Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Interpretative Ingredients: Formulating Art and Natural History in Early Modern Brazil

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Interpretative Ingredients: Formulating Art and Natural History in Early Modern Brazil

Article excerpt

Introduction

In this article I look at two early modern texts that pertain to the natural history of Brazil and its usage for medicinal purposes. These texts present an informative contrast in terms of information density and organization, raising important methodological considerations about the ways that inventories and catalogues become sources for colonial scholarship in general and art history in particular.

Willem Piso and Georg Marcgraf's Natural History of Brazil was first published in Latin by Franciscus Hackius in Leiden and Lodewijk Elzevir in Amsterdam in 1648. Known to scholars as the first published natural history of Brazil and a pioneering work on tropical medicine, this text was, like many early modern scientific projects, a collaborative endeavor and, in this particular case, a product of Prince Johan Maurits of Nassau's Dutch colonial enterprise in northern Brazil between 1630-54. Authored by the Dutch physician Willem Piso and the German naturalist Georg Marcgraf, the book was edited by the Dutch geographer Joannes de Laet, produced under commission from Johan Maurits, and likely illustrated by the court painter Albert Eckhout, along with other unknown artists commissioned for the Maurits expedition.1 Its title page has become emblematic for art historians and historians of science alike as a pictorial entry point into the vast world of botanical, zoological, medicinal, astronomical, and ethnographic knowledge of seventeenth-century Brazil (Fig. 1).

The hand-colored, engraved title page of the Natural History literally sets the stage for the content within the volume, presenting the reader with a colonnade-like series of trees perspectivally receding into the distance, an entryway both into indigenous Brazil and into the treatise itself. This triumphal alley is comprised of fruiting trees of various species, upon which climb an assortment of Brazilian fauna, including a sloth, various kinds of parrots and macaws, and an exceedingly long snake, perhaps a boa. The orderly path leads the viewer inward toward a scene of dancing figures, naked except for a few feathers on their heads, who perform in front of the rounded architecture of an indigenous maloca, usually constructed of wood and palm. An Adam and Eve-like indigenous couple gracefully pose in the foreground, surrounded by plants - herbaceous, fruiting, and arborous - as well as birds, fish, and mammals that offer an idea of the topics of the books into which the treatise is divided. The bodies are idealized, rather than rendered with an intention towards physiognomic accuracy: figures posing in classicizing contrapposto that are 'nativized' for viewers. The man on the left, for example, holds ethnographically accurate weapons - a small war club, as well as bows and arrows - of the Tupi communities of coastal Brazil; the woman holds in her right hand a branch of a cashew tree, displaying the colorful cashew 'apples' that were still a novelty for European audiences. Other identifiable fruits, such as the pineapple growing beside the man and coconuts hanging prominently from a palm, as well as medicinal plants and sea creatures pouring from the cornucopia held by the river god at the bottom of the page, offer readers an index of the botanical and zoological bounty - the commodifiable wealth - of Brazil that is catalogued in the treatise, further exemplified by the lush swag of flowers and fruit at the top, held by two New World monkeys.

A second, cartouche-like swag of cloth framed by the arms of the monkeys contains the title of the books, an acknowledgment of Nassau's patronage, and an indication of the subject matter, while the shell below the river god identifies the publishers. Beyond the novelty of certain iconographic details of the scene - such as the marmoset in the right foreground, the sloth, and caju fruit - the title page is not especially innovative in how it presents information to an early modern Northern European audience. …

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