Art + Botany: A Xylotheque's Cabinet of Curiosities

Art + Botany: A Xylotheque's Cabinet of Curiosities

May 6, 2011
Photo by: Mikael Risedal

With its flourishing book industry and emphasis on natural history, the Age of Enlightenment introduced new ways of bringing science and culture to curious audiences. One of its most remarkable inventions was the xylotheque. From the Greek words xylos, 'wood,' and theque, 'repository,' a xylotheque is, literally a "library of wood"—however, something is lost in this translation. To its audiences, the xylotheque was an experiential botanic expedition, an exquisite art form, and an ingenious way to examine the beauty and value of its plant specimens. 

An enhanced version of botanical books that merely illustrated the taxonomy of trees, these volumes were in fact fabricated from their subjects. They were bound in the bark of their respective tree, covered with moses and lichens, and filled with pages fabricated from the tree's leaves. Hinged with bark, each "book" opened to reveal a cabinet of curiosity. The hollow interior was an exhibit of the tree's anatomy: tucked neatly inside were dried leaves, seeds, flowers, and a piece of the root. A written description of the tree's biology and economic use was nested within the spine. Fabulously literal and remarkably beautiful, the xylotheque was a library of art and science, in equal parts. 

The Wooden Library in Alnarp is one of the best preserved exhibits of xylotheque volumes. The collection contains 217 volumes; it was made in Nurnberg, Germany, circa 1805-1810.


Image credit: Mikael Risedal

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.