Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Maurits


4 Brazilian Landscape

Frans Post’s “A Brazilian Landscape” (1650) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nearly 40 years ago, when I started dating my husband, we would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art because of his interest in art history.  I was not as enthralled with the Impressionists and even less with genre painting—his two loves—so I searched for something I could get excited about.  That’s how I began to look for biology in art, and I’ve never stopped.  I can remember on one visit discovering a painting by Frans Post, a Dutch artist who had traveled to Brazil in the 17th century and recorded the landscapes and people he encountered.  I vividly recall walking into a gallery, seeing his “A Brazilian Landscape,” (see figure above) and focusing on the rich vegetation it pictured.  Here was someone who knew how to paint plants; here was a painting that, as far as I was concerned, was a work of science as well as art.  At the time, it didn’t occur to me to question how a Dutch artist ended up in Brazil, because obviously Post must have visited the country; the painting was definitely an eye-witness depiction.  In the years since, I’ve encountered Post’s work, particularly his Brazilian paintings, now and again, so I’ve come to know a little more about his story.

In her book on expeditions to Latin America up to the time of Charles Darwin, Daniela Bleichmar (2017) describes the survey of parts of Brazil by Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Seigen (1604-1679).  The Netherlands formed the Dutch West India Company in 1621 and took over the northeast coast of Brazil from the Portuguese in 1624, remaining in control until 1654.  Their colony was called New Holland or Dutch Brazil, and Maurits was governor there from 1637 to 1644.  He set out to study the area and to do this he employed two artists, Albert Eckhout and Frans Post.  He also brought with him, at his own expense, a German naturalist, Georg Marcgraf and a Dutch physician, Wilhelm Piso.  They directed collection of specimens and objects of interest, all of which were shipped back to Europe.  Thus Maurits and his collaborators made the first systematic study of New World natural history (Appleby, 2013).  It is said that it was the Maurits model that Mark Catesby used when he took his second trip to North America which resulted in his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.

The fruits of Maurits’s expedition are many.  There are, of course, Frans Post’s landscapes, which as I have noted are also plant scapes, picturing breadfruit trees, pineapples, cycads, cacti, and other Brazilian botanical wonders, along with indigenous peoples going about their lives.  The other artist, Albert Eckhout, painted from a closer perspective, doing portraits of individual indigenes and still lifes of local plants with an emphasis on fruits.  These are reminiscent of Dutch still lifes of flowers, but more somber and definitely designed to give as much information as possible about the subjects.  Many of the fruits are shown both whole and cut in half to reveal the seed arrangement.  One painting focuses on a large palm inflorescence paired with a basket of peanuts, chili peppers, and spices.  Another depicts a pineapple, melons, and cashews, with a passion flower vine twisting among them, a fully opened flower in the foreground (see figure below).  These would not be considered botanical illustrations in the strict sense of the term, in part because there are just too many species crowded together.  On the other hand, they are detailed and realistic; the species are in most cases easily identifiable, so they are definitely informative botanical documents as well as notable works of art.  The philosopher David Topper (1996) writes about just such art arguing that the line between artistic work and empirical scientific document is often impossible to draw.  Art and science in cases like this cannot be pulled asunder.

4a Eckhout passionflower

Albert Eckhout’s “Still Life with Watermelons, Pineapple and Other Fruit” (1640) in the National Museum of Denmark.

As to the textual outcome of the expedition, the naturalist Georg Marcgraf died right before the expedition returned to Europe, so the publication work was undertaken by the physician Wilhelm Piso.  He published Historia Naturalis Brasiliae in 1648.  As Bleichmar notes, this was the first major illustrated natural history of any region of the Americas where the text and the illustrations were the result of first-hand experience by naturalists and artists.  It opens with Piso’s observations of medical and botanical observations.  This is followed by Marcgraf’s contribution on plants and animals.  In all cases, Piso gave Portuguese, Spanish, and indigenous names for each species.  There is a volume of Marcgraf’s herbarium at the University of Copenhagen’s herbarium.  It contains what are probably the first dried plant specimens from the tropical New World, and includes 177 species (Ossenbach, 2017).  One of the orchids is Trigonidium acuminatum.  There is an image of the same species in the Historia that is almost identical in its features (see figures below).

While Maurits’s name is associated with this expedition, he was more the organizer than an active participant.  He was essentially a military man who had earlier been involved in the campaign against the Portuguese that led to the Dutch control of northeast Brazil.  His job was to run the colony’s government, but he valued knowledge of its natural history enough to not only fund but manage the survey.  He obviously selected his team well since they produced a great deal of visual and textual information in a timely fashion compared, for example, to the results of Francisco Hernández’s work in the 1570s that remained unpublished well into the next century (see first post in this series).  What I hope should be apparent from this series of posts (1,2,3) and the previous one (1,2,3,4), is that there were many different approaches to exploring the plants of unknown lands in the early modern period.  These differences involved personalities, politics, culture, and geography.  That variety is what makes the history of botany so fascinating.


Appleby, J. (2013). Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination. New York, NY: Norton.

Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ossenbach, C. (2017). Precursors of the Botanical Exploration of South America. Wilhelm Piso (1611-1678) and Georg Marcgrave (1610-1644). Lankesteriana, 17(1), 61–71.

Topper, D. (1996). Towards an Epistemology of Scientific Illustration. In B. S. Baigrie (Ed.), Picturing Knowledge: Historical and Philosophical Problems Concerning the Use of Art in Science (pp. 215–249). Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.


Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Monardes

3 Tobacco

Nicotinia pictured in Joyfull Newes Out of the New Founde Worlde in Biodiversity Heritage Library

One of my favorite natural history book titles is Joyfull Newes Out of the New Founde Worlde, published in England by John Frampton in 1577.  But Frampton didn’t write the book, he just translated it from the Spanish and introduced Latin America to the British reading public.  The author was Nicolás Monardes (1493-1588), who himself never set foot in the New World.  So why mention him in a series of blog posts on botanical exploration in the Americas?  I’ve chosen to deal with him because he wrote a very good book that became popular throughout Europe.  It represents a different approach to learning about exotic plants.  Monardes never saw them growing in their native soil, but he did grow them in his garden where he observed them closely, collected seeds and specimens from them, and distributed these to correspondents throughout Spain and Europe.  He also experimented with preparing medicines from the plants he grew, and this information went into his written descriptions.

Monardes was well-placed to obtain botanical information from Latin America because he lived in Seville, the only port from which Spanish ships sailed to the New World. He was a trader who dealt in a number of products including dyes, hides, medicines, and cloth.  He was also a physician who incorporated new plants he came upon in trade into his medical practice, often after experimenting with what he had grown in his garden.  In addition, one of his sons settled in Peru and sent back specimens, seeds, and information.  While the writers I dealt with in the last two posts—Gonzalo Oviedo, José de Acosta, and Francisco Hernández—all discussed a broad range of topics including not only information on plants, but on animals, geography, and ethnography, Monardes focused exclusively on plants and particularly those that had medicinal uses.  As Daniela Bleichmar (2017) notes, while plants from Constantinople and the Near East, including tulips and other flower bulbs, were treasured for their rarity and beauty, those from the New World were valued more for their medicinal properties.

One of the reasons Monardes’s book was so popular was that he described at length plants with fascinating properties.  For example, he devoted 16 pages to tobacco.  It was one of the first New World plants extensively used in Europe and during the 16th century 60 different European books dealt with it; another 350 were published during the first half of the 17th century.  It can be seen as the marijuana of its time, though admittedly Cannabis was known and used from ancient times.  Monardes named tobacco Nicotiana for his friend Jean Nicot who was French Ambassador to Lisbon and was said to have introduced tobacco to the French court where it soon became popular (see figure above).  Bleichmar gives a thorough review of early attitudes toward this plant’s use.  Some considered it a panacea, a miracle drug to treat a variety of ailments from arthritis to toothaches, and even bad breath.  Monardes was among those with this viewpoint, and the popularity of his book meant that these ideas spread through Europe.  On the other hand, some saw tobacco as a moral poison, a branch of the sin of drunkenness, with the spewing of stinking fumes leading to shameful lust.  In part, this attitude stemmed from reports of how tobacco was used by indigenous peoples which left them in day-long stupors.  Fortunately, other plants Monardes presented were more benign.  Of course, chocolate was discussed as was the sunflower, passion flower, sweet potato, and the pepper.

Vivid descriptions of so many plants is what made Monardes’s book popular.  Frampton’s translation into English definitely had a catchy title, but what also stimulated sales was the brisk trade that existed at this time between the Iberian Peninsula and Britain.  Tobacco and other exotic plant products were becoming available so there was a positive feedback between supply and information, each spurring on the other.  The Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius, who had collected in Spain and spoke Spanish as well as seven other languages, translated the book into Latin, producing an abridged version and giving it a broad audience among the educated classes throughout Europe (Egmond, 2010).  Later, in his book on exotic plants Clusius drew heavily from Monardes.  This was a common practice among botanists of the day and was often responsible for rapid diffusion of botanical knowledge.

The original Spanish edition as well as Clusius’s and Frampton’s books were all illustrated, another reason for the book’s popularity.  By the later part of the 16th century, woodcuts had become more common in the botanical literature, particularly in books that were meant for a wide readership, rather than more technical taxonomic works such as that of Cesalpino (see earlier post).  In the second edition of his book, Monardes quotes a letter from a Spaniard in Peru who wrote that he relied on the book for information identifying native medicinal plants because the indigenous people were not forthcoming with information, one reason being that plant use was often tied to their religion.  This suggests the complexities of communicating botanical knowledge between the new and old worlds in the early modern period.


Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Egmond, F. (2010). The World of Carolus Clusius: Natural History in the Making, 1550-1610. London, UK: Pickering and Chatto.

Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Hernández

2 Cactus

Cactus in Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (1651) in Biodiversity Heritage Library

In the last post, I discussed two early commentators on Latin American natural history, Gonzalo de Oviedo and José de Acosta.  While they were careful observers, spent much time in the New World, and wrote extensively on its flora, there is no evidence that they collected plant specimens.  Oviedo traveled from 1514-1546 and published in 1526 with an expanded edition in 1535.  The earliest extant herbarium is from 1532, the work of a student of the Italian Luca Ghini (see earlier post), who probably originated the practice of pressing plants.  In other words, Oviedo’s observations were made so early that it’s unlikely he even knew of the technique, especially because there was far more communication by the Italians with French, German, and English naturalists, than with the Spanish.  However, by the time King Philip II of Spain sent Francisco Hernández de Toledo (1514-1587) his personal physician to the New World in 1570, things had changed.  The technique was no longer a novelty, so it’s not surprising that Hernández was said to have collected specimens of upwards of 3000 plants, many of medicinal importance.

Hernández arrived in Mexico in 1571 and toured the country and other areas of Central America until 1577 when he returned to Spain because of ill health.  He had worked with a team including a geographer, artists, botanists, and indigenous medical practitioners who had the expertise to lead him to interesting and useful plants.  While it is not always the case that native knowledge was acknowledged by explorers, it was almost always drawn upon because the new comers knew nothing of an area’s geography nor of the culture of its people.  In addition, the plants were so different in this “new” world, that even expert European botanists were perplexed by the flora they encountered, to say nothing of attempting to figure out their medicinal uses.  Hernández was more than willing to seek local expertise and to credit it.  He noted the native language, Nahuatl, names for each species and also had three indigenous artists document the plants.

When Hernández returned to Spain with this material, the King was thrilled, but thought that Hernández wasn’t up to making order out of it, so he gave the task to his new physician, the Italian Nardo Antonio Recchi.  Thus began a complex and lengthy process that ultimately led to the publication of only a part of Hernández’s hoard.  Recchi did not see the Nahuatl names and indigenous information as useful to Europeans.  Instead, he chose to focus on material that was somewhat similar to plants found in Europe.  Later research suggests that he used only about 600 of Hernández’s 3000 specimens.  This approach, not surprisingly, caused conflict with Hernández, and Recchi returned to Italy in 1583 claiming health concerns and settling in Naples.  He brought with him a copy of his manuscript and 600 illustrations produced from Hernández’s drawings, yet he never published the work.  After Recchi died in 1594, the manuscript passed to his nephew who hadn’t the means to publish it, yet there was still interest.  Naples had an active botanical community including Fabio Colonna and Giovanni della Porta who were anxious to learn about plants of the New World, though finally it was a Roman who made a move.

Federico Cesi was 19 years old when he banded together with three friends to form the Accademia dei Lincei or Academy of the Lynx in Rome in 1603, the name coming from the lynx’s keen eye, suggesting that the group saw observation as key to scientific inquiry (Freedberg, 2002).  Though they were not all naturalists—Galileo later joined the group—they were committed to the importance of visual evidence in the study of nature.  As early as 1604, the Lincei, as the group was called, set their sights on obtaining the Hernández/Recchi manuscript.  At last, Cesi went to Naples in 1610 not only to locate it but to encourage Neapolitan naturalists including Colonna and della Porta to establish a branch of the Lincei in their city.  While there, Cesi arranged to obtain the images and text from Recchi’s nephew.  But Cesi died before completing the work, which the Lincei finally finished publishing in 1651 (see figure above).  Each entry did begin with the Nahuatl name of the species, making it at the time the largest botanical glossary of non-European names.  This publication, though it represented a limited portion of Hernández’s original material, became particularly important after much of the Hernández documents, including his herbarium, was destroyed in a fire in the King of Spain’s Escorial Palace in 1671.  This explains why there are no specimens linked to Hernández’s writings.

There are still other threads to this story.  In 1626 Cassiano dal Pozzo, one of the Lincei, visited Spain with Cardinal Barbarini and following Cesi’s instructions, examined Hernández’s drawings.  While there, Barbarini obtained the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano, an Aztec herbal, and the Lincei had it copied (the original is in the National Library of Anthropology in Mexico and the copy in the Royal Library, Winsor).  They tried to correlate it with the Hernández material, but couldn’t; the cultural gap was too wide (Gimmel, 2008).  Also, as Daniela Bleichmar (2017) describes in her book on Latin American exploration, there was an edition of the Hernández/Recchi Latin manuscript published in Mexico City in 1539.  It was a Spanish translation by Francisco Ximénez, who added some of his own commentaries on the plants.  There were 478 entries describing the species’ traits and medicinal uses.  There were no illustrations, but Mexicans found the book helpful because the plants were familiar to them and this was a handy reference.  On the other hand, Europeans complained that even with illustrations, the Lincei edition was of little medical use because most of the plants described were unavailable in Europe.


Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Freedberg, D. (2002). The Eye of the Lynx. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Gimmel, M. (2008). Reading Medicine in the Codex de las Cruz Badiano. Journal of the History of Ideas, 69(2), 169–192.

Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Oviedo and Acosta

1 Pineapple Oviedo

Pineapple pictured in Historia general de las Indias (1535) in Biodiversity Heritage Library

The last set of posts (1,2,3,4) dealt with early European botanical exploration in Asia and how it was documented both in publications and in herbarium collections that are still extant.  This set of entries again looks at early European botanical exploration in Latin America.  Here again, publications resulted from the work, but there are few known plant collections surviving.  So why even discuss the topic in a blog devoted to herbaria?  Well, I argue that this absence reveals something about the history of herbaria, the aims of exploration, and the many threats to the longevity of preserved plant material.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478-1557) published the first work on the natural history of the New World by someone who had been there.  This was in 1526 after he had traveled in the Caribbean and South America from 1514 to 1523.  He returned again in 1526 and remained for 20 years, during which he published a second larger version, Historia general de las Indias (1535), with 35 woodcuts.  Like most early natural histories on newly discovered lands, this one dealt not only with plants but with animals and the cultural use of natural materials as well as geography.  Still, it was filled with wonderous and novel plants, especially food plants.  The book included what may be the first illustration of corn, and Oviedo also described the avocado, banana, and papaya.  He explained the preparation of cassava and in his 1535 book, introduced the pineapple to Europeans, discussing its delicious sweetness as well as its odd structure.  The book included an illustration of the fruit (see figure above), but the drawing wasn’t done from live material, so while it gives the essence of the pineapple and is identifiable, it is hardly an accurate rendition.  However this doesn’t reduce the value of Oviedo’s work that documents what an early European observer found most exciting about the vegetation of the American tropics.  He emphasized the importance of direct observation of wonders that were so different from those in Europe.  Since the earliest known herbarium dates from 1532, it’s not surprising that Oviedo didn’t collect specimens.  Physical documentation of what was observed would come later, though seeds and cuttings reached Europe from Columbus’s time on.

Another plant Oviedo described was the cacao tree, and he wasn’t the only one to be fascinated by chocolate and the ways it was used by indigenous peoples, including mixing it with eggs and feeding it to children.  Others discussed its medicinal benefits in treating diarrhea, coughing, and other ailments.  Among these writers was José de Acosta (~1539-1600), a Jesuit missionary who spent 20 years in Latin America, first in Peru and then for a short time in Mexico.  In Peru he had an number of positions, including five years touring the country as assistant to the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo.  Acosta took extensive notes on what he saw, not only on the animals and plants, but on the geography of the regions in which he traveled and the customs and history of the indigenous peoples.

When Acosta returned to Spain in 1588, he wrote a seven-volume book on his observations, Histoire naturelle et moralle des Indes.  As the title suggests, he wrote from a Christian perspective about this new world and its native populations, noting their customs and their response to Christian ideas.  But this was more than just a religious work.  Acosta was an acute observer who gave detailed, firsthand descriptions and did not sensationalize native customs as some Spanish writers did, nor did he push the religious viewpoint too far.  He discussed granadilla or small pomegranate, which had been described as the passionflower because some observers saw its intricate flower as having anthers that resembled the nails of Christ’s cross and the corolla, the crown of thorns.  Acosta considered this fanciful and metaphorical, and didn’t think it added anything to the description of the plant which had important medicinal uses.

Acosta was an early example of a class of botanical observers, that is, religious missionaries, who made important contributions to botanical knowledge well into the 20th century.  Especially at the time he visited Latin America, people didn’t travel just to study plants.  This role was tacked on to others, such as physician, colonial administrator, military man, or missionary.  In some cases, these occupations took most of the individual’s time and natural history observation was a sideline.  In other cases, the latter became the main focus.  This was in part because learning about the natural world was seen as a way to learn about God through his creations and also as an important part of taking control politically and culturally in these new lands.

Aside from the web sources I’ve linked to, much of the information for this post came from Daniela Bleichmar’s book, Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin (2017), based on an exhibition of the same name at the Huntington Library, Arts Collections, and Botanic Gardens in San Marino, California.  It’s a beautiful book with a very interesting text, but I was loathed to buy it because I had Bleichmar’s earlier book (2011), Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment, which covers Spanish expeditions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  I thought there would be a great deal of overlap.  Then I read a review in which Patricia Jonas had made the same assumption and then discovered that she was wrong.  So I bit the financial bullet and bought the book; it was definitely worth it.  There is little redundancy between Bleichmar’s two works, and Visual Voyages is striking in the way text and illustrations are closely connected and complement each other.  I will again be using the book as a source for the following posts about other early writers on Latin American natural history.


Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.