Historic Manuscript Filled with Beautiful Illustrations of Cuban Flowers & Plants Is Now Online (1826 )

The inter­net has become an essen­tial back up sys­tem for thou­sands of pieces of his­tor­i­cal art, sci­ence, and lit­er­a­ture, and also for a spe­cial­ized kind of text incor­po­rat­ing them all in degrees: the illus­trat­ed nat­ur­al sci­ence book, from the gold­en ages of book illus­tra­tion and philo­soph­i­cal nat­u­ral­ism in Europe and the Amer­i­c­as. We’ve seen some fine dig­i­tal repro­duc­tions of the illus­trat­ed Nomen­cla­ture of Col­ors by Abra­ham Got­t­lob Wern­er, for example—a book that accom­pa­nied Dar­win on his Bea­gle voy­age.

The same source has also brought us a won­der­ful­ly illus­trat­ed, influ­en­tial 1847 edi­tion of Euclid’s Ele­ments, with a sem­a­phore-like design that col­or-codes and delin­eates each axiom. And we’ve seen Emi­ly Noyes Vanderpoel’s 1903 Col­or Prob­lems: a Prac­ti­cal Man­u­al for the Lay Stu­dent of Col­or come online (and back in print), a study whose ideas would lat­er show up in the work of mod­ern min­i­mal­ists like Josef Albers.

Above and below, you can see just a frac­tion of the illus­tra­tions from anoth­er exam­ple of a remark­able illus­trat­ed sci­en­tif­ic book, also by a woman on the edge of being for­got­ten: Nan­cy Anne Kings­bury Woll­stonecraft’s 1826 Spec­i­mens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba.

This study of Cuban plant life might nev­er have seen the light of day were it not for the new online edi­tion from the HathiTrust dig­i­tal library, “by way of Cor­nell University’s Library Divi­sion of Rare and Man­u­script Col­lec­tions,” notes Atlas Obscu­ra. The book is notable for more than its obscu­ri­ty, how­ev­er. It is, says schol­ar of Cuban his­to­ry and cul­ture Emilio Cue­to, “the most impor­tant cor­pus of plant illus­tra­tions in Cuba’s colo­nial his­to­ry.” Its author first began work when she moved to the island after her hus­band, Charles Woll­stonecraft (broth­er of Mary and uncle of Mary Shel­ley) died in 1817.

She began doc­u­ment­ing the plant life in the region of Matan­zas through the 1820s. That research became Spec­i­mens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba, a metic­u­lous study, full of Wollstonecraft’s vibrant, strik­ing water­col­ors. After mak­ing sev­er­al attempts at pub­li­ca­tion, she died in 1828, and the man­u­script nev­er appeared in pub­lic. Now, almost two cen­turies lat­er, all three vol­umes are avail­able to read online and down­load in PDF. They had been dor­mant at the Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Library, and few peo­ple knew very much about them. Cue­to, the schol­ar most famil­iar with the man­u­scrip­t’s place in his­to­ry, had him­self searched for it for 20 years before find­ing it hid­den away at Cor­nell in 2018.

Now it is freely avail­able to any­one and every­one online, part of an expand­ing, shared online archive of fas­ci­nat­ing works by non-pro­fes­sion­al sci­en­tists and math­e­mati­cians whose work was painstak­ing­ly inter­pret­ed by artists for the ben­e­fit of a lay read­er­ship. In the case of Woll­stonecraft, as with Goethe and many oth­er con­tem­po­rary schol­ar-artists, we have the two in one. View and down­load her 220-page work, with its 121 illus­trat­ed plates at the HathiTrust Dig­i­tal Library.

via Cor­nell/Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Vision­ary 115-Year-Old Col­or The­o­ry Man­u­al Returns to Print: Emi­ly Noyes Vanderpoel’s Col­or Prob­lems

Explore an Inter­ac­tive Ver­sion of The Wall of Birds, a 2,500 Square-Foot Mur­al That Doc­u­ments the Evo­lu­tion of Birds Over 375 Mil­lion Years

Two Mil­lion Won­drous Nature Illus­tra­tions Put Online by The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library

Wagashi: Peruse a Dig­i­tized, Cen­turies-Old Cat­a­logue of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Can­dies

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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