Royal Botanical Gardens, Madrid

Date: 1781
Owner: Hakan Svensson
Source Type: Images


This is the gateway of the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid. It is one of several scientific institutions created by the Bourbon monarchs, especially Carlos III, for promoting and furthering scientific development throughout Spain's empire. Although this Enlightenment-minded king did do much to legitimize science for its own sake, foundations for gathering knowledge had already been laid to a large degree by the Hapsburg kings of the seventeenth century.

The Royal Botanical Garden received a steady supply of new plants and other potentially useful curiosities from throughout Spain's American and Asian possessions, but the majority of these items were collected and exported by educated amateurs responding to royal orders, not professionals from the Bourbons' scientific expeditions. In fact, the crown supported independent innovation and activity in natural history because the collection and cultivation of new materials, especially plants, promised to benefit the empire by generating a renewable source of revenue. A middling bureaucrat in Louisiana, for example, could send samples of a local herbal remedy for diarrhea to Madrid, where the plant would be tested, classified, and--if useful--reproduced in the botanical gardens and sold to the world. Not only would selling this new cure make the crown wealthier, but it would also show the world that Spain was scientifically modern while benefiting humanity in general, a goal that was self-validating but also justified the existence of Spain's empire.

Spain's Atlantic (and, indeed, world) scientific network is well illustrated by the case of the tabasco pepper, a plant that was valued both for its beautiful flower and its medicinal properties and was thus sent to the Royal Botanical Garden for reproduction. Spanish experts found that not only did the pepper cure stomach aches, but it had a potent flavor that could be used to decrease Europe's reliance on the Asian spice markets and bolster Spain's export economy. Although historians rarely count Madrid among the world's major centers of science during the eighteenth century, it was in fact a nexus that collected and researched natural history specimens from massive and little known parts of the world.

Reference: De Vos, Paula S. "Research, Development, and Empire: State Support of Science in the Later Spanish Empire." In Colonial Latin American Review, vol. 15, no. 1 (June 2006).

CITATION: Puerta Real of the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid (1774-1781; 1785-1789). At the Paseo del Prado. Projected by Francisco Sabatini (1722-1797) and built in 1781. Photograph by Hakan Svensson, 3 January 2007. Public domain.