HIST 608: Seminar in Pre-Modern Europe
Visual Voyages: Images of American Nature from Columbus to Darwin

Professor Daniela Bleichmar
Tuesdays, 2–5pm
Huntington Library, San Marino: Seaver 3 classroom

This research seminar will investigate the representation of American nature in the early modern period in connection to European expansion and the beginning of a global era, with a particular focus on Latin America. From the Columbian voyages through the nineteenth century, Europeans and Americans envisioned the New World predominantly in terms of its nature. Nature provided incentives for exploration and settlement, commodities for trade, medicines and specimens for scientific investigation, sources for literary narratives, objects for collections, pigments for art and industry, and a constant stream of representations. Sixteenth-century authors insisted that words alone could not fully capture American plants, animals, and landscapes. Others followed suit, and well into the nineteenth century texts, images, and objects from and about Latin America burst with representations of nature, whether fantastic animals, lavish flora, landscapes of military or spiritual conquest, or specimens to furnish the physical cabinets and mental categories of the natural sciences. The seminar will consider European and American sources to examine the role of images and objects in the production of knowledge about the natural world and the social, political, and historical repercussions of these representations. The seminar is directly linked to the development of a major exhibition that will open in Fall 2017 at the Huntington, provisionally entitled Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin, co-curated by professor Bleichmar.

The seminar will meet at the Huntington Library. During the first half of the course, we will (1) discuss shared readings pertaining to our topic, (2) work intensively with materials in special collections, and (3) start preliminary work on student individual research projects, addressing research methods and questions. Given our focus on research using primary sources, each week’s readings will be modest in order to allow students to devote ample time to working with items in the collection in a weekly basis, preparing short presentations for each of our meetings. In the second half of the semester, students will conduct original research using the Huntington’s collection. Students will be expected to produce either a seminar paper of article length (ca. 7000–8000 words) based on original research, or a series of shorter object studies or catalog entries of comparable scope. We will discuss the most appropriate final project for each student, intellectually and professionally.

The seminar’s goals are: to introduce students to the topic and themes of the seminar, focusing on a trans-regional approach to European cultural and intellectual history; to give students an opportunity to hone their research skills working with special collections materials; and to consider the role of visual and material culture as historical sources, examining how historians to create historical narratives about the past through physical or digital exhibitions.