An exhibition in Parma traces the continuing relationship between humans and plants, with more than two hundred figurative objects

The Governor's Palace in Parma hosts an exhibition from January 13 to April 1, 2024, that tells the story of the continuous relationship between man and plants through more than two hundred figurative objects, created by the University of Parma in collaboration with the City of Parma.

From January 13 to April 1, 2024, the Palazzo del Governatore in Parma hosts the exhibition Impronte. We and Plants, organized by theUniversity of Parma in collaboration with the City of Parma and the support of Fondazione Cariparma, Chiesi Group and Davines Group.

The exhibition traces in more than two hundred figurative objects, including historical herbaria, botanical illustrations, nature prints and xylotheques, as well as modern photographs and high-tech images, the continuous relationship that links humanity and nature, botany and images, science and art. Through ten sections, the exhibition aims to present the link that man has always sought to capture and fix, from herbarium maps to today’s satellite images of tree censuses, via illustrations, notebooks, models, and even magnetic resonance imaging and X-ray gazes.

The sections

From calligraphic reproductions to precision agriculture, from medieval herbaria to positron emission tomography, Footprints aims to trace the temporal parabola of the relationship between man and nature, showing all its declinations. Herbaria for the use of doctors and pharmacists, dominated by a realistic approach and a precise function, tables taken from atlases intended for “professional” recognition of weeds to be eradicated along railroads, but also catalogs of color samples to be matched to precise varieties and botanical species such as the highly original Répertoire de couleurs pour aider à la détermination des couleurs des fleurs, des feuillages et des fruits, which combines the experiences and needs of floriculturists, artists and scientists. It is also due to such a variety of applications that an advancement in research on imprinting techniques, lithography and electroplating above all, became necessary, which combined with the artistic fascination for botanical illustration quickly led to its commercialization, ferrying it into modernity. Serial reproductions, prints, but also traces of spy-stories related to theft and property rights add valuable pieces to the works on display: among them, the very rare calligraphic reproductions of mushrooms in wax, Brendel models in papier mâché, and wooden “identity cards” of trees, the xylotheca or holzbuch.

An object of ever-increasing interest, naturalistic representation also invades the professional sphere of women, for it was through botanical illustration that many women were able to access the world of scientific discovery, historically dominated by the male gender.

The exhibition also offers a reflection on the heritage of historical documents kept by the University and various city institutions (Palatina Library, Cariparma Foundation, Maria Luigia National Boarding School). It is here that previously unpublished or rarely exhibited materials become protagonists (such as, in addition to the Gardoni herbarium, the Berta, Guatteri and Jan herbaria) and the itinerary leads visitors to discover the new technologies used to represent plants. From the earliest photographic reproductions obtained for scientific purposes, such as the exotic ones taken from Asiatic Palms during Odoardo Beccari’s botanical campaigns in Borneo, through images obtained with microscopic techniques, the works on display explore a present that runs fast toward new goals. This is told by spectrographic portraits conducted on plants to accelerate agronomic selection and photographs by contemporary scientist-artists such as Craig Burrows, Igor Siwanovicz, Rob Kesseler and Jan Martinek.

The last section opens by unveiling modern illustrations capable of broadening the gaze from the particular to the general. Microscopy, infrared, ultraviolet, radar, satellite images, time lapse, resonance, and fluorescence offer an opportunity to reflect on the issues that characterize our contemporary times, from climate change to air quality, from agricultural sustainability to urban and forestry green management.

Central to the project is the audiovisual installation Artificial Botany, curated by fuse*, which aims to explore suggestions and expressive capabilities of classical botanical illustrations through the use of modern machine learning algorithms. A hypnotic audiovisual installation in which the fluidity of the plant life process is represented from a series of vintage botanical illustrations. Collected from the opensource digital archives of mid-nineteenth-century illustrators, these illustrations have become the teaching material for a particular machine learning system called GAN (Generative Adversarial Network) that through a training phase is able to recreate new artificial images with morphological elements extremely similar to the inspirational images but with details and features that seem to bring out a real human representation. The machine reworks the content by creating a new language, capturing the information and artistic qualities of humans and nature.

Many of the works on display bring to light the relationships between botanical imagery and the city, from the herbaria of illustrious figures (such as Luigi Gardoni, whose eponymous pharmaceutical herbarium was only unearthed in 2014 after a silent stay in the Botanical Garden’s closets of more than of a century), to the “royal donation” of wax models of mushrooms purchased by Maria Luigia of Austria for the Botanical Garden, passing through stories, news and curiosities contained in the digital universe composed of QR-codes and videos. Rich and varied is the provenance of the materials, which in addition to local lenders has involved foreign (Real Jardin Botanico in Madrid) and Italian institutions (Botanical Gardens of Padua, Bologna, Pavia, Italian Central Herbarium in Florence, among others).

“The expression plant blindness is often used to refer to our poor ability to notice plants in everyday life,” explains Renato Bruni, scientific director of the Botanical Garden of Parma and scientific project manager of the exhibition. “Impronte was created to highlight how instead scholars and researchers have developed over the centuries a great capacity of observation toward these organisms, gradually discovering their characteristics and peculiarities. What has been lacking until now has been the limelight, the full display of the photostory that science has built up over centuries of botany, a sequence plan for how much the answer to an only seemingly innocuous question has changed: ’what is a plant?’ It is an answer facilitated by the visual tool and its symbolic bearing: scientific images of plants are beautiful and capable of conveying complex concepts in the emotion of a moment.”

The exhibition also includes guided tours, educational workshops reserved for young visitors accompanied by teachers and a competition for young illustrators, thus intensifying the never-ending dialogue between Parma and its University. Science and art to be seen, known and experienced. True to its vocation of openness and exchange with the public, the University of Parma enriches the exhibition offerings of Impronte by organizing a rich calendar of workshops (curated by Esperta) and guided tours (curated by Artificio). Fifty appointments, bookable through the University museum system, aimed at students young and old, from elementary to high school, in which to have fun discovering all the secrets of the long history of botanical representation. Designed for adults, on the other hand, are special guided tours during certain weekends, to delve into the themes addressed in the ten sections of the exhibition, including anecdotes and curiosities. In the recovery project, the University is supported by institutions and private entities in the area: the Ministry of University and Research, the Ministry of Culture, the Cariparma Foundation, the Chiesi Group and “Parma, io ci sto!”

Image: Luigi Gardoni, Herbarium (1836 - 1878; Parma, University of Studies, Botanical Garden Library)

An exhibition in Parma traces the continuing relationship between humans and plants, with more than two hundred figurative objects
An exhibition in Parma traces the continuing relationship between humans and plants, with more than two hundred figurative objects

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