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Luigi Balugani, 1737–1770
Formerly James Bruce, 1730–1794
Ensete ventricosum (Welw.) Cheesman (African Wild Banana): finished drawing
Additional Title(s):

Ensete ventricosum

African wild banana
Materials & Techniques:
Watercolor over graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper
Sheet: 12 1/2 × 9 3/4 inches (31.8 × 24.8 cm)

Inscribed on verso in pen and brown ink, lower right: "Ensete No. 10"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
botanical subject
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IIIF Manifest:

In 1765 that amateur artist and explorer James Bruce (1730-94) embarked on a private expedition to document Greek and Roman architectural remains in North Africa. After achieving his initial objective, he continued toward Ethiopia with the aim of locating the source of the Nile, then believed to rise there; his epic expedition lasted until 1793. Bruce hired as his assistant Luigi Balugani, the accomplished young Bolognese architect and draftsman. Balugani, is not known to have been a professional botanical artist, but he remained with Bruce after the expedition left North Africa, and his remarkable series of annotated field sketches and highly finished drawings of the flora and fauna they encountered in Ethiopia are notable both for their scientific and aesthetic qualities.

The simple terminology Balugani used for the extensive notes accompanying the drawings indicated that the was either self-taught or had a very limited botanical training, but he was a highly competent and assiduous observer, and his records of new species made and important contribution to the study of natural science. Bruce brought back the drawings intact to Britain against enormous odds, and they remained in the family together with journals, letters, and other archival records relating to the expedition until Paul Mellon acquired them in 1968; he gave the collection to the Center nine years later, and it provides an invaluable resource for the natural historian and a fascinating view into eighteenth-century scientific endeavors.

The authorship of the drawings has been highly problematic and has only been elucidated in recent years. Bruce was an amateur artist and also made drawings during the expedition. Balugani died in Ethiopia, and after Bruce returned to Britain he claimed the draftsman's work as his own. Bruce seems to have been somewhat of a fantasist (Sir Walter Scott recorded that the explored Henry Salt, who followed in Bruce's footsteps and was one of his severest critics, "corroborated…Bruce and all his material facts," but felt that he considerably exaggerated his personal consequence and exploits"),and the temptation to appropriate his draftsman's achievements evidently was overwhelming.

In his published account of the expedition, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, Bruce stressed Balugani's shortcomings as an artists and lack of moral integrity, and it seems likely that he was jealous of the younger man's considerable and superior talents. Although some of Bruce's contemporaries harbored suspicions regarding the authenticity of "his" drawings, their authorship was not systematically investigated until the 1980s, when curators Patrick Noon and Paul Hulton, in collaboration with botanists Nigel Hepper and Ib Friis, undertook a thorough study of the plant drawings at the center and revealed that all were almost certainly the work of Balugani. The four finished watercolors included in this catalogue represent a tiny sample of the hundreds of drawings by Balugani in the center's collection. Balugani made ten drawings of Ensete Ventricosum, the African wild banana. Bruce noted that the wild banana "grows and comes to great perfection at Gondar, but it most abounds that part of Maitsha and Goutto west of the Nile where there are large plantations of it"; he described the plant as "one of the most beautiful productions of nature, as well as most agreeable and wholesome food of man." Carthamus tinctorius, or safflower, has been used since ancient Egyptian times as an orange-yellow dye for textiles.

Balugani made several drawings of reptiles. Bruce conjectured, romantically, that Cerastes was most likely to have been the species of viper "which Cleopatra employed to procure her own death." One day, when Bruce and his party were sailing in the Red Se, their ship was surrounded by "a prodigious number of sharks…of the hammer-headed kind." Bruce harpooned one of the sharks, possibly the one illustrated by cat. 62 [B1977.14.9129]. He described the shark as "eleven feet seven inches from his snout to his tail, and nearly four feet round in the thickest part of him. He had in him a dolphin very lately swallowed, and about half-a-yard of blue cloth."

Gillian Forrester

Wilcox, Forrester, O'Neil, Sloan. The Line of Beauty: British Drawings and Watercolors of the Eighteenth Century. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 2001. pg. 78 cat. no. 60

The Line of Beauty : British Drawings and Watercolors of the Eighteenth Century (Yale Center for British Art, 2001-05-19 - 2001-08-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Paul Hulton, Luigi Balugani's drawings of African plants, From the collection made by James Bruce of Kinnaird on his travels to discover the source of the Nile 1767-1773 , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1991, p. 112-113, pl. 45, QK98.183 B2 H85 1991 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Scott Wilcox, Line of beauty : British drawings and watercolors of the eighteenth century, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2001, p.78, cat. no.60, NC228 W53 2001 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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