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José Celestino Mutis y Bosio

By | 11 September, 2015 | 0 comments

José Celestino Mutis y Bosio was born on April 6th, 1732, in Cadiz, a city marked by the busy overseas trade. As a natural

port of departure for the Americas, Cadiz was well-known for its openness, a characteristic which undoubtedly influenced the young Mutis. His father was a bookseller and that sparked his interest in reading; the knowledge he acquired about the travels of La Condamine and Antonio de Ulloa was a major factor in his decision to voyage to the new continent.

In 1760 Mutis accepted an offer from the Viceroy of the New Kingdom of Granada, Pedro Messia de la Cerda y Carcamo. On September 7th of that year he departed from the Bay of Cadiz aboard the ship Castilla and after a 55-day crossing reached Cartagena on the morning of October 20th. Mutis served as

José Celestino Mutis


the viceroy’s medical doctor. While carefully tending to the sick, he also devoted what time he could to collecting plants in a natural environment that greatly surprised him, owing to the high number of species unknown in Europe. When the viceroy’s entourage had recovered from the voyage, the trip to the capital of the Kingdom of New Granada resumed. Duly installed in Santa Fe de Bogotá, Mutis continued to combine his medical work with the study of nature.

Mutis was convinced of the inherent interest of studying the natural life forms of the Viceroyalty and applied to King Carlos III, requesting that a scientific expedition be commissioned to analyse the natural history of the Spanish Crown’s territories. A magnificent and very rich office was subsequently created, superior to those existing in Italy, Sweden, England and France. In 1783, the king gave his support to the Royal Botanical Expedition of the New Kingdom of Granada. The biggest effort was to document existing flora. Mutis was concerned about the practical usefulness of the studies he was conducting and their benefit for humanity. He therefore focused on certain plant species such as Bogotá tea, cinnamon and especially cinchona, which was used as an effective fever remedy. Mutis died on September 11th 1808, in Bogotá and was buried at the city’s Del Rosario University, where he had served as a professor. The Royal Expedition subsequently remained operational until a September 1816 royal order issued by King Fernando VII ended its activity.

The works deposited at the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid began to be inventoried under the custody of its director Mariano Lagasca and Simón de Rojas Clemente, an excellent botanist who held the post of librarian.


In late 1817 they finished the first general inventory and gradually compiled a detailed catalogue of the drawings. The work was then suspended for more than a century and did not resume until 1933, when the Tropical Flora section was established under the direction of Joseph Cuatrecas Asummí. The work was again interrupted during the Civil War. When eventually completed, the inventory of the Royal Expedition consisted of a total of more than 6,000 folios with drawings of Columbian flora which are part of the national heritage, encompassing more than 2,500 recognised taxa. Publication of the Flora of the Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada began in the 1950s, with a total of 52 volumes planned. Some are divided into several parts, e.g. volumes IV, “Grasses” (parts 1 and 2), or XLV, “Cucurbitales and Campanulales” (parts 1 and 2).


The artistic work of the Royal Expedition of the New Kingdom of Granada undertaken during the aforementioned period between 1783 and 1816 was produced by a select group of young New Granadan painters. Under Mutis’s watchful eye, this group of artists reproduced nature using new techniques such as watercolour or ink drawing which facilitated the delicate job of copying small plant details. The skills Mutis

instilled in the painters undoubtedly influenced colonial art, because under his guidance they took on a new attitude toward reality, with well-directed visual training and rigorous study of nature later applied to painting via miniatures. Prints of exceptional quality were produced. Standing out among the artists were Salvador Rizo and Francisco Javier Matís (1774-1851), who was described by German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt as the world’s best botanical illustrator. The prints, mostly painted on grand-aigle cotton and linen paper, were made using recently cut models. New colour compositions were used to approach the plant kingdom with maximum objectivity. The blues and violets, for example, were obtained from indigo, álmica, espino pujón and other New Granada plans; greens, from chilca. The paints were mixed with oils, gums, distilled Castille vinegars and other materials which improved the colours and enhanced nuances.

In the early 19th century Mutis decided to publish his work in Bogotá. The mother country Spain lacked technical resources to publish it in its original size and colour. It was not until 1952 that Spain and Colombia entrusted their respective Institutes of Hispanic Culture to carry out the plan to publish Mutis’s “Flora”. Since 1982 the Natural Sciences Institute of the National University of Colombia and the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid have taken responsibility for the publishing work.

The prints displayed at the Hotel Alcázar pertain to a magnificent facsimile edition of the work of the Royal Botanical Expedition of the New Kingdom of Granada published in Madrid in 1987. The governments commissioned the publication to the Institute for Latin American Cooperation and the Columbian Institute of Hispanic Culture. The prints are from Volume III (Cyperaceae and Juncaceae) and Volume IV (Liliaciae and Marantaceae).


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