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Feature   | Fall 2008

Where art and agriculture intersect

History of agriculture revealed in artistic masterpieces of the world

When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain after his momentous landing in the Bahamas in the fall of 1492, he spread more than just word of new land.

Columbus' encounter with the Americas was the catalyst for a rapid exchange of Old World and New World plants. The explorer described maize discovered during his first voyage, and ships returning from the second voyage in 1494 brought back seeds that were quickly sent to Rome by an Italian tutor to the Spanish royal family.

Soon after, art caught up with agriculture.

The first European images of maize can be found in Rome on ornate ceilings in the Villa Farnesina, created between 1515 and 1518 by Italian painter and architect Giovanni da Udina. The same ceiling shows a mixture of cucurbits such as melon, bottle gourd, watermelon and cucumber from the Old World as well as squash and gourds unique to the New World.

Artwork courtesy of Jules Janick
Purdue geneticist and plant breeder Jules Janick is a renowned expert in horticulture history. He discovered that festoons painted in an Italian villa in the early 1500s contained more than 163 species of plants, including the first images of New World crops—pumpkin, maize and snapbean—in Europe.

The villa is preserved as part of Rome's rich architectural and artistic history, but to Jules Janick, a Purdue University horticulture researcher for more than 50 years, it's part of an agricultural timeline. A plant geneticist and breeder, Janick has long been interested in horticulture history. He's dedicated the latter part of his distinguished career to piecing together the history of horticulture crops through antiquities from the art world.

"Works of art offer insights into events that predate the discovery of writing and are independent of language," says Janick, who teaches an online course on horticulture history "By using different art sources, we can learn about lost genetic horticulture traits, crop dispersal, crop evolution and much more."

The new era of digitizing illustrated manuscripts and art that have been tucked away in museums around the world is making it easier for researchers to access them. Analysis of ancient sculpture, Roman mosaics, illustrated medieval manuscripts, printed herbals, Renaissance frescoes and paintings offer a unique approach to visualizing our agricultural heritage, Janick says. "Cave paintings from 30,000 years ago depict the first images of plants, and ancient Egyptian tomb paintings make it possible to view the very origins of agricultural technology."

Linking past and present

Janick has made some fascinating finds. The work of 16th-century baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi, also known as "Caravaggio," left many clues for Janick to follow. Caravaggio's use of fruit allowed Janick to analyze the diversity of fruits in the Roman markets and determine the prevalence of insect damage and disease, including apple scab. Coincidentally, Janick and colleagues at Rutgers and Illinois universities developed scab-resistant apples, thus solving a disease problem that bedeviled fruit growers 400 years ago.




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