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AVES: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology

Opening Scientific Exploration

Although they did bring back zoological specimens, living and dead, to show off the wonders of the New World to their monarchs and backers, the earliest European explorers were more interested in riches (and survival) than in the exotic wildlife they encountered. Subsequent scientific interest was mostly limited to knowledge that could lead to profits, (Read more…)


Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied (1782-1867)

Biography: In the eighteenth century, non-Portuguese explorers were prohibited from traveling in Brazil without an official escort. This changed in 1808 when, in the wake of Napoleon’s conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the prince regent of Portugal (the future King João VI) temporarily moved the royal court to Brazil. (Read more…)

Image: This image, titled “Schiffahrt über die Felsen des Rhéos,” from Wied’s Reise nach Brasilien, illustrates the environment that he encountered in Brazil.

Reise nach Brasilien in den Jahren 1815 bis 1817. Frankfurt am Main: H.L. Brönner, 1820-1821. 2 volumes. Folio. 19 plates. (Borba de Moraes 544; Wood 627; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Wied wrote three books about his experiences in Brazil. The first, Reise nach Brasilien, was funded by subscription and printed in 1820 and 1821 in two large volumes featuring nineteen full-page plates. Upon publication, the book sold for 1,000 francs, “an extravagant sum at that time” (Borba de Moraes 1983, 544). Despite the expense, the book was a huge success: Over nine hundred subscribers are listed in volume 1; just under three hundred were added in volume 2. Many of the illustrations are of historical significance for their depictions of Indian villages and modes of dress. Although there are no ornithological illustrations, several images reveal how Wied and his companions traveled. One image, for example, shows specimen cases being loaded onto the party’s mule train. The majority of Wied’s collection, including many specimens new to science, was acquired in 1870 by the American Museum of Natural History in New York and was one of the acquisitions that put the museum on the road to greatness. Wied later published two accounts of the animals observed and collected during his trip to Brazil: Beiträge zur Naturgeschichte von Brasilien (Weimer, 1825-33), four volumes of scientific descriptions, and Abbildungen zur Naturgeschichte Brasiliens (Weimer, 1822-1831), an atlas of 89 hand-colored plates of South American fauna, “a magnificent publication . . . very rare today” (Borba de Moraes 1983, 545). Two separate English translations of the first volume of Wied’s travelogue appeared in 1820, one published by Henry Colburn, the other by Sir Richard Phillips. The latter, however, contains only eight of the volume’s original eleven chapters. The illustrations differ significantly in all three editions. Although Phillips’s edition, published in May 1820, stated that the remaining chapters would be translated as soon as the second installment of the German original was received, it appears that neither that nor any other translation of the second volume of Wied’s work was ever completed.


JOHANN BAPTIST VON SPIX (1781-1826)

Biography: Johann Baptist von Spix was born to an impoverished doctor in the small Bavarian town of Höchstadt an der Aisch. A precocious student, he studied philosophy, theology, and medicine at the universities of Bamberg and Würzburg and was awarded his PhD at the tender age of nineteen. (Read more…)

Image: It is fair to say that illustrations in nineteenth-century German books devoted to Neotropical birds were not of the highest quality. They have neither the formal brilliance of French bird art, nor the naturalness and subtlety of the best English bird art. The German artists seem content to portray a stuffed object, without attempting to impart the spark of life. This is regrettable, because the work of Germans was crucial to the progress of Neotropical ornithology. This image is from Spix, Avium species novae (Munich, 1824-25).

Avium species novae, quas in itinere per Brasiliam annis 1817-1820 jussu et auspiciis Maximiliani Josephi I Bavariae Regis. Munich: S. Hubschmann, 1824-1825. 2 volumes. Folio. 222 hand-colored lithograph plates. (Anker 483; Borba de Moraes 828; Sitwell 109; Wood 580; Zimmer 600; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

These descriptions and illustrations of the birds collected by Spix “represent the starting point of modern Brazilian ornithology” (Soffer 2010). However, the work is not without its problems. The taxonomy was confused, and Carl Hellmayr’s first important work, published in 1905, was devoted to revising Spix’s descriptions, based on a careful study of the original specimens. Also, for such a lavish book the plates are not very attractive – they have neither the formal elegance of images found in other French books of the period, nor the easy naturalness of English bird art at a slightly later time. Like most collectors in the Neotropics, Spix collected living things of all kinds, resulting in other publications devoted to Brazilian primates (1823), snakes (1820), lizards (1825), freshwater shells (1827), fish (1832), insects (1834), and turtles and frogs (1840).

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