Exploration and discovery of the territory we know as Colombia is dominated by two seminal figures: José Celestino Mutis (1732 – 1808) and Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859). From the Royal Botanical Expedition organized by the Spanish priest Mutis that gave the crown a wealth of understanding of the flora and fauna to be found in the New World to the crossing of the Colombia’s Eastern plains and Andes by the Prussian Count, in this colorful palate of adventurers the name Francisco José de Caldas (1768-1816) is rarely mentioned.
The mathematician, newspaper editor and committed Independence leader, born just one year before Humboldt, is mostly identified with a department that carries his name, despite his well-bred Popayán roots. As the country prepares to celebrate the 250 years of Humboldt’s birth, the National Museum of Colombia is hosting the exhibition Ojos en el cielo, pies en la Tierra (Eyes in the sky, feet on Earth) with maps, books and cartographic instruments belonging to Caldas, whose politics resulted in his execution by Spanish Royalists, at age 48. Called by peers “The Wise Caldas,” the legacy of the explorer of New Granada has never been shown to the public in an exhibition of this scale, with more than a 100 objects, including maps of the colony, topographic cross-sections of the Central Cordillera and botanical illustrations.
The exhibition is organized in four sections, starting with The Scientist and The Friend, which examines Caldas’ burgeoning interest in science, his observations of territory, and the growth of scientific communities in Santafé and Popayán. The second section deals with the encounter between Caldas, Humboldt and botanist Aimé Bonpland, in which the New Grenadian knew the geography of the colonies better than his European contemporaries. Keeping notebooks with copious measurements of altitude, latitude and temperatures provided Caldas with an idea that plant life could define geographical limits. Though Caldas lacked formal training, this concept encouraged Humboldt to traverse the mainland and document endemic wildlife.
The section The Observatory is dedicated to Caldas’ role as director of the Astronomical Observatory of Bogotá. But, as revolutionary sentiment grew in the colony the age of expeditions ended, and after handing over his plant collections to Mutis, Caldas joined the independence as a military engineer.
The exhibition at the Museo Nacional gives visitors a valuable insight into the life of a researcher obsessed with topography, climate and astronomical observation. As a scientist in a colonial world on the brink of change, Caldas may have viewed Humboldt as his aristocratic rival, but together with Mutis, they shaped our understanding of Colombia place in time.
Cra 7 No.28-66.