One day in the autumn of 1562, a ship sailed into the harbor at Antwerp carrying a cargo of cloth from Istanbul. Somewhere among the bales of Eastern fabrics, consigned to one of the great merchants of the town, were tulip bulbs, perhaps the first ever seen in this part of northern Europe.
The Flemish merchant who had ordered the cloth was surprised to find that his consignment included a package of tulips. Perhaps they had been intended as a gift, stuffed in among the fabrics by a grateful Ottoman who was making a decent profit on the shipment. At any rate the merchant had not been expecting them and did not want them. He did not even know what they were. Thinking the bulbs must be some strange Turkish sort of onion, he had most of them roasted and ate them for his supper, seasoned with oil and vinegar. The rest he planted in his vegetable patch, next to the cabbages.
Thus it was that in the spring of 1563, a few strange flowers poked their heads above the dung and detritus of an Antwerp kitchen garden—somewhat to the disgust of the garden’s owner, who had been looking forward to another meal or two of Turkish onions. The petals were red and yellow in color, and stood out in their delicacy and elegance from the drab leaves of the root vegetables that surrounded them. These fortunate survivors of the cloth dealer’s dinner may well have been the first tulips to flower in the Netherlands, and even the Flemish merchant guessed that the latest products of his cabbage patch were something out of the ordinary. He had never seen plants like them before, and, his interest piqued, a day or two later he took a visitor out into his garden and asked him what they were.
The visitor was Joris Rye, a businessman from the nearby town of Mechelen, whom the cloth merchant knew took a keen interest in horticulture. Almost certainly Rye did not recognize the flowers either; tulips were still all but unknown in northern Europe at this time, and Gesner’s description of them had yet to be published. Nevertheless, the cloth merchant’s visitor was one of the few men in Antwerp who would have understood the importance of preserving the unusual new red and yellow flowers he was shown that day. He was an enthusiastic botanist who filled his own garden back in Mechelen with rare breeds of plants and maintained an extensive correspondence with many of the most prominent horticulturists of the day. So when, with his friend’s permission, Rye transplanted the surviving tulip bulbs from the cabbage patch to Mechelen, he did more than just plant them and cultivate them; he wrote to tell his scientific friends what he had found and asked for their assistance and advice.
One of Joris Rye’s most enthusiastic correspondents was Carolus Clusius, an exceptionally able botanist in his late thirties who had already spent many years traveling through Europe searching for rare and valuable plants. If Rye was going to tell anyone about his new discovery, it would probably be him. So it may well have been in 1563 that Clusius first heard about the tulip.
Clusius was not his real name. He was born Charles de L’Escluse in the French city of Arras in February 1526. His mother was a goldsmith’s daughter and his father an extremely minor member of the nobility, whose lordship at Waténes was so poor that he had been forced to take an administrative job at a monastery at St. Vaast to help support his family. This proved to be a piece of good fortune, so far as young Charles was concerned, because at a time when many young aristocrats spent more time learning how to hunt and fight than they did in the classroom, it meant he attended the monastery school and received a thorough education.
De L’Escluse proved to be an able student. From St. Vaast he went on to the highly regarded Latin School at Ghent and then to Louvain, which at that time possessed the only university in the Netherlands. He learned Flemish, Greek, and Latin and—in accordance with his father’s wishes—studied law, receiving his degree in 1548. But at Louvain de L’Escluse did more than learn of legal precedents. It was almost certainly there that he first encountered the Protestant heresy that Martin Luther and his followers had been spreading across northern Europe. Despite, or perhaps because of, his monastic upbringing, de L’Escluse found Luther’s arguments persuasive, and he abandoned Catholicism. This meant he no longer felt safe at Louvain, and thus it proved to be the second great turning point in his life.
It is easy, now, to underestimate the significance of de L’Escluse’s conversion, and it is important to remember that religion, in the mid-sixteenth century, remained firmly at the center of both public and private life. It played a role in the lives of almost everyone—even people, like Charles de L’Escluse, who were not especially religious. To turn one’s back on Rome meant risking not only the wrath of the Church, which taught that heretics could expect only damnation, but also of Europe’s Catholic monarchs, who, with the Inquisition’s help, often did what they could to ensure that Protestants entered into eternal life sooner than they expected. Louvain was one of the dominions of the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, whose possessions stretched from Germany to Spain—a man so pious that he ended his reign by becoming a Catholic monk. That meant de L’Escluse was in very real danger. During one period of persecution, his own uncle was burned at the stake for embracing the same heresy that he now professed. De L’Escluse decided he would be better off in the Protestant lands.
Not daring to tell his staunchly Catholic father where he was going, he journeyed to the town of Marburg, where the local German princeling, Philip the Magnanimous, the landgrave of Hesse, had recently founded a university specifically to educate the burgeoning Lutheran elite. De L’Escluse enrolled there with the intention of reading law. But while at Marburg he found himself increasingly attracted to the study of botany, and he began to take long walks around the local countryside, searching for rare and unusual plants.
At this time botany was not regarded as a distinct subject, worthy of study in its own right. It existed only as a branch of medicine and then merely as an aid to identifying medicinal plants and herbs. In order to pursue his interest in botany, de L’Escluse had to abandon law and become a student of medicine. This he did in the summer of 1549. It was also at about this time that he Latinized his name to Carolus Clusius.
It was de L’Escluse’s decision to become Clusius that really suggests that his espousal of Lutheranism had more to do with an acquired distaste for the Catholic religion than with any great faith in the new ideas. Latin names were in fashion among the humanists—those who rejected old-fashioned and claustrophobic religious authority in favor of the rediscovery of the secular ideals of the Classical age. Clusius’s passion for botany, and his willingness to move from Catholic lands to Protestant and back again in pursuit of his beloved plants, mark him out as a humanist first and foremost.
For the rest of his life, Clusius traveled almost incessantly. He studied in Montpellier, Antwerp, and Paris and spent months tramping through Provence and Spain and Portugal in search of new plants. He went to England, where he met Sir Francis Drake. At thesame time he began to earn a reputation as a scientist, publishing books on medicine and pharmacy and entering into what became a prodigious and lifelong correspondence with fellow botanists throughout Europe. It has been estimated that Clusius wrote as many as four thousand letters during his lifetime, an astonishing quantity in an age when the posts were not only slow and unreliable but also expensive enough to consume a large portion of the botanist’s meager income. So when an unknown flower bloomed in an Antwerp kitchen garden, he was a natural choice to receive a letter from Joris Rye.
When Rye’s first crop of tulips flowered in 1564, Clusius was in Spain on one of his protracted botanical field trips. But twelve months later he was back in the Netherlands, and it may have been in this year that he saw the flower himself for the first time. This is not certain, since he did not mention tulips in any of his writings before 1570, but it can hardly have happened any later than 1568, when the botanist actually moved to Rye’s hometown, Mechelen, to live with his friend Jean de Brancion. Clusius was quick to recognize the importance of Rye’s discovery, acknowledging that the brilliant new flowers “bring pleasure to our eyes by their charming variety.” But he remained a man of science first and foremost, and when he heard from Rye that the tulips’ original owner had eaten them with relish, he resolved to investigate their potential as a foodstuff. He had a Frankfurt apothecary named Müler preserve some bulbs in sugar and then ate them as sweetmeats. They proved, in his considered opinion, to be far tastier than orchids.
Even in a war-torn and frequently starving Europe, tulips never really caught on as a delicacy (though they were consumed in quantity by the Dutch during the “hunger winter” they endured at the end of the Second World War). The central role that Clusius played in the history of the flower had nothing to do with the experiments he conducted with Müler and everything to do with his habit of dispatching specimens of the plants he encountered to correspondents all over Europe. As slow as the European mails of the time were, they were unlikely to harm tulip bulbs, and thanks in large part to Clusius and his circle the flower established itself in gardens from Jena to Vienna, Hungary to Hesse.
By now the botanist was at the height of his powers. A contemporary portrait shows a long-faced gentleman of obvious intelligence with a steady, piercing gaze. He appears handsome and distinguished and wears his hair brushed back from his forehead, his mustache thick and his beard short and neatly clipped above a full ruff, in the fashion of the day. For a solitary man who never married and had minimal contact with his family for years on end, Clusius had a remarkable number of friends. In person he was both earnest and—being often troubled by ill health—inclined to melancholy, yet there was obviously something very compelling about him, for he maintained lifelong friendships with dozens of men and women from very different backgrounds. His skill with languages must have been a help—he spoke at least nine, including French, Flemish, Italian, English, Spanish, German, and Latin—but it was undoubtedly his passion for plants and his extraordinary knowledge of botany that made so many people in so many different countries look forward to his next letter and anticipate the wonders his packages might contain. His correspondent Marie de Brimeu, whose proper title was princess de Chimay, and who lived at The Hague, seems to have harbored something approaching maternal feelings for the old bachelor and sent him numerous presents and parcels of food. It was Marie who bestowed on Clusius perhaps the compliment he treasured most; he was, she wrote, “the father of every beautiful garden in this land.”
Clusius was not the only botanist spreading bulbs and seeds about the continent in this way—some of the tulips he grew for himself in Mechelen had been sent to him by his friend Thomas Rehdiger from Padua—but he was probably the most active, not least because his repeated and lengthy absences abroad meant he rarely kept a garden of his own. Instead, he took pleasure in stocking the gardens of his friends, and they in turn provided him with a host of experimental seedbeds with which to investigate the properties of the plants he had discovered.
Clusius made full use of his friends’ gardens in preparing some of the masterful botanical studies to which he devoted much of the latter part of his life. These books, which included detailed studies of the flora of Spain, Austria, and Provence, were among the first to assume that plants are more than simply potential ingredients in the dubious medical preparations of the day and are worthy of study in their own right. Because of this Clusius has always been considered one of the fathers of botany, not least because he developed a system for classifying plants in groups according to their characteristics—an idea that would later be taken up by Carl Linnaeus and turned into one of the foundation stones of modern science.
In May 1573, while Clusius was still living in Mechelen and busy distributing tulip bulbs and other plants throughout Europe, he was asked by the Holy Roman emperor, Maximilian II, to go to Vienna and establish an imperial hortus—or botanic garden—there. This was a tempting offer. Clusius’s father, whom he had been supporting, had just died at the age of eighty-one, freeing his son from the burden of caring for him. The proposed salary of five hundred Rhine guilders a year would let Clusius—who had been embarrassingly dependent on the charity of friends for years—live comfortably at last. And Maximilian wanted a garden to outshine those his princes and nobles had been cultivating. Clusius, whose poverty and scanty claim to the ranks of nobility had left him with something of an inferiority complex, was flattered by the attention and grateful that the emperor offered formal acknowledgment of his status as a noble. In addition, he already knew a little about his prospective patron, who was one of the few emperors ever to show sympathy toward the Protestant faith; his friend and regular correspondent Johannes Crato von Krafftheim was Maximilian’s personal physician. The reports he received were positive and the task certainly seemed an interesting one. So he accepted the proposal.
Today Vienna is a central European city noted for its culture. In Clusius’s day, though, it was very much a frontier town. Although it was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and the home of the imperial court, it was also only fifty miles from the Ottoman border and was known, not merely to the empire, as “the front line of Christendom.” Under Süleyman the Turks had laid siege to Vienna with a quarter of a million men in 1529, and they would return again in 1683. So for all the elegance of the imperial residence, the palace of Schönbrunn, the beauty of the broad sweep of the Danube, and the bustle of the narrow, crowded streets in the center of the town, the state of the gates and the walls mattered more than the addition of a few flower beds. Gardens were something of a luxury.
From the moment Clusius arrived, he discovered that while there were advantages to working for an emperor, his job was attended by many frustrations. Maximilian was busy, and Clusius had to wait two months for an audience and more than a year for any sign of activity at the site chosen for the garden. Worse, the imperial chamberlain in charge of both the finances for the hortus and arranging Clusius’s own pay turned out to be a strict Catholic who made life as difficult as he could for the Protestant botanist. On the other hand, Clusius did begin to receive regular parcels containing the bulbs and seeds of many plants from the imperial ambassador at Istanbul, and he struck up a botanical friendship with Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, who was now back at court. The two men exchanged presents of plants, and when Busbecq left for France in 1573, he presented his friend with a large quantity of seed. Clusius did not get the opportunity to plant it for another two or three years, by which time Busbecq’s gift had shriveled so badly that he feared the seed was dead; but it did germinate eventually and turned into a spectacular profusion of tulips— a suitable mark indeed of the friendship between two champions of the flower.
For all that, the garden project continued to languish, and by the summer of 1576 Clusius’s pay was eleven months in arrears. Then Maximilian died suddenly, and matters took a turn for the worse. The new emperor, Rudolf II, was a Catholic zealot who dismissed every Protestant serving at his court. Worse, he had little interest in flowers, and the fledgling hortus was torn up so the land could be turned into a riding school. Clusius was horrified. Although his services were always in demand, he never in his life worked for another monarch.
He stayed on in Vienna for a while, disillusioned and plagued by repeated thefts of rare plants from the private garden he still maintained there. At a time when much-coveted plants might exist in only one or two gardens in the whole of Europe, the organized theft of specimens was, if not exactly commonplace, then certainly far from unknown. Like antique thieves today, the men who carried out these crimes were often knowledgeable connoisseurs in their own right and knew exactly what they were looking for. (Those who didn’t simply bribed the ill-paid servants who acted as gardeners for the necessary information.) The plant thieves generally worked for nobles and merchants who wanted an enviable garden of their own for minimal effort. Miscreants such as these seldom made any effort to conceal the evidence of their activities, but there were no police to investigate such crimes, and the authorities were not remotely interested in prosecuting the well-connected for such trivial offenses. On at least one occasion Clusius was forced to grind his teeth while a Viennese noblewoman proudly conducted him around flower beds she had stocked with plants stolen from his garden.
Carolus Clusius was a very old man now, over sixty and half crippled by a bad fall in his bath. He suffered from undiagnosed stomach complaints and had lost all his teeth; and now that his imperial salary had been stopped, he was badly off again and needed some way to supplement the meager income from his lordship and the occasional food parcels he received from his friends. He yearned, too, for some sort of academic recognition of his life’s work. And in the end it came.