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Botanical Conquistadors: Plants and Empire in the Hispanic Enlightenment

Daniela Bleichmar, University of Southern California

In the eighteenth century, European botany became a global pursuit. Botanists and artists traveled to places near and far in search of specimens to collect and draw. Things traveled as well: books, work supplies, live and dried plant specimens, and drawings also traversed distances great and small as part of the pursuit of global botany, a project with scientific, economic, and political implications.

The late eighteenth century was also the heyday of Spanish imperial botany. This paper will discuss botany as a global pursuit—its motivations, practices, successes and challenges at local, colonial, imperial, and global levels—with particular emphasis on the Hispanic world. Within this context, it will address the central role of visual epistemology, the historical dimension of imperial botany, and the ways in which the Hispanic world illuminates and complicates our understanding of the connections between botany and empire.


Daniela Bleichmar holds a joint appointment in the Departments of Art History and History at the University of Southern California. She received her BA from Harvard University and her PhD in History (History of Science) from Princeton University, 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. She is the author of Visible Empire; Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment (Chicago, 2012). Her current research includes a book-length project on the global exchange of naturalia, visual and material culture, books, and prints between the New World, Europe, and Asia, ca. 1500–1800, with a particular emphasis on the global nature of colonial Latin American visual and material culture.

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