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Through the Eyes of the Lynx: Galileo, Natural History and the Americas

Aug 1, 2015 - Jan 17, 2016

The king of Spain commissioned a physician, Francisco Hernandez, to compile Native American plant and animal knowledge. Hernandez worked closely with Aztec artists and physicians in central Mexico.  

Hernandez, with the assistance of the Academy of the Lynx, worked to publish a monumental natural history of the Americas based upon the manuscript Hernandez prepared for the king.

Exhibit At A Glance

2. The Old and the New

Members of the Academy of the Lynx were thoroughly familiar with classical works. As they explored novelties in the natural world, they searched for clues within ancient texts to aid their understanding. Each endeavor motivated, guided and shaped the other. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1454 led to a more widespread availability of ancient as well as modern texts, making it easier to compare them with each other and with new natural knowledge. New discoveries did not diminish interest in the old sources; rather, scientists were also scholars who turned to the old to help make sense of the new. Ancient texts helped make sense of the significance of unexpected discoveries, facilitating and at the same time being challenged by new observations and interpretations.


1
Francesco Stelluti, Persius (Persio). Rome, 1630
2
Aristotle, On Animals (De animalibus). Venice, 1476
3
Theophrastus, The Natural History of Plants, 1549 (Dell’ Historia delle Plante). Vienna, 1549
4
Pliny the Elder, Pliny, “Natural History” (The Historie of the World Commonly Called the Naturall Historie). London, 1601
5
Claudius Ptolemy, Universal Geography (Geographia universalis). Basel, 1545
6
Sebastian Munster, Cosmography, 1574 (Geography of the World). Basel, 1574

3. Herbs and Gardens

An explosion of 16th-century herbals dramatically revived investigation into the structure and causes of plants. With ongoing colonization and exploration came a vast increase in the number of known plants. With the Printing Revolution came the ability to reproduce plant illustrations by the hundreds. Yet the sheer quantity and unexpected diversity of new botanical information proved difficult to assimilate. Ancient categories of classification proved insufficient, as did the old doctrine of signatures, according to which essential natures might be discerned through direct observation. The search for new keys to the natural order occupied naturalists who created a new science of botany.


1
Fabio Colonna, The Interrogation of Plants (Phytobasanos). Naples, 1592
2
Pietro de’ Crescenzi, The Advantages of Country Living (Ruralium commodorum). Augsburg, 1471
3
Giovanni Battista Ferrari, Flowers, or, On the Cultivation of Flower Gardens, 1638 (Flora; overo, Cultura di Fiori). Rome, 1638
5
Leonhart Fuchs, The Natural History of Plants, 1542 (De historia stirpium). Basel, 1542
6
Leonhart Fuchs, The Natural History of Plants, 1551 (De historia stirpium). Lyon, 1551
7
John Gerard, The Herball, 1597 ( ). London, 1597

4. Strange Creatures

The world revealed to early modern explorers seemed filled with enigmatic creatures. What emblematic meaning might all the strange new creatures hold, who went unmentioned in the ancient sources? How many of the reports of giants, dragons, and other unusual animals should be believed? Fascinated with novel discoveries and unexpected marvels, naturalists sought to relate both the old and new, the enigmatic and the emblematic, in an ongoing dialogue of natural wonder and natural order. 


1
Galileo, Discourse on Two New Sciences (Discorsi à Due Nuove Scienze). Leiden, 1638
2
Ludovico Ariosto, The Angry Orlando (Orlando Furioso). Venice, 1672
3
Torquato Tasso, The Recoverie of Jerusalem ( ). London, 1624
4
Galileo, Considerations on Tasso (Considerazioni al Tasso). Venice, 1793
5
Edward Topsell, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes. London, 1658
6
Ulysses Aldrovandi, Natural History of Serpents and Dragons (Serpentarum et draconum historiae). Bologna, 1640
7
Georges Cuvier, Essay on the Mineral Geography of the Paris Basin (Essai sur la Geographie Mineralogique des Environs de Paris). Paris, 1810

5. American Transformation

Francisco Hernandez lived among the Aztecs in central Mexico in the late 16th century. He collected their knowledge of plants and medicine. He employed Aztec artists. He preserved the Nahuatl names. The persistence of the Nahautl names reflects Hernandez’ respect for Native American natural knowledge, and also illustrates how the new plants resisted classification according to traditional European categories. 

Publishing a definitive edition of the manuscript of Hernandez comprised the central, albeit elusive, goal of Cesi and the Academy of the Lynx. In 1611, Galileo expressed amazement at the wealth of plant knowledge relayed by Hernandez, entirely unknown to Aristotle and Pliny. European classification schemes proved inadequate, and available illustrations remained ambiguous. The landmark project, finally accomplished in 1651, more than 70 years after Hernandez’ sojourn in central Mexico, symbolizes the transformation of natural history into a global endeavor. 


1
Francisco Hernandez, A New Natural History of the Plants, Animals and Minerals of Mexico (Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia). Rome, 1651
2
Ferrante Imperato, On Natural History (Dell’ Historia Naturale). Naples, 1599
3
Carolus Clusius, Non-European Plants (Exoticorum). Antwerp, 1605
4
Juan Eusebio Nieremberg, Natural History (Historia naturae). Antwerp, 1635
5
Abraham Munting, Representations of Plants (Phytographia curiosa). Amsterdam, 1702
6
Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, vol. 1. London, 1707-1725
7
Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, vol. 2. London, 1707-1725
8
Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden. Dublin, 1790

Explore the Topic

Supplemental resources for a rich educational experience
 

Galileo's World Exhibit Guide
iBook companion to the Galileo's World exhibition
Gallery Book Lists
A list of all books in every exhibit (author/title/date).
Galileo, Natural History and the Americas Book List
A list of all books in the Galileo, Natural History and the Americas exhibit (author/title/date).