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The Collation

In Search of Nature’s Not-So-Lost Treasures: Juan Eusebio Nieremberg on Ecology

“Purple is no longer found,” Juan Eusebio Nieremberg lamented with a note of insincerity in Curiosa, y oculta filosofía (Curious and Occult Philosophy, 1649).1

A page of printed text in what appears to be Spanish.
Title page of Juan Eusebio Nieremberg’s Curiosa, y oculta filosofía de la naturaleza (1649). Source:

It is not entirely clear whether the Jesuit naturalist and ascetic writer had read Fabio Colonna’s brief publication on the topic. In Purpura (1616), Colonna described a species of murex found in the bay of Naples that could have corresponded to the one that the ancient Phoenicians crushed and boiled to produce the dye that for centuries had been the color of royalty.2 Nieremberg floated the possibility that the sea snail had gone extinct as a pretext to discuss a theological and natural philosophical mystery: whether nature “still preserves the perfection, full beauty and polish it had when it came out of its artificer’s hands.”3 He wanted to know whether “any species in nature has been lost of those that were created at the beginning of the world.”4

The fear that nature is permanently at risk of suffering loss permeates contemporary debates over shrinking biodiversity, while the conviction that humans are capable of altering the planet to detrimental effect lies at the roots of environmental awareness. Yet, as Richard Grove demonstrated almost three decades ago, the concern that we can upset and potentially impoverish the habitats we occupy as a result of agriculture and the extraction of resources is hardly new.5 Nieremberg’s inquiry into nature’s past and present, and the suspicion that nature has become maimed, as Henry David Thoreau put it in 1855, is enmeshed with Spanish overseas expansion.6 In Historia naturae, maxime peregrinae (1635), for instance, Nieremberg disseminated part of the research on Mexican fauna and, especially, flora that the physician Francisco Hernández conducted on the field between 1571 and 1577 under the sponsorship of King Philip II.

A scan of an opening of a book. On the left page is a large illustration of a curled up rattlesnake. On the right page is two columns of text in what appears to be Latin.
Depiction of a rattlesnake (Teuhtlacocauhqui) in Juan Eusebio Nieremberg’s Historia Naturae, maxime peregrinae (1635), taken from the observations of Mexican fauna and flora by the physician Francisco Hernández. Folger QH41 .N6 1635 Cage

At least initially, Nieremberg lets his reader believe that imperialism has brought about the extinction of species. He reports on Caribbean animals being decimated after mere decades of Spanish occupation, and in a curious and uncomfortable parallel he subscribes to a link between the conquest of Cairo by Ottoman Sultan Selim I in 1517 and the end of balsam in Egypt.7 In a period of history in which, as Nieremberg put it, greed has visited every corner of Earth and dug out its bowels in the course of unparalleled navigation and mining activity, it seems safe to assume, Nieremberg suggests disingenuously, that if purple is not found it is because it has disappeared for good, and that the search for economic profit, accompanied by destruction and war, are to blame.8

There was a twist, however, to Nieremberg’s appraisal of environmental loss: He did not believe it was real. He was persuaded that purple merely awaited a new race of enterprising Phoenicians who might dive into the seas in search of it. In 1624, the astronomer Willebrord Snellius opened Tiphys Batavus with a eulogy of Phoenician audacity intended to spur Dutch commercial and maritime expansion. Nieremberg’s colorful and celebratory language also reveals admiration for the people who built a commercial and maritime empire on the mollusk that secreted “the rubric of ambition, the mark of empire, the color of majesty.”9 One would be hard pressed to find in Nieremberg’s work the bursts of disapproval that his predecessor Pliny the Elder repeatedly directed against luxury and its impact on morals and lifestyle. Pliny could not restrain himself when he discussed purple; only pearls angered him even more.10 Nieremberg, who commended natural philosophy as a path to revere God in the works he has created, insisted that rarity—as that of purple—makes creatures and phenomena even more apt at displaying God’s greatness. The claim that greed has pushed humans to sail in search of nature’s treasures paid lip service to conventional moral and religious wisdom, but sounded less convincing than Nieremberg’s disparagement of those who leave rare and wondrous resources in the depths of the sea or buried beneath the earth. Nieremberg laid down a distinction between what he saw as “fit” and “unfit” conquerors. Purple, he claimed, shared a fate with Parian marble, which was found in regions that had fallen in the hands of Ottoman Turks, people “of a different temperament, concerns, and habits” than the ancient Phoenicians and Greeks, and,  in less neutral terms, “barbarian, uncultivated.”11

It would be wrong to infer that Nieremberg did not care about the preservation of nature. He was not worried about environmental loss because he did not think it possible. Nieremberg knew that purple still existed as he wrote his treatise in 1629.

Illustrations of two large and very detailed snails. The page is titled Purpura and is surrounded by an elaborate border.
Depiction of purple in Fabio Colonna’s Purpura (1615). Source:

Unlike Colonna, Nieremberg did not reach certainty through observation. It was a theological and a priori natural philosophical argument that persuaded him, who had never seen either purple or balsam, that they had to exist. Although nature can beget monsters—it does so to demonstrate that it can create variety without end—nature is never monstrous itself. It simply cannot lack any of its initial parts or limbs.12 Nature is, by definition, whole.

Lack of discernment leads some people to appreciate nature’s variety and abundance, oblivious that these are merely shells for what Nieremberg called nature’s “artifice.” With a trite metaphor bound to gain even more traction in the decades to follow, he compared nature to the mechanism of a clock. Remove just one of its gears and it will stop working altogether.13 Nieremberg was lenient toward resource extraction, because he was convinced that as long as the world lasts, it will do so in its pristine and whole state. He illustrated the idea with the shield of Athena sculpted by Phidias (fifth century BCE). Every part of the statue “came together in the shield of the goddess, in which the face of the artificer was portrayed.”14 A tradition claimed that removing the face of the sculptor would cause the statue to come apart. Likewise, nature’s artifice represented a union that could not dispose of even one of its parts.15 Floods and volcanos entailed different forms of “accidental change” in nature, which God not only allowed but also promoted. They, however, did not impact the number of species, all of which were necessary to preserve nature’s artifice intact.16 Purple had to exist for the sake of completeness.

As he delved into the study of nature’s artifice, Nieremberg used interconnectedness as a way to account for a variety of phenomena that the four qualities of Aristotelian philosophy were powerless to explain. The contagion of illness, the fact that rotten fruits cause nearby fruits to rot, or that onions make us cry resisted explanation by means of the properties of hot, cold, dry, and moist, but could be justified by means of sympathies and antipathies that tied different species and individuals together.17 Ensconced amid a variety of indicators of love and hate, however, Nieremberg clarified that rue and cabbage “have no specific grudge against one another.” Still, he discourages planting them together, considering that both plants need humidity and compete for the same nutrients. The opposite is true of species that benefit from the vicinity of one another without being united by “love.” If they still find mutual benefit in one another, Nieremberg conjectured, is because one eats the food that would be harmful for the other.18

A brief outline of Nieremberg’s views on the permanence of nature offers a cautionary tale against the dangers of oversimplification. The embrace of the notion of nature’s “artifice,” combined with other theological and natural philosophical principles, led Juan Eusebio Nieremberg to turn a blind eye on the possibility of environmental loss. Yet nature’s “artifice” also led Nieremberg to sketch a capacious and nuanced understanding of interconnectedness, one integrating traditional views of “occult” sympathies and antipathies found in countless treatises of natural philosophy and natural magic of the period with conjectures about what happens when living beings coexist in the same habitat. This is close enough to what the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus called nature’s economy more than a century later, and which today, with a term coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel, is usually referred to as “ecology.”19

  1. “Ya no se halla la púrpura.” Juan Eusebio Nieremberg, Curiosa, y oculta filosofia. Primera, y segunda parte (Alcalá de Henares: María Fernández, 1649), 5. Nieremberg first published the work in two parts between 1630 and 1633, then as a single volume in 1643 and 1649, including the inaugural lecture that he delivered in 1629 in Madrid’s Reales Estudios, where he held the chair of natural history. On Nieremberg, see D. Scott Hendrickson, Jesuit Polymath of Madrid: The Literary Enterprise of Juan Eusebio Nieremberg (1595-1658) (Leiden: Brill, 2015); José Ramón Marcaida López, Arte y ciencia en el Barroco español: historia natural, coleccionismo y cultura visual (Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2014). See also Javier Patiño Loira, The Age of Subtlety: Nature and Rhetorical Conceits in Early Modern Europe, under contract with University of Delaware Press.
  2. Fabio Colonna, Fabii Columnae Lyncei Purpura… (Rome: Jacopo Mascardi, 1616), 12–14. On Tyrian purple, see Lloyd B. Jensen, “Royal Purple of Tyre,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 22, no. 2 (1963): 104–18.
  3. “Si està con la flor, y tan cabal hermosura, y con la misma lima que quando la acabaron las manos de su artifice.” Nieremberg, Curiosa, y oculta filosofía, 4.
  4. “Ha perecido alguna especie y naturaleza de las que al principio del mundo se criaron.” Nieremberg, 4.
  5. Richard H. Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860 (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1996). For a different perspective, see Miguel Ibáñez Aristondo, “From Paradise to the Extractive Zone: Anthropogenic Environmental Change and Historical Agency in Antonio de León Pinelo’s El Paraíso En El Nuevo Mundo,” Transmodernity 10, no. 1 (2022): 24–43,
  6. William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), 3–4.
  7. Nieremberg, Curiosa, y oculta filosofía, 5.
  8. Nieremberg, 5.
  9. “La rúbrica de la ambición, la marca del imperio, el color de la magestad.” Nieremberg, 5.
  10. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, ed. Harris Rackham, vol. 3 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 246–59, 9.60–64. See also Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, “Pliny the Elder and Man’s Unnatural History,” Greece & Rome 37, no. 1 (1990): 80–96; Eugenia Lao, “Luxury and the Creation of a Good Consumer,” in Pliny the Elder: Themes and Contexts, ed. Roy Gibson and Ruth Morello (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 35–56.
  11. “Gente de diuerso humor, cuidados, y costumbres, barbara, inculta.” Nieremberg, Curiosa, y oculta filosofía, 10.
  12. Nieremberg, 9.
  13. Nieremberg, 284.
  14. “El arte con que todas ellas venian a engaçarse, y trabarse en el escudo de la Diosa en que estaua el rostro del Artifice.” Nieremberg, 285.
  15. Nieremberg, 285. See Evelyn B. Harrison, “The Composition of the Amazonomachy on the Shield of Athena Parthenos,” Hesperia 35, no. 2 (1966): 107–8,
  16. Nieremberg, Curiosa, y oculta filosofía, 31–32.
  17. Nieremberg, 186–87, 189.
  18. “Sin tenerse ojeriza particular.” Nieremberg, 196.
  19. Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy. A History of Ecological Ideas, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 37–38; Ernst Haeckel, Generelle Morphologie der Organismen…, vol. 2 (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1866), 235–37; Frank N. Egerton, “History of Ecological Sciences, Part 47: Ernst Haeckel’s Ecology,” The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 94, no. 3 (2013): 222–44,