Flowers in Philippine history | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Flowers in Philippine history

/ 12:40 AM February 12, 2014

Each semester I remind my students that there are many engaging things to be found on the Internet than porn. Last week two readers who read my column “Flora de Filipinas” supplied links that led to a digital copy of the text of the Augustinian Manuel Blanco’s “Flora de Filipinas segun el sistema sexual de linneo.” Unfortunately, the sex here will excite only botanists.

“Flora de Filipinas” was first published in Manila with black-and-white plates in 1837, and again in Barcelona in 1845 as the deluxe edition with colored plates much sought after by collectors today. Blanco is best remembered because his book was the grandest of all. There are a handful of 20th-century books on the same subject by American and Filipino authors, but these are better known among botanists and flower enthusiasts.

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If we dig even earlier, as suggested by Jan Vytopil, deputy chief of mission of the Czech Embassy in Manila, we will find “the very first description of Philippine flora written by a Czech botanist, Georg Kamel, in the 17th century.”  Some years back the Rizal Library had an exhibit on Kamel, a Jesuit missionary who arrived in Manila in 1688, and some studies on Philippine birds and flowers. It was at the Ateneo de Manila exhibit that I first saw illustrations from Kamel’s “Herbarium aliarumque stirpium in insula Luzone Pilippinarum primaria nascentium” syllabus or “Overview of plants and shrubs growing in Luzon,” published in 1697-1698.  It is not well known that the flower called “camelia” was named after Kamel.

Searching the Internet recently for historical sources on the Philippines led me to links on two 18th-century Spanish scientific expeditions to the Philippines—those led by Juan de Cuellar in 1786 and Alessandro Malaspina in 1792. The Malaspina records are voluminous; much is scattered in various archives and parts have been published by the Museo Naval in Madrid. I was first drawn to the Malaspina expedition because of the many drawings and watercolors made of the Philippines and its people. The same can be said of the De Cuellar expedition, which has drawn the interest of Filipino art historians because its archive contains the earliest known paintings by Filipinos of whom we know next to nothing but their names: Miguel de los Reyes, Jose Loden, and Tomas Nazario.

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Long ago, before the extensive renovation of the National Museum, there was a hallway that displayed reproductions of botanical paintings by these early Filipino painters. Donated by the Spanish government, these reproductions were unfortunately labeled the “Juan de Cuellar plates.” These were not by De Cuellar and should have been rightly and proudly introduced as the “De los Reyes, Loden, and Nazario plates.”

These plates are far more important than being part of De Cuellar’s now obsolete scientific findings. Rather, the paintings now preserved in Madrid should be celebrated as some of the earliest documented works by Filipino artists—painters who preceded the now familiar names Juan Luna y Novicio and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo.

Juan de Cuellar arrived in the Philippines in 1786 and worked on Philippine botany until his death in 1801. Under a grant from the Real Compania de Filipinas, he traveled to the Philippines to collect, study, and eventually grow plants that would be economically profitable for the colony. As part of his work, he commissioned three Filipino painters to draw and document plants for him. The papers of the De Cuellar expedition were sent to Madrid and were forgotten in the archives of the Real Jardin Botanico (Royal Botanical Garden) until the 1980s, when historian Belen Bañas, who was working on her doctoral dissertation, stumbled on the 81 unsigned botanical plates. Further research through the papers and reports eventually revealed the names of the Filipino artists.

The challenge that faces Filipino historians today is to dig up more material on these pioneers of Philippine painting and to differentiate which of the 81 botanical plates for the De Cuellar expedition were done by which artist. More exciting, though, is the possibility that more Filipino works of art by older unknown Filipino artists preserved in museums and archives abroad are just waiting to be found. These will push the frontiers of Philippine art history further back in time.

Of the two scientific expeditions sent to these islands, that of Malaspina is better known among scholars and historians because of the publication of reports and other materials resulting from that expedition. Preserved at the Museo Naval in Madrid are watercolors by two artists from Acapulco that traveled with Malaspina: Fernando Brambila captured views of Manila, Sorsogon, and Zamboanga, while Juan Ravanet sketched people and typical scenes of Manila.

The plates of the Malaspina expedition are visual documents of 18th-century Philippines in an age that had not yet known the delights of photography. One can only hope that younger Filipino historians will work on these now-accessible primary-source materials to rewrite Philippine history.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, column, flowers, internet, Philippines
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