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Plant knowledge depicted: Botanical identifications of seventeenth-century illustrations of Dutch Brazil

Recorded on 21 October 2021

Speaker: Mireia Alcantara Rodriguez (University of Leiden)

During the Dutch colonization of the northeast of Brazil and Count Johan Maurits’ rule thereof (1636-1644), naturalia and other materials were transported overseas and ended up in the hands of the European elite and scholars interested in “new discoveries” from the distant lands. Brazilian seeds were grown in botanic gardens, dry plants were bound in herbaria, and reports about the environment in the colony constituted the first systematized account of the natural history of Dutch Brazil: The Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (Marcgrave & Piso, 1648). Images of the Dutch colony also circulated among collectors and nobility. Today, some of these images are included in the so-called Libri Picturati. We are now looking at these textual and visual sources through botanical lenses to identify the flora in more than 300 botanical entries and 200 oil-based paintings, crayon sketches, and watercolors. Based on the results of our plant identifications, this presentation has three aims: first, to reveal these plant’s origins and whether they are still present or have become threatened by human intervention.  The second objective is to explore whether these plants grew wild or were cultivated in the settlements, and how they were represented by European artists and scientists in the various sources, thereby providing insights into the methods of plant collection in the early modern period.  Lastly, and by way of conclusion, I will emphasize the importance of making these historic, artistic and scientific collections more accessible, and encouraging conversations between more diverse groups of people in order to broaden our understanding of the past and bring up new ideas on how to move forward. 

Mireia Alcantara-Rodriguez is a PhD candidate in Ethnobotany at Faculty of Archaeology in Leiden, the Netherlands and is currently based in Berlin. While studying for an MSc in Environmental Biology (University of Utrecht)) she became interested in ethnobotany, with a special focus on the interconnections of people and plants from an historic and linguistic perspective. She is currently working on the ERC project BRASILIAE: Indigenous knowledge in the Making of Science, directed by Mariana Françozo, and supervised as well by Tinde van Andel.

IHR Seminar SeriesHistory of Gardens and Landscapes