New Book | Daniela Bleichmar’s ‘Visible Empire’

Posted in books by Editor on January 19, 2013

From The University of Chicago Press:

Daniela Bleichmar, Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 288 pages, ISBN: 978-0226058535, $55.

Visible-Empire-Bleichmar-Daniela-9780226058535Between 1777 and 1816, botanical expeditions crisscrossed the vast Spanish empire in an ambitious project to survey the flora of much of the Americas, the Caribbean, and the Philippines. While these voyages produced written texts and compiled collections of specimens, they dedicated an overwhelming proportion of their resources and energy to the creation of visual materials. European and American naturalists and artists collaborated to manufacture a staggering total of more than 12,000 botanical illustrations. Yet these images have remained largely overlooked—until now.

In this lavishly illustrated volume, Daniela Bleichmar gives this archive its due, finding in these botanical images a window into the worlds of Enlightenment science, visual culture, and empire. Through innovative interdisciplinary scholarship that bridges the histories of science, visual culture, and the Hispanic world, Bleichmar uses these images to trace two related histories: the little-known history of scientific expeditions in the Hispanic Enlightenment and the history of visual evidence in both science and administration in the early modern Spanish empire. As Bleichmar shows, in the Spanish empire visual epistemology operated not only in scientific contexts but also as part of an imperial apparatus that had a long-established tradition of deploying visual evidence for administrative purposes.

Daniela Bleichmar holds a joint appointment in the Departments of Art History and History. She received her BA from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in History (History of Science) from Princeton University, where she trained as a cultural historian of early modern science, specializing in the history of visual culture and the natural sciences in Europe and the Spanish Americas in the period 1500-1800. Her research and teaching address the history of the Spanish empire, early modern Europe, visual and material culture in science, collecting and display, and the book, print, and prints.

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Introduction: Natural History and Visual Culture in the Spanish Empire

1: A Botanical Reconquista

2: Natural History and Visual Epistemology

3: Painting as Exploration

4: Economic Botany and the Limits of the Visual

5: Visions of Imperial Nature: Global White Space, Local Color

Conclusion: The Empire as an Image Machine


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“The history of late eighteenth-century Latin America is often told simply as the Creoles’ ever-increasing disenchantment with an unenlightened Mother Spain. Daniela Bleichmar’s remarkable book offers us a different history, one in which an Enlightenment study of natural history takes center stage. She casts before the reader passionate and dedicated men of learning and the arts who under Spanish royal sponsorship were entrusted to perform precise observation of the natural fruits of divine creation and render them into splendid and copious scientific illustrations; the results of ‘artful looking . . . a barometer of Enlightenment thought.’ Bleichmar provides more than just an account of these accomplishments; she wields an interdisciplinary brilliance that melds the best of the history of science, art history, and history and serves up a critical and fascinating examination of Linnean classification, scientific illustration, and their complex intersection, scientific and social, in recording the flora of South America.”—Thomas B. F. Cummins, Harvard University

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