A Walk Enlightened by Science and Culture Overseas

"Quadro de Historia Natural, Civil y Geografica del Reyno del Peru" (1799). Mural encyclopedia.

By Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Quadro de Historia Natural, Civil y Geográfica del Reyno del Perú (1799) by José Ignacio de Lequanda and Louis ThiébautMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

This unique painting combines science and arts to describe the history of the Kingdom of Peru. Its geography, flora and fauna, ethnography, economic resources and social history are the protagonists of this magnificent work.

The author of this work is José Ignacio Lequanda, from the Basque Country, who was a great connoisseur of the nature, society and culture of Peru, where he lived for three decades. He commissioned this work to the French painter Louis Thiebaut.

At the centre of the painting there is a map of Peru showing its regions or administrative divisions in different colours. The map orientation is noteworthy, as the North is represented at the left side, the South at the right, East at the top and West on bottom.

Below the map is the landscape of the silver mine of Cerro de la Chota or Gualgayoc, in the province of Cajamarca. The text accompanying the painting summarizes the process of extraction of silver and mercury and contains a critical view on mining in Peru and a list of mineral resources and mining industries.

The chapter on ethnography includes 32 portraits and descriptions of human types, the left part is dedicated to the civilized nations and the right part to the wild nations, or Indians of the Amazon.

The text describes the Indians of the Valleys among the civilized nations, referring to women as the hardest-working in the region while emphasizing about men that they are similar to Catalans in Spain regarding labour and mercantile aspects.

It says about the mulattos, born from the union of black and white people, that their poise reminds of the gypsies in Spain; while the women devoted to domestic service are the secret-keepers of their masters.

A beautiful aptitude for arts and science are attributed to the Indian men of Lima while the talent and intelligence of women is emphasized, as well as their extraordinary costumes.

Regarding wild nations, it is said that the main occupation of the Indian women of Icaguate of the Napo river is to make traps for bird-hunting and also to defend their land when men go hunting or fishing. Women were alone when the Conqueror Francisco de Orellana arrived there, and they fought fiercely.

The text says about the Boga Indians, also from the Napo river, that they are the most skilled sailors among the wild nations, maybe that is why they were called boga, which means to row.

On the contrary, it says about the Indians Guaqueo or Maguare, from the river Yapurá, that they are cannibalistic, that they wear the hearts of the people they kill around the neck and make human smoked meat with it, which was considered a delicacy.

One thing that characterizes the painting is its eagerness to describe the fauna and flora of Peru, for which Lequanda selected 193 representative animals and 148 representative plants of the kingdom of Peru. The text shows their common name, the geographic area from which they come from, the type of habitat in which they live and other details such as how they can serve as food, medicine or their commercial value. Something noteworthy is that the images are not to scale, so plants and animals are not represented with their actual size.

Birds are the protagonists of 88 scenes which occupy the periphery of the painting. Each one is accompanied by a plant, usually some kind of bush. The Child Bird (pájaro niño) is one of the most interesting birds, which lives on the coast and feeds on fish. It is known as the Humboldt penguin.

One of the most beautiful birds is the small hummingbird or Quinde, the feathers of which were used to make the customs for the marriages of Incas empresses.

The five-coloured bird stands out for its harmony and its presence in the Cabinets of Paris and Madrid.

The last bird scene we have chosen is this one in which a Guangacho tries to eat a snake. Another peculiarity of this bird is that it is used to cure leprosy.

On both sides of the central axis there are 63 mammals accompanied by trees. They are located just below human beings, which are the most important mammals. This interpretation corresponds to the location given to monkeys, in the highest part.

Primates are very well represented in this painting. The presence of the Dominican Monkey is quite notorious, as it is actually a white and black Lemur, a species from Madagascar which does not exist in Peru and of which there is a specimen in the MNCN.

To Paint the Anteater, Thiebaut could have been inspired by the painting of Rafael Mengs (1776) kept in the Museum.

The Quirquincho or Mulita is a species of armadillo, the meat of which tastes good and is said to have properties against asthma.

One of the most peculiar mammals represented is the Nonga, which lives on the Banks of the river Huallagas. It is a nocturnal carnivore greatly feared by Indians, and it seems to be a spirit in the forest more than a real being.

Reptiles are represented by two lizards and nine snakes, which appear in the two upper corners of the painting.

This lizard is actually a Cayman, which Lequanda describes as a very voracious amphibian. At that time, those animals that could live on land and water were considered amphibians.

In the centre of the painting there are 24 fishes in four different squares. The one located on the top left shows a seahorse (D) and the feared manta ray (G).

The inclusion of this sea-cow (A), also called Ox fish (Pez buey), among other fishes is noteworthy, as it is actually a mammal. In the painting it is described as an amphibian of tasty meat.

The representation of animals is completed with twelve invertebrates which appear in the two bottom corners of the painting. This painting shows, among others, a two-headed insect, a spider and a worm.

Finally, we must emphasize the merit of this painting in the description of the flora of Peru, not because of its scientific value, but for its commitment to show the variety of plants that could be found in the Kingdom of Peru and their uses as food, medicine or Wood.

Pino-Díaz, F. (coord.). 2014. El Quadro de historia del Perú (1799), un texto ilustrado del Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (Madrid). Lima Fondo Editorial – UNALM. 309 pp.

Credits: Story

Exhibition created by Mª Soledad Alonso, Audio Visual Service-Media Library, MNCN-CSIC

Information provided by Josefina Barreiro, Birds Collection curator, MNCN-CSIC

Text written by Carmen Martínez, Audio Visual Service-Media Library, MNCN-CSIC

Deputy Direction of Collections and Documentation, MNCN-CSIC
Dept. of Communication and Public Programs, MNCN-CSIC

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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