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The Art of Discovery: How a Scientific Revolution and an Artistic Renaissance Met in the New World

by Steve Carr
November 2014

In 1759, Spain’s new King, Carlos III, launched 50 years of continuous exploration, with almost 60 individual botanical expeditions to the New World, a record unmatched by any other country at the time. The explorers studied glaciers in Alaska, volcanoes in Mexico, the Pampas of Argentina, and the jungles of the Philippines. There was so much manpower involved in planning, funding, recruiting, training, supplying, exchanging correspondence, and recording and processing the new data that the term, “Scientific Colonial Machine” was sometimes used to describe it, and for decades, it had a sustained institutional presence. Today, we might call it an expedition-industrial-complex.

The King wanted society to focus more attention on science, as was evident in his moving of Madrid’s Botanical Gardens from the outskirts of town to the bustling (and fashionable) Paseo del Prado.

In 1781 King Carlos III founded the “Pueblo” of Los Angeles, California and today the historic area is marked with a statue in his honor.

As we will see, these explorers would intersect with a very robust, Renaissance-oriented artistic community, especially in (but not limited to) South America. The artists would become an integral part of the scientific expeditions, and in the end, Europe would see the New World through their eyes. The mission-orientation of these expeditions attracted the best and the brightest from both vocations, and eventually these circles would provide the core of the patriotic and intellectual networks that filled entire continents with new nation-states.

The Leibnizian truth-seeking of these explorers came into confrontation with Europe’s more Newtonian approach to science, and their art challenged the conventions of the day from Europe’s increasingly irrational art academies. Many of the expedition leaders tried to model themselves after the Spanish physician, Francisco Hernández de Toledo (1514-87), who traveled across Mexico for seven years, starting in 1570, to study New World medicine. Many believed that the vast worldwide network of scientific collaboration could be a perfect model for political collaboration, to peacefully transition the world away from the system of empires with subservient colonies providing raw materials to the mother country.

The typical expedition was led by a physician or pharmacist, and included botanists, mineralogists, astronomers, cartographers, zoologists, chemists, artists, writers, a chaplain, and a few soldiers. Members were recruited from Spain, France, Sweden, Italy, Bohemia, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Peru. The length of these expeditions was usually measured not in weeks or months, but in decades, and one, the Mutis Expedition near Bogotá, Colombia recorded 53 years of sustained field work, continuing 8 years after its namesake died. Because of this extended presence, everyone from the local viceroy to humble villagers found themselves engaged in science. These expeditions would come to know not only a few plants, but entire geographic regions.

Spain’s economic rivals had monopolies on trade in coffee, tea, pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg, so botany was not only big business, but also a strategic issue. The physicians and pharmacists who led the expeditions were interested in discovering and propagating medicinal plants for an improved, and more rigorous medical profession. Also in demand, were plants that could be useful to manufacturing, such as rubber, or plants for dyes in the textile industry. Even Spain’s imperial institutions, such as the Council of the Indies and the House of Trade, were eager to learn any news of navigation, cartography, cosmology, history, natural history, mineral deposits, and topology.

However, Spain also had a visual appetite, and wanted to see and understand its empire. More valued than any New World specimens or curiosities were the 12,000 scientific illustrations produced by the expeditions.

Malaspina Expedition (1789-94)

Map of Malaspina expedition.

Perhaps the most successful expedition was that of Alesandro Malaspina (1754-1810), an Italian navigator in service to the Spanish Navy. He charted the entire Atlantic coastline of South American, and then went north on the Pacific side, charting the coastline all the way up to near Anchorage, Alaska. He studied Pacific trade winds and ocean currents and discovered important trade routes (some were so important that they were kept as national secrets in order to protect against British and Dutch pirates). He charted the coastline of the Philippines, and large parts of Australia and New Zealand. The expedition did experiments using gravity to help demonstrate the spherical shape of Earth, and made astronomical observations. Malaspina brought back so many detailed maps that he caused a boom in the cartography industry that lasted many years. The expedition returned with 14,000 plant specimens, 500 animal specimens, and 900 illustrations.

Here we must divert for a moment to consider these illustrations from the Malaspina Expedition, because the artists on this voyage most successfully resisted the Newtonian straitjacket. Just as European powers were placing more importance on botany, the recently developed empirical Linnaean classification system took dominance. Alexander von Humboldt would later argue for a more universal approach to botany, but some of the first signs of resistance came from these American-based scientists. Across the Americas, the debate was a topic of public discourse, to the point that even literary journals felt compelled to take sides.

One such was Mexico City’s Gazeta de Literatura in which publisher José Antonio Alzate argued that Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) may have been a master observer, yet his artificial categories willfully ignored the interconnectedness of nature, blinding him to the true workings of the universe. These artists also discovered that Linnaeus rejected illustrations, and demanded only specimens. This obsession to categorize every living thing would lead to the racist casta paintings, which reduced the value of a person to a mere mathematical equation. (In fairness, recent research suggests that some of the first casta paintings may have been more innocent, merely trying to show the wide diversity in the society and cultures that existed in the New World, until those obsessed with the old ideology of limpieza de sangre, or the purity of bloodlines, turned it into a racist tool to control entire sections of society).

Jose del Pozo “Self portrait drawing a Patagonian woman” done in 1790- pen & wash on Malaspina expedition.

Traveling with the Malaspina Expedition were three scientists and nine artists, including the painter José del Pozo, who brings the viewer face-to-face with the New World (see image). His work could be considered a portrait or a self-portrait, but del Pozo pushes himself aside, providing an opportunity to analyze the artistic method used on all of the expeditions. The artist is in deep concentration, but a scientist was always in control of every detail of every illustration (in this case the naturalist, Antonio Pineda from Guatemala is literally looking over his shoulder) to make sure that the works are faithfully done. José del Pozo was known for his expertise in perspective and geometry, but here everything had to be done quickly. We see the pack horses being readied for travel in the background. Del Pozo was a friend of the Viceroy in Peru and would later establish an art school in Lima.

Juan Ravenet watercolor of Malaspina & Bustamante's gravity experiment in Malvinas Island around 1791.

In this watercolor (left) by Juan Ravenet, we see Malaspina with his second in command, José Bustamante successfully helping to prove the shape of the Earth using an experiment with gravity. We see them on the Malvinas Islands, uninhabited when discovered by Europeans, and long before the British occupation. All the expeditions took great pride in bringing some of the most advanced scientific work in the world to the most untamed locations. When Malaspina returned to Spain in 1794, he was greeted as a national hero, but within a year oligarchical Prime Minister Manuel Godoy (1767-1851) would jail him and eventually sent Malaspina into exile.

Mutis Expedition

When Alexander von Humboldt visited José Celestino Mutis (1732-1808) in Colombia in July 1801, he was awestruck, saying that nobody had ever compiled such a magnificent collection of drawings, nor on such a grand scale. The Mutis workshop was the largest science project in the world at the time, and his archive of New World botanical illustrations was unmatched anywhere. He had a 9,000-volume scientific library, and was in frequent communications with scientists in France, Holland, England, the United States, India, Indonesia, Sweden, the Philippines, etc. His expedition had already operated for 20 years before he was granted royal approval in 1783, and many of his artists would become scientists, such as the painter, Francisco Javier Matis (1774-1851) who discovered an antidote to a particular snake venom (and allowed this species of snake to bite him to prove its efficacy).

Mutis portrait

By Oil painting by R. Cristobal, canvas 122 x 92.6 cm [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Jose Celestino Mutis (1732-1808) by Salvador Rizo around 1800.

This unsigned portrait (right) from ca. 1800 is believed to have been done by Salvador Rizo, who was in charge of day-to-day operations of the Mutis expedition. We have clearly interrupted Mutis, as he diverts his eyes, however only for a moment, since his body is still in the forward position of study. While Mutis is seen with many tools of the trade such as his books and a magnifying glass, it is clear that the real work is being done by his mind. He not only discovered the red flower in his hand but also the entire genus related to this plant (named Mutisia after him). Unfortunately, the portrait doesn’t show that Mutis’s laboratory employed many scientists, nor hint at his international network of collaborators.

Mutis believed that scientific breakthroughs required art. Artists had a good eye for detail, but their highest calling was not to merely provide sight, but also insight. Illustrations could easily be transported to bring nature into the laboratory. Flowers could be permanently in bloom, or show a complete life cycle, and birds would never be hidden behind foliage. When there was confusion about a species of plant the botanists first turned to the illustration, knowing that the artist would capture all the distinguishing features.

However, Mutis found that some of the artists who graduated from European art academies often had different agendas. (If he thought that an artist was unwilling to take the science work seriously, Mutis would send him to Madrid to work in the Royal Porcelain Factory). Mutis found that some of the best work was done by Native American artists, and even built a school for the specialized training needed.

One reliable source for these talented Indian artists was a small art school in Quito, Ecuador built by a Flemish Franciscan friar, Jadoco Ricke (1498-1575). Today there are statues in Ricke’s honor, mostly for bringing fresh water to Quito, using his legal skills to defend the indigenous population, or being the first to grow wheat in South America. However, Ricke also studied Flemish art and this school would be a hub for circulating Northern European Renaissance prints, engravings, and paintings.

A similar school was located in Cuzco, Peru, and even centuries later, some of the impact was still felt. Ricke viewed art as a universal language that could cross cultural, social, or language boundaries. Also, civil authorities, eager to impress the indigenous population with their commitment to reason and order, passed the 1573 Laws of the Indies, requiring Renaissance style architecture and urban planning, contributing to this Classical foundation of the local society. Many of these Native American artists from Quito joined the Mutis Expedition, then left to fight for the independence of their country, and later returned to continue the science work.

Diego Quispe Tito

The Native American artist, and son of an Inca nobleman, Diego Quispe Tito (1611-81), from Cuzco, produced some of the best examples of this Northern European Renaissance influence in South America. Folklore about Tito suggested that he traveled across Europe studying at every Renaissance workshop, but the truth was that he stayed in his native Peru and studied mostly Flemish engravings, especially from the Wierix brothers of Antwerp, followers of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Tito could do perfect Netherlandish landscapes with pitched roofs and spires, and bring them to life with local flair by adding Andean townspeople or South American wildlife. Some of these South American painters were so enamored of the Renaissance style, that for their landscapes of the tropics, instead of local tropical foliage, they favored the botony found in European engravings of the Nile River Valley in Egypt.

Christ Calling St. Peter and St. Andrew
The Parable of the Vine
Paintings by Diego Quispe Tito from Cuzco, Peru

Mutis and His Patriotic Society

Mutis started the Patriotic Society in Colombia to promote industry, technology, agriculture, education, national infrastructure, and public health. He helped to create a university, a school of mining, the botanical gardens (today it bears his name), an astronomical observatory, a chemistry laboratory, a museum of natural history, and was in charge of setting the curriculum for the medical school. Virtually all of his top students became leaders in the independence movement, and were called the Mutisians.

In the beginning, they were targeted for deportation, including Sinforoso Mutis, nephew of José Mutis, but soon Spanish General Pablo “El Pacificador” Morillo began to execute any Mutisian on the spot. At the execution of Francisco José Caldas, director of the astronomical observatory, a crowd of people pleaded for his life, but Morillo’s barbaric answer was, “Espana no necisita sabios,” or Spain does not need wise people. In Spain’s bloody attempt to reconquer its lost colonies this became the slogan.

Expedition to the Philippines

Illustration on paper of an orchid from the Mutis Expedition near Bogota, Colombia.

Juan de Cuellar (1739-1801) a pharmacist and botanist, led the expedition to the Philippines, and would later be in charge of its public lighting. However, this was not a typical expedition. The King wanted stronger political and economic ties to Asia and wanted the Philippines to play a pivotal role. Spain wanted Cuellar to work on large-scale, advanced farming techniques to break the Dutch monopoly on the Asian spice trade, but also wanted the Philippines to be the hub for trade between Asia and America. Cuellar worked closely with Spain’s Minister in the Philippines, José de Gálvez (1720-87) who aggressively fought for these Bourbon economic reforms.

Gálvez worked with Malaspina to create new (and secret) trade routes to Mexico, and then directed the Philippines in building the largest ships in the world for this trans-Pacific trade. Finally Gálvez had to work with administrators in Mexico to build the China Road that carried the goods arriving in Acapulco on the Pacific coast over land, through Mexico City, and on to the Atlantic port in Veracruz. These ships brought goods from India, Japan, China, and the Philippines, but they were usually called the China ships since so many goods originated in China. We should also note that José de Gálvez returned to Madrid, and in 1780, sent a request to Mexico for financial contributions to support the American Revolution. In answer to Galvez, the patriots in Mexico donated millions of pesos to the patriots in America.