Knowledge by design: Celedonio de Arce’s nature prints, between evidence and representation | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 2, Issue 1
  • ISSN: 2052-0204
  • E-ISSN:



This article examines the unusual project announced in 1777 by the Spanish sculptor Celedonio Nicolás de Arce y Cacho (1739−1795) to ‘print from nature all kinds of botanical leaves without the use of plates’. The process created a special ink, impressed it onto the leaf, then pressed the inked plant on paper to leave a graphic tracing of its contours, stem and veins. Originally supported by the Spanish crown to perfect his process for use on a royal botanical expedition, Arce abandoned the project several years later. The ambiguities within Arce’s nature printing seem to have hindered its adoption and contributed to its neglect. For example, a specimen only made one or, at best, a few legible impressions, then had to be thrown out, so that here ‘printing’ does not mean multiplicity. At the same time, such nature prints were also called ‘drawing’, yet no manual draftsmanship was involved. Drawing was a critical concern, as it was considered the best way to convey knowledge of the natural world through close observation of the model. The planar formal elements and the conflicting conceptions of nature printing as index and autogenesis rehearse those that reappeared with paper photography, especially cameraless images. Early photographs were frequently affiliated with drawing and described as ‘nature drawing herself’. Ultimately, neither early paper photography nor nature printing were able to supply the kind of botanical illustration demanded by the dominant Linnaean system of knowledge.


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  • Article Type: Article
Keyword(s): autogenesis; botany; drawing; indexicality; knowledge; nature printing; photogram
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