Botany, economy and art, exhibition


On Saturday 3 November, I went to an exhibition in Leiden, in the Museum Boerhaave, the Dutch National Museum for the History of Science and Medicine.

This is a Dutch video about that exhibition.

The museum’s Internet site says about the exhibition:

Exhibition Leyden’s luxuriance, Green Discoveries in the Golden Age

Until 6 May 2013

The advances made in science in the seventeenth century are often associated with discoveries in the fields of astronomy and physics. But the real Big Science at the time was natural history: no other branch of knowledge attracted so many investments, engaged so many people or caused so much circulation of information and objects across international networks.

Yet there is a paradox about this. Biology was not an official major subject at universities in the seventeenth century. Botany was considered an ancillary subsidiary subject of the study of medicine.

Early eighteenth century Leiden Professor Boerhaave, after whom the museum is named, knew much about botany, but was primarily a medic. Famous Swedish naturalist Linnaeus studied under Boerhaave then. Though far more interested in botany than in patients, to get an academic degree, Linnaeus had to become a doctor of medicine.

Even still a century later, famous biologist Charles Darwin at university did not study biology, but medicine and theology.

The exhibition does not limit itself to the seventeenth century. It also shows sixteenth century herbaria and books about plants. It continues into the eighteenth century, when Linnaeus was in Leiden and its surroundings.

In the Dutch Republic, botany especially was booming business: people spent enormous amounts of time and money collecting, studying and classifying plants. Botanical gardens were set up at both universities and country estates, lovers of flora exchanged letters recording their observations and experiences, artists specialized in depicting plants and publishers brought out sumptuously illustrated works in large format. The main focus of attention was on the new plants reaching Dutch cities and towns as a result of growing international trade: the tulip from Turkey, the potato from South America, ginger from Asia and Aloe vera from Africa. The number of known species of plants

that is, known in western Europe; where in the Middle Ages only the plants of that region itself had been known

rapidly climbed from about 500 in 1550 to well over 7,000 around 1700.

Botany, trade and culture

Leyden’s Luxuriance makes abundantly clear that the rise and flowering of botany was closely related to developments in trade and culture. The increase in botanical knowledge was not the work of a few isolated scholars, but rather the result of full-scale collaboration between physicians, apothecaries, merchants, members of the gentry and the magistrate, gardeners and artists. Although interests might range from searching for new medicines or merchandise to emending the classical texts or simply displaying one’s wealth by owning a beautiful garden, all lovers of flora were united in their passion for exotic plants. They not only found each other, they also needed each other in order to study, possess and understand this valuable and unique material. The love of botany went hand in hand with a curiosity about exotic nature, the search for wealth and a passion for tangible beauty.

This fascinating chapter of Dutch history brings together a few familiar elements of the Golden Age: the flourishing of science, the numerous international trade contacts, the wealth and tastes of a new urban elite, the rise of the bulb-growing industry, the importance of owning a garden as a status symbol and the popularity of new artistic genres like the still life with flowers. In making this complex story both accessible and engrossing, a key role has been awarded to Leiden, home not only to the Republic’s first university and first botanical garden, but also to renowned botanists, publishers, garden owners and artists, who all worked closely together to bring about green discoveries.

9 thoughts on “Botany, economy and art, exhibition

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