Carolus Clusius


Carolus Clusius (1526-1609, also known as Charles de l’Escluse) was a Flemish scholar who specialized in the upcoming field of natural history. He is most famous for describing numerous new plant species in illustrated books, and for constructing the botanical garden at the university of Leiden in 1594. Clusius was part of a European community of amateur and expert naturalists. Their shared passion for plants, their intensive collaboration, and large-scale exchange of knowledge and material caused a renaissance in the study of botany.


Clusius & the botanical renaissance

Carolus Clusius was a renowned scholar from the Southern Netherlands. After graduating from the Collegium Trilingue in Louvain and attending courses in law and medicine at several European universities, he specialized in the upcoming field of natural history, especially botany.

Clusius by J. de Monte, 1584 © University Libraries Leiden

Clusius by J. de Monte, 1584 © University Libraries Leiden

As an expert in languages he produced translations of medicinal treatises, herbals and travel accounts for his publisher Christoph Plantin in Antwerp. He also attended gardens of emperors and aristocrats, and eventually created the first botanical garden of the Netherlands at the university of Leiden in 1594.

Clusius became best known for his original research on exotic and indigenous plants and animals, which he based on observations in the field and in the gardens and cabinets of his patrons and his many friends. He described hundreds of new plant and animal species, and even mushrooms, in beautiful Latin texts and in accurate woodcuts. His collected works, Rariorum plantarum historia (Antwerp 1601) and Exoticorum libri decem (Leiden 1605), became works of reference. These publications, and many others by Clusius, can be consulted on the Missouri Botanical Garden Library’s website

Clusius was not alone. He collaborated with hundreds of people from all over Europe. These amateur and expert naturalists came from different social and intellectual backgrounds, but they were united by a shared passion for nature, gardening, medicine and travel. Among them were physicians, merchants, apothecaries, aristocrats, gardeners, and many knowledgeable women. This community exchanged letters, illustrations, specimens, descriptions and experiences, often on a grand scale, and their collaborative efforts to study nature from Europe and overseas resulted in the so-called botanical renaissance of the sixteenth century.

Tulpengekte - Johannes de Jonghe aan Clusius, 1596-05-14, Vul. 101 UBL

De Jonghe to Clusius, 1596 © University Libraries Leiden

Further reading

As one of the central figures of the botanical renaissance of the sixteenth century, Clusius, his work, and his network have already received considerable attention. Especially the old biography by F.W.T. Hunger, Charles de l’Escluse (Carolus Clusius). Nederlandsch kruidkundige, 1526–1609 (2 vol., The Hague 1927–1942) is still of great value.

Inspired by the new cultural history of science, the NWO-funded Clusius Research Project (2005-2011, Leiden University) focused on the collaborative nature of his research and on his network and correspondence. You are encouraged to use the publications resulting from this project, listed below, to gain more knowledge about the life, letters, work and network of Clusius and his many contacts, as well as older literature.