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Flora Incognita: Picturing Nature in the New World

Alejandra Rojas, Harvard University, Junior Fellow 2013–2014

During my fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks, I finished drafting my dissertation on the first images of New World flora produced after the Spanish conquest. This dissertation investigates the illustrations of New World nature in four herbals: Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo’s Historia natural y general de las indias (1539–1548), Juan Badiano and Martin de la Cruz’s Libellus de medicinalibus indorum herbis (1552), Francisco Hernandez’s De Mmateria medica novae hispaniae (compiled between 1571 and 1576), and book eleven of Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex (1576–1577). Each involved indigenous participation to varying degrees. These documents demonstrate how text and image enabled European naturalists and clerics to identify, translate, and appropriate indigenous knowledge. More importantly, the stylistic wavering between Nahua and European systems of representation shed light on the artists’ negotiation of a new colonial identity vis-à-vis the preconquest past and new colonial social and religious structures. Dumbarton Oaks offered the ideal interdisciplinary environment for me to extend and hone my work, which stands at the intersection between art and science. Staff and fellows were extraordinarily helpful and generous. I encountered Byzantinists willing to read Latin poetry about passion-fruits and descriptions of magical plants used to predict life expectancy, Garden and Landscape fellows with whom I discussed European responses to American nature, and Pre-Columbianists who refined my understanding of Nahua culture, helping me see, for example, the mythical city of Tollan symbolized by multicolored plants in a manuscript I had scrutinized for years beforehand.