Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s “Campus Marius antiquae Urbis” features extraordinary cartography of ancient Rome.

Essdras M Suarez/© EMS Photography

Arts & Culture

Beauty inside and out

6 min read

At Dumbarton Oaks, a new book spotlights ‘The Botany of Empire’

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The rich legacy of Dumbarton Oaks exists as much in its spectacular gardens as in the pages of the rare books kept inside the historic home.

The distinct beauty of both settings has provided inspiration and substance for the forthcoming book “The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century.” Led by Yota Batsaki, executive director, with co-editors Sarah Burke Cahalan, a librarian formerly at Dumbarton Oaks and now at the University of Dayton, and Anatole Tchikine, assistant director of garden and landscape studies, the project began as an interdisciplinary effort to “stretch the fields of study” at the Harvard research institute, nestled in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

“I came with my own research and teaching in the long 18th century, and I gravitated to the rare book room, which has an 18th-century space and feel,” said Batsaki, who started working at Dumbarton Oaks in 2011. “The library is very rich in garden history and botanical publications, and I thought it deserves to be even better known.”

Decades ago, collectors and art patrons Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss transformed Dumbarton Oaks from a home into a research library and collection, making it a showcase and study space for their work in Byzantine, pre-Columbian, and landscape architecture. Gifted to Harvard in 1940, the original Federal-style house was expanded to include a museum (currently undergoing renovation) and rare-book library. Along with other buildings, including a large library, it is set amid 16 acres designed by the famed pioneer of landscape design Beatrix Farrand. The remaining 27 original acres comprise the public Dumbarton Oaks Park.

“The depth of the collection gives you an indication of how intelligent and far-sighted Mrs. Bliss was,” said Linda Lott, Dumbarton’s rare book librarian. “Part of the impetus for the comprehensive collection was that at the end of World War II in Europe, she saw a number of great libraries and their books being broken up for their individual plates. Working with Mrs. Farrand on the design of Dumbarton Oaks garden helped to reinforce and broaden that interest in collecting books, manuscripts, and drawings in the field of garden history, landscape design, botanical illustration, and plant materials.”

The rare-book collections reflect the institute’s three major areas of research and teaching: pre-Columbian, Byzantine, and landscape architecture. “The Botany of Empire,” which will be published this fall, grew out of a 2013 symposium celebrating the Rare Book Room’s 50th anniversary, which featured an exhibition of botanical works.

‘The depth of the collection gives you an indication of how intelligent and far-sighted Mrs. Bliss was.’ — Linda Lott

“One purpose was to bring all three programs together,” said Tchikine. “With ‘The Botany of Empire,’ we could touch on all the various regions — Greece, the Ottoman Empire — that expanded the ideas of imperial botany. It was such a discovery. People knew we had a lot, but no one knew the sheer richness of it.”

The magnificence of the botany collection stems from the detailed illustrations that display the deep, varied history of what was one of the world’s most powerful economic, medical, and political industries.

“Eighteenth-century botany anticipated what we would now call big science and big business. States and individuals invested heavily in expeditions, and botanical gardens were sites of experimentation. The combination of aesthetics and economics and science — for me, that was the most spellbinding aspect,” said Batsaki.

On a sweltering summer day, Lott pulled out several new acquisitions to show Batsaki and Tchikine in the safety of the climate-controlled library. Among them are an album of Asian fruit watercolors (1798–1810), Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s “Campus Martius antiquae urbis” featuring extraordinary cartography of ancient Rome, and Johann Hieronymus Kniphof’s “Botanica in originali pharmacevtica. Das ist Lebendig,” a rare example of “nature printing.”

“This book shows the range of 18th-century methods of visualizing knowledge,” said Batsaki. “Eighteenth-century botanical images are often highly sophisticated renderings based on many acts of observation and transcription, but the 1733 Kniphof is an example of inking and printing directly onto the page from a specific plant. It is one instance of how the rare book library grounded us in the material culture of the period in all its experimentation and variety.”

The volume expands the understanding of imperial botany beyond Europe and the Atlantic by including empires that did not have overseas colonial possessions, such as the Russian, Ottoman, and Qing, and the Tokugawa shogunate as well as borderline regions like South Africa, Yemen, and New Zealand.

“The 18th century is a period that’s fairly well covered, but most others deal with only the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch empires, and they were not the only forces around,” said Tchikine.

A chapter on ginseng by Shigehisa Kuriyama, chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History at Harvard, showed how a Jesuit account of Chinese ginseng published in Paris and read by a missionary in Quebec led to the unlikely discovery of the plant in North America.

“Shigehisa brought a different tenor to the discussion, pushing us to think more theoretically,” said Batsaki. “He started with China and Japan on one hand, and Canada on the other, and brought home the serendipitous power of text and image on scientific discovery. Dumbarton Oaks has great interest in strengthening connections to the history of science. It’s new territory, and something to work on more.”

Matching the breadth of research were the enchanting discoveries among the rare books — newly found works and beautifully preserved ones.

“Linda would bring out these great prints and maps, and our research interns love getting their hands on these publications,” said Batsaki, who expects the copious illustrations to find interest with even amateur botany fans. “We’ve already had inquiries from garden clubs that have heard about the book, and we’re delighted to have a larger audience. People who enjoy garden history will love finding out more about the global travel of plants that are now familiar but were once rare objects of scientific and economic desire.”