers remind us of recreational gardens, but here every plant had a place, and a purpose. In a Leiden archive an early plan of the garden shows exactly how it would have been laid out when Clusius was in charge.

Garden flowers PIETER BAAS
It was an extremely clever system with the garden being subdivided in a number of main rectangles, and I hope I can show this in this very first map which you see here. So we have four sectors here which are divided into four, and each of these segments was again divided into small beds. And each actual bed had a subdivision into ? and that is indicated here on the map. So twenty-four small plots.

The students came to this garden to learn the plants. They had to come here every day with the professor, and they had a little book with a folding map of the garden, of plants with all the little beds on it, and they had… on the right page of the book they had one bed and they wrote numbers. The professor said “This is a peony”, or whatever you want to have, and so they wrote: “Number one peony”, and on the opposite bed, “Number one peony. So they did the whole plant bed and finally when it was finished they had to learn it. And they went on to another plant bed.

For students it was a formidable task. Hundreds of species had to be learnt by appearance at different times of the year. But where did Claudia’s paintings fit in? How did they relate to the real plants growing in the garden?

It’s clear walking through a Renaissance garden like this one how a set of watercolours of this scope would have functioned as a winter garden. So whereas in the spring, summer, and even the fall the contents of the actual garden were used for hands on study (observation of plants) particularly for their medicinal values, the water colours would have served as a winter garden insofar as they stood in for the contents of that garden in the winter months when the garden was dormant.

One piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. The vast collection of watercolours that the great botanist Clusius was assumed to have brought to Leiden was a teaching tool - berries, blossom, leaves, and buds, all displayed on a single page to be memorised.

To encounter this kind of a collection of images, a winter garden, is to encounter a nexus of the worlds of art, and science, specifically Medicine.

Bust of Carolus Clusius NARRATOR
But medical students didn’t only study plants. Public dissections, at the university’s anatomical theatre would have revealed new secrets, peeling back the layers of the human body. No one knew how the body worked, let alone how to use internal surgery to cure illness. But anatomists could at least chart its mysterious regions.

But medical students didn’t only study plants. Public dissections, at the university’s anatomical theatre would have revealed new secrets, peeling back the layers of the human body. No one knew how the body worked, let alone how to use internal surgery to cure illness. But anatomists could at least chart its mysterious regions.


The Renaissance is an age of discovery, of charting and mapping - the mapping of the human body, the mapping of the immediate outside nature, and the mapping of the distant worlds in a literally global way.


Exploration was a Renaissance obsession. Voyages of discovery were opening up new worlds - confronting nature that hadn’t only been unknown, but was unimagined. As sailors returned with tales of fabulous new creatures, artists like Durer grappled with the problems of depicting wonders which had only been encountered through hearsay.

What we see in Albrecht Durer is a reaction to the wonders of this new world which are coming in. Suddenly all sorts of things which had never been seen before made by distant human beings and made by distant nature, and there was this sense of wonder. And you needed to re-classify nature, you needed to re-order it, you needed to get a grip on this.

Probably, the most famous of these exotic things that Durer portrayed is the rhinoceros. Now he did this on the basis of somebody else's description, and he produces this wonderful rhinoceros, in a sense it's more rhinoceros than a rhinoceros because, it's full of this armour. It's better than the real thing!

But the scientific investigations also uncovered some bigger surprises that questioned the very essence of the painting.

But for botanists like Clusius there was no need to imagine the wonders of the new world. Explorers like Francis Drake returned to Europe with ships packed with newly discovered plants which were propagated and bartered across Europe.

It's difficult to imagine that objects like more or less everyday objects like, the tulip, the potato, spices from cloves to vanilla, were totally unknown, and considered wonders when they were first brought back to and cultivated in the old world.

Tulips CARLA TEUNE Clusius was the man who introduced the tulips in this part of Europe. Tulips had already been seen a little bit earlier, and we are sure that Clusius had seen pictures of Tulips. And as a real plant lover, collector, well you could say stamp collector almost, he wanted to have that plant.

We know that Carolus Clusius had tulips stolen from his garden over and over again. And friends offered to lend their guard dogs. People wrote to Clusius and begged him begged him, offered him cases of Sevillean oranges, all kinds of actually more or less equally exotic items, for a single tulip bulb.

The new knowledge was spread by a new technology - the printed book. Throughout his career Clusius published catalogues describing the many exotic plants imported from distant continents. Every voyage re-charted the boundaries of human experience.

Claudia turned to these books in search of more clues. How might Clusius have come to own the watercolours? How did they relate to his published illustrations? And how close were they to the cutting edge of botanical science? But the books only deepened the mystery.

The wood cuts in Carolus Clusius's botanical publication do not correspond with the water colours in Krakow to the extent that it would be possible to say that Clusius had used these water colours for his published work. In and of itself that's pretty shocking if Clusius was the owner of these water colours. what they owned as much about what they would like to be seen to own.

Why, would you own, why would you go to the expense and the trouble of commissioning upwards of eighteen hundred water colours, and then not use them in your heavily illustrated publications? It doesn't make sense!

Carolus Clusius is also tied into a vast network of correspondence, is himself a very distinguished correspondent in the world of science at the end of the sixteenth century. And in all of the published letters by Carolus Clusius there is not a single mention of his owning a collection of water colours that could correspond to those in Krakow.

So the origin of the Winter Garden was still a mystery. It was almost certain that Clusius hadn’t seen the pictures before he arrived in Leiden. So where had they come from? The breakthrough came as Claudia searched through Clusius’ letters. A sentence leapt out at her.

A collection of water colours that corresponds to those in Krakow, does come up in Carolus Clusius's correspondence. But, he's talking about somebody else, and he's talking about, the widow of a pharmacist.

Flower beds CARLA TEUNE
Although Carolus Clusius was the man who inspired this garden, it was another very famous man, an apothecary from Delft, Dirck Outgaertszon Klout who was the man who actually dug and planted the plants.

He was asked to become the director of the garden, but he had no academic education, so this young university said he was not good enough. But when Clusius came, and when he couldn’t work in the garden, they asked Mr Klout again to become the head gardener - what you call the curator or, in Latin, the hortulanus.



Apples Drawing of apples CLAUDIA SWAN
There are clear indications that Klout, who came to the Leidon university after Clusius was there, brought with him an extensive collection, and that that collection contained, not only the kinds of dried specimens of minerals and spices and plants that would have been crucial for his practice as a pharmacist, but also for the teaching function that he occupied when he was at Leidon, but he also brought with him a vast collection of botanical water colours.



A simple answer was emerging. But to find it, Claudia had to start thinking in a different way. She had to cross the boundary between art and science and explore the time when the wisdom of classical antiquity was thrown open to question.


We see in the Renaissance something very remarkable happening, and that is the great bodies of theoretical learning from Greek antiquity which had passed in various ways into the middle ages in the universities, bookish learning, being allied with the knowledge of the doers, the people who had hands on experience.

Clusius was a prime example of the bookish set, learned in Greek and Latin. But Dierk Klout was different. In Leiden’s archive there is the one known book that Klout published. The university academics of the day wouldn’t have considered it worthy of attention. After all it was only printed locally and written in Dutch. But in terms of science, Van de Beyen is a vision of the future.

He was the man who wrote the first scientific book on bees, and it's called On the Bees (Van de Beyen) and it is written in a dialogue between Clusius and Klout. Clusius comes in on a very nice summer day spring day like today, beautiful weather, he comes into the garden, and he asks Mr Klout about the bees how they are doing.

It is written in a an, accessible dialogue form - a conversation between two interlocutors, one of whom is Carolus Clusius, and the dialogue takes the form of a series of questions about, the generation of insects.


Drawing of snail and blackcurrents NARRATOR
It was thought that insects were created spontaneously from rotting meat. But Klout thought otherwise and his ideas were based on observation of the natural world rather than reading.

His carefully argued book shows Klout to be far more than a simple gardener or pharmacist. He was a gifted scientist who remained unrecognised. And what of the watercolours? Who painted them? No-one will ever know for sure, but Claudia’s studies suggest that Dierk Klout was more than a gardener, pharmacist and scientist. He was also a gifted painter. It could be that at least some of the watercolours were actually painted by this lost man of the renaissance.

After his death, students of the medical school petitioned to employ Klout’s son - on the sole basis that he was now the owner of their winter garden. The pictures have now been reconnected with Leiden. But the greatest secret of the Winter Garden is what they have revealed of the man who owned and perhaps painted them.

The really interesting thing about this tiny Renaissance garden is that it gives us a great view onto what is a fundamentally outmoded idea of how renaissance science worked. On the one hand, centrally located in the garden that bears his name, we have a monumental bust, statue, portrait of Carolus Clusius.

On the other hand, here in the corner of the garden, we have a monument to Dirk Klout. It’s a set of six beehives that record his work here, his practice, his observation and investigation of the natural world.


What we have in the Renaissance is the very interesting phenomenon where the learning about nature is not so much an abstract book learning but it intersects with these people who are doers, they have the hands on experience. So the particular empiricism, the particular kind of experience in the Renaissance is this very potent mix, of very high level abstract theory, and absolutely concrete doing.

The really major message here for me at least was that it is, figures who are easy to under estimate like the figure of the local pharmacist, who are really pushing the scientific enterprise in this time.

The contributions that were made to what we think of as scientific progress were not made exclusively by any means by the big guys.






Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?