Galileo, Natural History, and the Americas

Exhibit GuideGalileo’s World at a Glance
Gallery at the Exhibit Website
Location: Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (Fall 2015).

How did the natural knowledge of Native Americans shape European science in the age of Galileo?

“In the last few days, when I was in the house of His Excellency the Marquis Cesi, I saw the pictures of 500 Indian plants, and I was expected to affirm either that this or that one was a fiction (denying that such plants were to be found in the world)…, yet neither I nor anyone else present knew their qualities, virtues and effects.”
Galileo to Piero Dini in Rome, May 21, 1611

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. The Academy of the Lynx counted Galileo among its members along with some of the leading naturalists of the day. They worked together to publish a monumental natural history of the Americas based upon the manuscript Hernandez prepared for the king.

In antiquity, the lynx was renowned for possessing sharp eyesight at night. The founder of the Academy of the Lynx, Federigo Cesi, believed that the eyes of the Lynx would peer more deeply into the secrets of nature than ever before. The keen eyes of the Academy of the Lynx stretched the boundaries of European thought in the life sciences just as with Galileo’s discoveries in the physical sciences.

Section 1: Old Science, New Discoveries

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

Section 2: Growing a Museum: 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, Phytobasanos (Naples, 1592), “The Interrogation of Plants”
  2. Pietro de’ Crescenzi, Ruralium commodorum (Augsburg, 1471), “The Advantages of Country Living”
  3. Giovanni Battista Ferrari, Flora, seu, De florum cultura (Amsterdam, 1664), “Flowers, or, On the Cultivation of Flower Gardens”
  4. Leonhart Fuchs, De historia stirpium (Basel, 1542), “The Natural History of Plants”
  5. Leonhart Fuchs, De historia stirpium (Lyon, 1551), “The Natural History of Plants”
  6. John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597)

Section 3: 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, Discorsi à Due Nuove Scienze (Leiden, 1638), “Discourse on Two New Sciences”
  2. Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (Venice, 1672), “The Angry Orlando”
  3. Torquato Tasso, The Recoverie of Jerusalem (London, 1624)
  4. Galileo, Considerazioni al Tasso (Venice, 1793), octavo, “Considerations on Tasso”
  5. Edward Topsell, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (London, 1658)
  6. Ulysses Aldrovandi, Serpentum et draconum historiae (Bologna, 1640), “Natural History of Serpents and Dragons”
  7. Georges Cuvier, Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles du quadrupèdes (Paris, 1812), vol. 2, plate V.

Section 4: New Knowledge to an Old World

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, Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651), “A New Natural History of the Plants, Animals and Minerals of Mexico”
  2. Ferrante Imperato, Dell’ Historia Naturale (Naples, 1599), “On Natural History”
  3. Carolus Clusius, Exoticorum (Antwerp, 1605), “Non-European Plants”
  4. Juan Eusebio Nieremberg, Historia naturae (Antwerp, 1635), “Natural History”
  5. Abraham Munting, Phytographia curiosa (Amsterdam, 1702), “Representations of Plants”
  6. Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (London, 1707-1725), 2 vols.
  7. Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden (Dublin, 1790)
Further reading:
  • Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (Walker, 1999)
  • David Freedberg, The Eye of the Lynx (Chicago, 2002)
  • Simon Varey, ed., The Mexican Treasury: The Writings of Dr. Francisco Hernandez (Stanford, 2002)
Curators: Kerry Magruder, Tom Luczycki, James Burnes, Carolyn Scearce, Jackson Pope, Katrina Menard, Brent Purkaple.
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