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  • Flora primavera or Flora meretrix?Iconography, Gender, and Science
  • Ann B. Shteir (bio)

During the 1770s, when Linnaean ideas about plant identification and classification were gaining prominence in England, the engraver and botanical artist John Miller's Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus was issued in both a folio edition and a modestly priced octavo edition in order to bring work by the Swedish botanist to wider audiences. In the Preface, Miller remarks about "the Insufficiency of the most accurate verbal description, for conveying to the Mind an adequate Image of the infinitely various Objects in the vegetable Kingdom," and hence his visual figures are meant to make the world of botany more accessible to "the Situation of every Learner," including "the young Student."1 Miller's handsome work consists of several hundred color illustrations of the parts of flowers in the different classes and orders of the Linnaean system as well as illustrations of the terms used in Linnaean botany to describe specific features of plants, such as the roots or the shape of leaves. Frontispieces to editions of the work cast the publication in mythological terms. In the 1779 octavo edition, Flora, the goddess of flowers, and Ceres, goddess of grains and harvest, are shown together, both wreathed in vegetation and each with symbols of her domain. (fig. 1) They sit enthroned on a pediment that is inscribed with text from Genesis I: 12 about the fecundity of earth: "And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good." Other female figures stand below them, notably Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, and an allegorical rendering of Britannia. Carl Linnaeus, shown in profile at the top, [End Page 147]

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Figure 1.

In the frontispiece to John Miller, An Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus, Vol. I (London 1779), a barebreasted Flora, goddess of flowers, sits directly below a cameo of the Swedish botanist. Courtesy Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

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presides over this symbolically rich vision of nature and order. The image of Flora in Miller's Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus is just one of numerous depictions of the goddess in botanical and horticultural works across the long eighteenth century. As such, Miller's representation is part of a larger iconographic history about this mythological figure, giving us an opportunity to study how an artist both participates in traditional signs and also advances or subsumes specific features that identify an image and give it resonance. Frontispieces and illustrative materials like Miller's 1779 rendering are therefore a rich resource for scholars working at the intersections of visual culture, gender studies, and science studies.2

In representations of the goddess of flowers in European art going back into the Renaissance, Flora is conventionally portrayed with a floral wreath on her head and holding bouquets of flowers in one or both hands and often also at her lap. While the presence of flowers is a common feature across all figures of Flora, there is less uniformity in how artists represent Flora's body, especially her breasts. John Miller's design and engraving for the frontispiece to Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus depicts Flora's upper body as uncovered. Her breasts seem like those of a nubile young woman, and they are much on display. Unclothed figures are iconic elements in classical and mythological works of art, but Miller has positioned Flora's body and her exposed breasts in the center of any viewer's sightline in ways that go beyond the conventional. Miller's design choices invite analysis of iconographic echoes and uses of breasts more generally. His Flora, like other images of the goddess of flowers in botanical and horticultural works, participates in stories that are local and context-specific, but that also are integral to larger cultural iconographies of women, nature, and bodies. Two intellectual traditions are needed to understand how the goddess of flowers is depicted in a variety of publications across the long eighteenth...