Patrick Gibson reviews a book about José Celestino Mutis’s botanical expedition to what is now Colombia, as well as his scientific and artistic legacy.

With a volume of Species Plantarum in hand, José Celestino Mutis arrived in Colombia, then the New Kingdom of Granada, in 1760. He started and directed the Royal Botanic Expedition of the territory at the request of King Charles III of Spain from 1783 until his death in 1808.

Mutis, scientific and artistic legacy

The expedition (1783-1816) resulted in drawings of 2696 Colombian plants, some of them now reportedly extinct. Esteban Marique Reol, the current director of the Royal Botanic Garden of Madrid, says this collection is “the most beautiful and singular of the Archive”. As Mutis (1786) himself put it: “It has been decided by intelligent experts that the plates produced in America under my direction have very singular advantages over everything that has been published up to the present in Europe.

The drawings are extraordinary in various ways. The painters, stationed in the municipality of Mariquita and well-versed in botanical lingo thanks to Mutis, received plants in their different phenological stages to “represent profusely the stational cycles of their development.” Some drawings include miniatures of dissected flowers, and others were made with rare pigments. Salvador Dalí later utilised one of these drawings as the basis for one of his.

The expedition continues: expo and book

Mutis’ work and that of his immediate successors was sent to the Royal Botanic Garden of Madrid between 1816-1817. Two centuries later, the original drawings of the expedition finally got to Colombia in 2023 thanks to the alliance between the Royal Botanic Garden of Madrid, the Botanic Garden of Medellín and the Museum of Antioquia, where the drawings were housed and exhibited. “Mutis, la expedición continúa” (“the expedition continues”) is the title of the expo as well as the recently published book (ISBN 978-628-95568-0-3).

The book features 26 drawings from the Royal Botanic Expedition of the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816), including Colombia’s national flower, Cattleya trianae, national tree, Ceroxylon quindiuense, and the emblematic Espeletia grandiflora, named by Mutis after the viceroy of New Granada (José de Ezpeleta) who reaffirmed his support of the expedition in 1772.

For each of the drawings presented, a modern text relates different aspects of the plants. The text for Cinchona lancifolia, for example, highlights the importance it had for imperial countries in the eighteenth century due to its medical properties —the expedition had economic implications as well. The text for Oreopanax mutisianus mentions its use in ecological restoration and explains how plants in the genus Oreopanax and its family are important in Colombia but remain largely unexplored.

The book also includes the work of Francisco José de Caldas, José Jerónimo Triana, Enrique Pérez Arbeláez, José Cuatrecasas Arumí and Santiago Díaz Piedrahíta, who continued with the study and documentation of Colombia’s flora after Mutis. The only thing I found questionable is the order in which these characters are presented, which isn’t chronological. Nevertheless, each biographical note and accompanying material give the reader an integrated view of the subject.

What is probably most interesting about the expedition is that it’s incomplete. It is estimated that 30% of Colombia’s biodiversity is still unknown. Why would not the expedition continue? Do we assume nothing of value is to be discovered? Such assumption would certainly prove wrong.

Disclaimer

Apparently, there are two versions of the book with the same ISBN: “Mutis, la expedición continua” and “Mutis, la expedición continúa. Más allá de los dibujos.” The former was created by the Museum of Antioquia, Medellín Botanic Garden, and the Botanic Garden of Madrid. The latter excludes de Botanic Garden of Madrid. The post is based on the book authored by the three institutions, and all quotes come from that book as well.

AUTHOR: Patrick Gibson

Suggested Reading

Mutis, la expedición continua. Museo de Antioquia, Jardín Botánico de Medellín and Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid. 2023. ISBN 978-628-95568-0-3

Digitalization project of the drawings of the Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816) directed by José Celestino Mutis: www.rjb.csic.es/icones/mutis. Real Jardín Botánico-CSIC. 

Jardín Botánico de Medellín (2023). Cátedra Abierta – Reflexiones por Baturaleza: Mutis y Caldas [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4C6R0UJ_76w

Jardín Botánico de Medellín (2022). Cátedra Abierta: Reflexiones por Naturaleza: Notas Históricas de la Botánica en Colombia Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLz0qpylbHs

RINO FILMS (2020). Pintores americanos (americanus pinxit). El aporte de Salvador Rizo a la Expedición Botánica. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HC42AnKne3Q

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