Flower Power

Studying ancient botanical drawings, Daniela Bleichmar is rewriting the history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas

Cheryl Carlin

A lot of college professors talk about the breadth of their interests; crossing academic boundaries is in vogue. But Daniela Bleichmar, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, has been thinking this way for as long as she can remember. "Basically, I'm curious about everything," she says. "I always thought, why do I have to choose?"

So she didn't. The 34-year-old was trained as a historian of science, yet she teaches in the departments of art history and Spanish and Portuguese. Bleichmar, says Anthony Grafton, her dissertation adviser at Princeton, "is the real interdisciplinary deal."

While most historians concentrate on texts, Bleichmar is amplifying our understanding of the Spanish Empire by examining images—thousands of hand-colored illustrations of plants and flowers, painstakingly rendered during Spanish expeditions to the New World.

To the untutored eye, Bleichmar says, many of these drawings can seem like the sort of thing you find in a "dentist's bathroom": a single bloom on a white background, with a bit of branch and leaf. But for her, they're nothing less than a window into the European scientific community of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. "Most people would look at these and see plants," says Bleichmar, who is finishing her first book on the subject. "I see an epistemology—a way of producing knowledge."

Historians are apt to regard images as second-class sources—a means to underscore a point developed through analysis of a manuscript or, worse, a way to pretty up a paper. But for Bleichmar, drawings and prints are the keys to the kingdom. "What I'm trying to do is treat images as seriously as text," she says.

From them, Bleichmar has pieced together how naturalists and artists working for the Spanish Crown surveyed flora in America and took what they learned back to Europe; how their images helped the empire in its search for supplies of coffee, tea, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and medicinal specimens; how their keen observations earned them favor with rulers and their ministers; how their omissions—of indigenous people, of wider landscapes—reflected the colonizers' attitudes toward the colonized.

In so doing, Bleichmar has taken a page from the past. Before 1800, learned people turned to both words and images for enlightenment. But as the modern university system evolved, specialized disciplines largely replaced this broader approach. As a result, most scholars overlooked the natural histories in which Bleichmar has spent years rooting around—many of them in rare-book rooms across Europe and America. Art historians tended to consider the illustrations in these tomes less than masterpieces, and historians of science often discounted the volumes as mere picture books. Bleichmar "was really one of the first of a new generation to see that there was a huge hole" in all this, says Lynn Hunt, a professor of European history at UCLA.

Bleichmar acknowledges that what she offers isn't always what students expect. At USC, she recalls, a bunch of undergraduates showed up for her Renaissance art class expecting slides of Michelangelo's greatest hits. Instead, "I was showing them all this weird stuff"—maps and folios of plants and bugs. "A lot of them were indignant."

But many others find Bleichmar's courses exhilarating. Rose Linke signed up for one about how luxury goods traveled between Europe and Asia centuries ago. The subject seemed obscure at first, Linke says, but she came to appreciate that objects and images are "created with a purpose" and must be considered in the context of a time and place. By the end of the semester, Linke says, she could look beyond the beauty of a piece of porcelain and see "the power of the Dutch East India Company."

The daughter of psychoanalysts, Bleichmar was born in Argentina, raised in Mexico City and educated at Harvard and Princeton. In 2004, she began a postdoctoral fellowship at the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute. By the time her two-year stint was over, USC had determined to hold on to her, and did so with an appointment in art history. "I thought, ‘This is going to be fun. I'm going to infiltrate an art history department,'" she says.

Actually, it wasn't hard. Malcolm Baker, then the department chair, was already recasting the curriculum to be "wider than what has conventionally been seen as the stuff of art history." For this, Bleichmar was ideal. "She sees things," Baker says, "in a very different way."

Rick Wartzman directs the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University and is a New America Foundation fellow.

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