Spain and the science of wraiths | Babelia

Juan Pimentel has found a perfect metaphor for the history of Spanish science: it is, to a large extent, a ghost story, a catalog of appeared and disappeared, a chimeric museum in which many walls and entire rooms are empty, because there is no nothing of the figures and images that should have occupied them. To the Prado Museum, below its visible and canonical glowIt is also like those mansions of another century in which there is no need for parapsychological devices to detect abolished presences, wandering shadows that have no rest because they did not receive adequate burial, or because the passage of time has not extinguished the consequences of misfortune That glared at them. Pimentel defines himself, on the first page of the book, as a "historian of Science fascinated by images." But, given his inclination to ghosts, the images that fascinate him most are those that can no longer be seen, in the same way that the part of Spanish history about which he writes with greater erudition and passion is the one that did not happen. Ortega y Gasset says that Spain is a country of ruined projects. Even in those who in one way or another came to be fulfilled, Pimentel detects submerged ruins.

Things, people, missing places become even more ghostly when you can't even remember or imagine how they went

I knew vaguely that the museum building was designed to house a Natural History Cabinet in it. I did not know what Pimentel explains: that a School of Mineralogy, a chemistry laboratory, an Academy of Sciences would also be installed there. One does not realize to what extent what he ignores is unlimited. That Natural History Cabinet came from an amazing collection, gathered by an illustrated Creole, Pedro Franco Dávila, a native of Guayaquil, who had become rich in the cocoa trade and had spent 20 years in Paris training with naturalists and encyclopedists. In the Cabinet there were “collections of corals, fish and sponges from the Balearic and Caribbean islands; minerals and fossils from Chile, Peru and the Río de la Plata (among them, the megatery, the first extinct vertebrate rebuilt in a natural history museum) ”. Dávila's legacy had been exposed on the second floor of the San Fernando Academy: the sciences and arts shared the same space and were part of a common project of knowledge and progress, a civilizing impulse for a backward country to which it was necessary provide institutions that vivify it: next to the Natural History Cabinet, the School of Mineralogy, the chemistry laboratory, the Academy of Sciences, there was also the Botanical Garden, the astronomical observatory, the School of Medicine, the San Carlos hospital.

For the observatory, housed in the beautiful neoclassical building of Villanueva, one of the most advanced telescopes manufactured in England by Herschel, the discoverer of the planet Uranus, was purchased. In a few years, most of that project was a great ruin. French troops installed their barracks and stables in the galleries of the abandoned building where the Cabinet was never going to settle. Herschel's telescope was shattered with axes. We don't know anything about Dávila's collections at the Academy of San Fernando: there are no prints, no drawings, not a single image.

Spain and the science of wraiths

Things, people, missing places become even more ghostly when you can't even remember or imagine how they were. The Spanish memory preserves the names and effigies of conquerors or hallucinated mystics much more effectively than those of the wise men engaged in the search for knowledge, or those of pragmatic reformers who helped improve people's lives. There are many statues and many books dedicated to Hernán Cortés: until I found it in Pimentel's book, I didn't know anything about the doctor Francisco Hernández, who led the world's first scientific expedition between 1571 and 1577, through what was then called New Spain. He was 55 years old and more fearsome energy than that of a conqueror. To tell his bloodless adventures, Pimentel is infected with a narrative fervor as a chronicler of the Indies. Hernandez recruited a troop of “herbalists, notaries, painters and interpreters” to fulfill the objective that King Felipe II had entrusted to him: explore and catalog the natural resources of that immense territory; all plants, especially medicinal and nutritious; animals, minerals, poisons and their antidotes, antiques preserved in native codices and oral stories. In the midst of that wild effort, Hernández seems to have had time to translate the 37 books of Plinio's Natural History. He translated from Latin and found out through interpreters the native names of animals and plants; supervised the drawings that would illustrate the pages of a work that was already immense long before it was finished.

In 1566, Hernández sent to Spain the result of his research: 20 books of plants, 5 of animals, 1 of minerals; and also "2 large coffers that contained 68 saplings of seeds and roots, more than 8 barrels and 4 buckets with trees and herbs, products destined to be examined in the Escurialense apothecary and even transplanted in their botanical garden." I was aware of art collections and even of countless relics of saints that are kept in El Escorial: I did not know that there was also a space dedicated to exposing the natural history treasures sent by Francisco Hernández. The curse of invisibility is as persistent as that of disaster: Hernandez died poor and forgotten; Of all the knowledge and images he had collected, only a small part was published; and that prodigious collection that was exhibited in El Escorial was destroyed in the fire of 1671.

Two centuries after Francisco Hernández, José Celestino Mutis partly repeats his destiny of wisdom, perseverance and disaster. His Flora of Bogotá, compiled throughout the last third of the 18th century, is probably the richest and most beautiful plastic botanical catalog that has ever existed: its thousands of plates, preserved almost by miracle at the Botanist in Madrid, never reached be published.

There are more ghosts, more submerged treasures, more lives and scientific exploits partly or completely spoiled in this book. One ends it with a double sense of melancholy and gratitude: the melancholy of lost opportunities, gratitude towards a historian who, by revealing so many admirable adventures of knowledge, makes us glimpse another possible history of a country not necessarily destined to obscurantism.


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