The 1805 Tableau physique des Andes et Pays voisins by Alexander von Humboldt, his extraordinary attempt to render in a single image the ecology of the equatorial regions. One of the great scientific images and infographics of any era, here in a rare, separately issued example on luxurious paper.
Though Humboldt (1769-1859) was raised and trained to be a Prussian civil servant, his duties as a mining inspector failed to satisfy his insatiably curious mind and longing for adventure. For a time he settled for small-scale scientific inquiry, while becoming intimate with Goethe, Schiller and the intellectual and cultural hothouse of Weimar.
But the death in 1796 of his controlling mother, along with a large inheritance, set him up financially and freed him emotionally. In 1799 he set off with Aime Bonpland on a self-financed voyage to Latin America, then still part of the Spanish Empire. Over the course of five years he paddled up the Orinoco to its confluence with the Amazon, ascended Andean volcanoes, visited Cuba, explored Mexico for a year, traveled to the United States to meet President Jefferson and other luminaries, and risked death innumerable times, not least in attempting to summit the 20,564-foot Chimborazo. Along the way he collected thousands of animal, botanical, and geological specimens; and germinated an outlook and theories that would revolutionize our understanding of the natural world.
On returning Humboldt began writing an account of his travels, a project that would ultimately extend over more than two decades and amount to more than 30 volumes, known collectively as Voyage aux regions equinoctiales du Nouveau Continent, fait en 1799-1804. The leitmotif of this work is what is often described as “the unity of nature”, the view that natural phenomena cannot be properly understood in isolation, but rather only in the context of their environment. At the most “macro” level, Humboldt’s belief in the unity of nature entailed that patterns and relationships apparent in one environment are replicated in similar environments in other parts of the globe. Thus, for example, an understanding of the Andes should facilitate understanding the Alps, and vice versa. This broad outlook was a powerful corrective to the growing specialization of the sciences in the Late Enlightenment. It also put the Linnaean fixation on taxonomy in its proper context, as a means rather than the end of investigation of the natural world.
Tableau physique des Andes et Pays voisins
(“Physical Table of the Andes and Neighboring Countries”)
Offered here is perhaps the single best-known and most influential image to emerge from Humboldt’s journey to Latin America. He first drafted it in 1803 while in the Pacific-coast town of Guayaquil (now Ecuador), awaiting transit to Mexico. On his return to Europe he had it drawn, engraved and then printed from a single, vast copper plate measuring more than two by three feet.
The objective of the Tableau is no less than to “gather in one single tableau the sum of the physical phenomena present in equinoctial regions, from the sea level of the South Sea to the very highest peak of the Andes.” The Tableau depicts in profile two vast peaks roughly 6000 and 5500 meters high respectively, idealized representations of Chimburazo and Cotopaxi, which in reality are near-perfect volcanic cones many miles apart. The left side illustrates pictorially how the characteristic vegetation changes gradually as one ascends, while the right names the particular species characteristic to each altitude, from “the region of subterranean plants” to the “region of lichens” above 4000 meters.
Flanking the tableau are two tables, each with several columns of data on an array of phenomena, arranged on the same altitude scale as the alpine profile. The left-hand chart alone includes data on the refraction of light, lightning, cultivable plants, gravitation, the color of the sky, and air pressure. The right side addresses air pressure and the chemical composition of air, snow cover, the boiling point of water, geological features and intensity of sunlight. Though the variety of data is overwhelming, the message is clear and in keeping with Humboldt’s core principle that organisms can only be understood in the context of the ecosystems they inhabit.
The plate is best known for appearing in Humboldt’s Essai sur la géographie des plantes (Paris: Levrault, Schoell et Compagnie, 1805), the first volume of the Voyage aux regions equinoctiales du Nouveau Continent. However, this example is on luxurious, heavy paper and is untrimmed, with huge margins and no signs of ever having been bound. Apparently some examples were run off separately; for example, Wulf’s biography of Humboldt mentions that Goethe received an early copy of the Essai, lacking the engraving, which Humboldt supplied a short time later (Wulf, note to p. 153).
Rumsey #11083. Background and English text of Essai sur la géographie des plantes from Stephen T. Jackson and Sylvie Romanowski’s English translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). Further background from Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Vintage, 2015).