Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Baroque Monsters of Father Schott

In Portuguese, barroco means "imperfect pearl": a fitting name for the Baroque era, a period that combined ornate beauty with a distinct taste for the odd, macabre and irregular. This interplay between the beautiful and the monstrous -- and its connections to the rise of the "New Science" in the second half of the seventeenth century -- is vividly exemplified by the Jesuit Father Gaspar Schott's Physica Curiosa (1662), a compendium of abnormal births, strange animals and fabulous humanoid creatures thought to inhabit the far reaches of the world.
Frontispiece of Physica Curiosa. Source: University of Iowa Digital Library, John Martin Rare Books Room.
The work's Latin title page.
The German-born Schott (1608-1666) was a Jesuit with a keen interest in a number of disciplines, from hydraulic mechanics to medicine and optics. One can surmise that Schott acquired his wide-ranging interests from his mentor, the celebrated Jesuit genius Anathasius Kircher (a polymathic marvel, Kirchner was a founder of Egyptology, used an early microscope to study microbes, lowered himself into an active volcano to learn about the earth's crust, constructed automatons, invented a magnetic clock and authored an immense encyclopedia on China). Below are a selection of images from Schott's Physica Curiosa, all of which I selected from the digital collections of the John Martin Rare Books Room at the University of Iowa. I've cropped some of the engraved plates to show interesting details and added my attempt at translations of the Latin captions and occasional explanatory notes. As the work's extended title dryly notes, Schott seeks to document "Angels, Demons, Men, Spirits, the Devil-Possessed, Monsters, Portents, Animals, Meteors, and other rare, arcane and curious things... and to illustrate them by many examples."
Schott, 579. "Seven-headed monster."
Schott, 393. "Shaggy man who walks with hands on the ground."
Schott, 393. "Woman of the woods in Java." This creature was probably based on the reports of seventeenth century Dutch mariners in Indonesia, who, in turn, may have been drawing upon indigenous knowledge of the orangutan -- "Man of the Forest" in the Malay language.
Schott, 395. "Hair-covered girl of eight years." Clearly a girl born with hypertrichosis.
"Boy with the head of an elephant." His companion is "a horned infant with spread eyes." I have no idea what to make of this one.
The images in this section of the work appear to be a strange combination of depictions of actual birth defects or hereditary abnormalities and pictures of mythical man-beasts that were said by medieval travelers to inhabit the Antipodes. In a later section, the book turns to the interesting and fantastical creatures that were being 'discovered' by European overseas voyages at the time. Many of these illustrations were evidently drawn from a book I wrote about in my post on Edward Topsell's Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts -- others were more fantastical:
Schott, 616. Here we find a "winged bird-centaur with the head of a human" and "a three-headed monster with the heads of a fox, a dragon and an eagle."
And here are the more familiar raccoon and river otter. Note, however, that the raccoon (here identified by its Spanish name, "mapache,") is from the New World and thus would have been as unfamiliar to European audiences of the time as many fantastical beasts.
Cat piano from Schott's Magia Naturalis (Natural Magic).
Finally, an interesting aside: Schott was also the first to describe what may well be the most bizarre musical instrument in history. This was the so-called the Katzenklavier or 'cat piano.' See this blog post on the subject to learn more about this strange creation, apparently real, which was said by Kircher to have been invented to relieve the melancholy of an Italian prince. PETA would have been appalled. For those interested in learning more, I haven't been able to find much written on Schott. However, his teacher Athanasius Kircher has generated a large body of fascinating scholarship -- see Paula Findlen's edited volume Athanasius Kircher: the Last Man Who Knew Everything (2004) for a good introduction.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Early Victorian Ambrotypes

I had never heard of the ambrotype (from the Greek for "immortal impression") photographic process until quite recently, but it seems to have been a very popular medium in the middle decades of the nineteenth century -- cheaper than the more famous daguerrotype, and with a level of pictorial detail and richness of tone that I find really appealing. Below I'm posting a random sampling of some ambrotypes from the 1850s and 1860s that I found via a Google image search and the large Wikimedia Commons library of ambrotype images. Interestingly, unlike most other photographic media, ambrotypes are negatives - the colors were reversed by simply inserting a black velvet backing behind the original glass negative, like so:
As I wrote in my earlier posts on the Prokudin-Gorsky color photographs of pre-Soviet Russia and this very early color motion picture test, there's something really haunting and beautiful about seeing photographs from a vanished era. We're so used to thinking about the past as something hazy and unfamiliar, but via this medium we're able stare in the eye people who died before our grandparents were born. I'm especially struck by this 1860s ambrotype of "a war veteran and his wife," which may depict a soldier of the Crimean War. (Some images are huge - click for more detail).
Some other standouts, with dates and info when available:
Civil war soldier, 1860s?
Passmore Williamson, abolitionist. 1856-60. Source: Boston Public Library.
Ambrotype of three Brazilian students of Law School in Olinda, c.1858.
(Source:Os Fotógrafos do Império. Bia e Pedro Corrêa do Lago).
Ambrotype of João Maurício Wanderley, son of the Baron of Cotegipe, c.1858. Brazil.
(Source: VASQUEZ, Pedro. Dom Pedro II e a fotografia. Rio de Janeiro: Internacional Seguros).
As you may have noticed, almost every surviving ambrotype seems to have been embedded in an ornate frame. This last example takes the form to a ridiculous level - I don't think I've ever seen such a huge frame for such a tiny image. As detailed here, this amazing specimen is held by the Houston Museum of Natural Science and is probably a form of 'sailor's Valentine.' The shells are from the West Indies; the creator, provenance and the identity of the woman are unknown.
And finally, the image which led to me ambrotypes in the first place: Fanny Brawne, the muse of John Keats, recently depicted on film by Abbie Cornish in Jane Campion's Bright Star. (I can't recommend this movie highly enough for anyone into English period films - its very well done.) For those interested in the history of photography, a recent book by Harvard History of Science Professor Jimena Canales looks like an interesting read. A Tenth of a Second: A History examines the creation of machines able to measure tiny units of time in the 1850s (such as cameras) and its impact on society. I've only seen excerpts so far, but its on my reading list this winter.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Fun with Google's New "Ngram Viewer"

News of Google Book's new Ngram Viewer, which allows one to make a graph of the printed usage of any word over time, has been making the rounds on the internet for the last couple days. The advanced technology that makes this massive database possible has even spawned an upcoming article in the journal Science which announces a new discipline: culturomics.

After playing around with the website for a few hours, I have to say: this is pretty amazing. The ability to quantify things that had once been subjective 'hunches' on the part of scholars ("did publications about witches decline during the Enlightenment?") is nothing short of revolutionary. Of course, this must come with the caveat that the Google Books database, large as it is, still amounts to only a small fraction of all printed materials (perhaps 4%), and there may well be significant errors in the dating of books and Google's text-recognition tools.

In short, I'm not yet prepared to use this stuff for my academic work, but I do think it has amazing promise, and graphing the histories of different words can be enormous fun to boot. Some examples:

Note the spike in references to the devil during the rise of the Puritans in the 1610-30 period! And the great decline circa 1740, advent of the so-called 'Age of Reason.'
Here I was trying to get a glimpse into the shift in discourses about the supernatural in printed English over the course of the long eighteenth century. Capitalized 'Witch' declines very sharply around 1710 -- a counterpoint with the more vague 'prodigies' and 'apparitions,' which rise steadily throughout the period. Seems to accord nicely with the view that the supernatural became less easily explainable in this period.

I might post more in the next few days. Also: I invite readers to post their own in the comments section!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"It is an error to suppose that lions do not approach a fire": Observations of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier

 "It is the custom of the Dutch to send parties from time to time to explore the country, and those who go furthest are best rewarded. A number of soldiers went in a party with a sergeant who commanded them, and advanced far into the country, where they made a large fire at midnight, both to protect themselves from lions and for warmth, and lay round it to rest. When they were asleep, a lion seized one of the soldiers by the arm, and immediately the sergeant fired a shot and slew the animal. When it was dead its jaws had to be forced open, with great effort, in order to release the soldier's arm, which was pierced from side to side. It is apparent from this story that it is an error to suppose that lions do not approach a fire." -Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Travels in India, pg. 305.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that a hungry African lion will be scared away by fire. Such was the laconic moral of this rather gruesome story, related by the seasoned French traveler and jewel-merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) in his highly entertaining Les Six Voyages de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1676).
Tavernier made his considerable fortune as a jewel merchant for Louis XIV (the illustration at left is a typical example of the contents of his book - he was obsessed with enormous stones such as the Hope Diamond, which he once owned and dubbed le Tavernier), but he was also a highly perceptive observer and competent writer, which makes his printed work one of the most valuable resources for those interested in the countries of the Indian Ocean region (especially modern-day India, Pakistan, Myanmar and South Africa) in the seventeenth century. Below are some particularly interesting descriptions of Tavernier's experiences accompanying one of the earliest Dutch colonizing missions to South Africa. Here, with the disdain for Africans typical of a European of his time, he describes the 'Hottentots' or 'Cafres' who were indigenous to the region around the Cape of Good Hope (I posted two weeks ago about a contemporary French map depicting the same peoples -- see here):
"On the fifty-fifth day of our voyage we came in view of the Cape of Good Hope... When [the Cafres or Hottentots] speak they make the tongue click (peter) in the mouth, and although their voice is scarcely articulate they easily understand one another... When they see vessels arriving they drive cattle to the shore and bring what they have to barter for tobacco, spirits, and beads of crystal and agate, which are cheap at Surat... "
Tavernier also displayed a common curiosity about the blackness of African skin -- how could the inhabitants of a temperate region like the Cape be so dark-complected? He concludes that it was due to an ointment made of "different simples" - an early modern term for the active agent in drugs and medicines:
"It is a very good country, as I have said, at the 35th degree and some minutes of latitude, and it is neither the air nor the heat which makes these Cafres so black as they are. Desiring to know the explanation of it, and why they smell so strongly, I inquired from a young girl who was taken as soon as her mother had brought her forth, and was nursed and reared in the fort, being as white as one of our European women. She told me that the reason that the Cafres are so black, is that they rub themselves with an ointment which they make of different simples known to them, and that if they do not rub themselves often, and as soon as they are born, they become dropsical."
Indeed, it was this knowledge of drugs and "simples" that struck Tavernier as the special gift of the otherwise barbarous natives of the Cape (for more on early modern drugs and drug merchants, see my earlier posts here and here):
"It is true that these Cafres, brutal as they are, have nevertheless a special knowledge of simples, and know to apply them to the maladies for which they are specifics; this the Dutch have very often proved. Whether the Cafres are bitten by a venemous animal, or that an ulcer or other disease appears, by means of these simples, which they know how to select, they accomplish the cure in a short time. Each sick man [of the Dutch ship] had two of these Cafres to attend upon him, and as soon as they saw what the condition of the wound or ulcer was, they sought for the drugs, crushed them between two pebbles and applied them to the sore. As for the four others, they were not given into their hands, being so infected with veneral disease that they could not be cured at Batavia. All four died between the Cape and the Island of St. Helena..."
An elderly Tavernier in elaborate Persian dress, posing proudly after he had made his fortune and settled into retired life in France. 

The complete illustrations from Tavernier's Voyages are available for free online thanks to the French Bibliotheque Nacional. Some samples:

 "Animal which produces musk" -- a greatly treasured commodity/drogue in early modern times, used as a medicine and perfume (as, indeed, it still is today).
Tavernier calls this an "Indian poignard." It is in fact a katara, a weapon used in the Indian subcontinent since ancient times for close-quarters combat and assasinations.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lisbon before the Great Earthquake

"Come, ye philosophers, who cry, 'All’s well,'
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race...
...Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?"
- Voltaire, On the Lisbon Disaster (1755)
The Great Lisbon Earthquake and Tsunami of 1755 sent reverberations throughout European society. Leveling around 85% of the city's infastructure, it essentially destroyed the medieval and Renaissance architecture of one of Europe's greatest capitols and claimed up to 30,000 lives. The great French philosophe Voltaire not only wrote a mournful poem on the subject, of which an extract is quoted above -- he also took the tragedy as inspiration for his darkly comic masterpiece Candide (1759), a picaresque fable that mocks the notion, championed by Leibniz among others, that we disaster-plagued mortals inhabit 'the best of all possible worlds.'
I love early modern urban spaces and study 17th century Portuguese history, so I regret the fact that the Lisbon earthquake occurred on an almost weekly basis -- so many ancient buildings, forgotten paintings, and priceless manuscripts consumed by fire and the Atlantic. So I was very happy to find these snippets of Lisbon's urban life from the atlas Civitatis Orbis Terrarum, "The Cities of the World" (ed. Georg Braun, Cologne: 1572-1617), which show a bustling urban center of late-medieval type that bears little resemblance to the post-Pombaline Lisbon of today.
This detail centers on Ribeira Palace, the ancient Royal seat of the Portuguese monarchs destroyed in the earthquake (the long building with tower running perpendicular to the river). This building played a key role in Portuguese and, indeed, global history, since it was the meeting place of the Casa da Índia: the organization that directed Portuguese trade and empire in the Indian Ocean during the Iberian golden age of the sixteenth century. In a very real sense, this building was one of the hubs of the early modern global economy. Fittingly, a shipyard and a pillory for punishing criminals can be spotted adjoining it.
Here a group of the merchants who sustained Lisbon's power can be seen paddling to port from their ship, docked in the River Tagus.
And here's one of the wide-bodied trading vessels that routinely made the hazardous, month's-long voyage to Portugal's colonies and feitorias (trading posts) in Brazil, Africa's slave coast and India.

The full map (click for a much more detailed version):
Georg Bauer and Hogenberg (engraver), Civitates Orbis Terrarum, Vol. 5 (Cologne: 1598). An accompanying Latin note calls Lisbon "the most noted center of trade for the entire Orient... and for Africa and America," adding "in historical times there where two cities we might call 'Ruler of the oceans and the high seas,' from whence ships could set sail for the East and the West: one is Seville, the other Lisbon."

For those interested in learning more, Michael Swift's Cities of the Renaissance World is a nicely illustrated volume that looks at more of the remarkably detailed urban maps from the Civitates Orbis Terrarum. There's also a book on the Lisbon earthquake that's just come out called Wrath of God, but I have yet to read it. Finally, Voltaire's Candide is one of my favorite short books. Read it for free online here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mapping Nature in the 'Age of Discovery' Pt. I

In that part of Africa, which lies under the Torrid Zone, there are Countries extremely fertile… and ‘tis the same as to what lies under it in America, so far as is yet known. - John Senex, New General Atlas, 1720.

Sorry about the long delay (occasioned by computer troubles and the Thanksgiving break). Today I thought I'd share some of the research I did this summer into how images of animals, plants and peoples were embedded in early modern European maps of Africa, Asia and the New World.
In many maps, the bulk of these images are contained in baroque 'cartouches' (borders or decorative framing elements) or in the ornate title-sections. An example of this can be seen in the above detail from a map of east Africa made by the famed Dutch cartographer Willem Janszoon Blaeu in the early seventeenth century. The overall design is generic, but the details - bearded macaques, small turtles, a cow skin and the two framing figures bearing bow and spear -- offer a tiny window into the natural and human landscape of Ethiopia as it was imagined by the Dutch Golden Age.
Detail of European and Asian merchants, from a map by Chatelain.
I'll look more closely at Dutch and Portuguese maps in a later post, but today I'm going to share some work by the French cartographer Henri Abraham Chatelain (1684-1743). The images below come from Chatelain's 1719 Atlas Historique, and offer a fascinating survey of the peoples and animals of South Africa as they were imagined by the French in the age of Louis XIV:
Click to Enlarge. English translation of title: "Customs, manners and costumes
of the people who inhabit the environs of the Cape of Good Hope, with a
description of the animals and reptiles to be found in this region."
Some details, with some attempts at translations from the French:
 "The first of the Nations named Sonquas in the language of the country, and called by Europeans Hottentons, is highly agile, robust and hardy. These peoples... serve the other nations as soldiers. In their country there are deep caverns... They are greatly adept in the chase and derive a good part of their nourishment from hunting; they slay Elephants, Rhinos, Elks and Deer, of which there is a prodigious number in the Cape..."
"What makes the big lizard in Cape Town most remarkable, is that when one strikes it, it cries out like a child, and it is sent into a rage [mettant en colere], drawing up its scales which are all a-bristle. Its tongue is blue-ish and extremely long, and when it approaches, it breathes [? souffler] with a great deal of violence..." 

As an aside, its interesting to compare Chatelain's map of South Africa with the 1541 Waldseemüller map. Both are somewhat fanciful, but as you can see below, the 1541 map is somewhat more so: note the three dragons that dwell in the center!
The old script makes the Latin difficult for me to read, but below the dragons it says something like, "Underneath the mountains there are Basilisks and Merguli[?], and it is almost entirely deserted on account of these."

I'm also a fan of the 1541 map's lower right corner, which for some reason seems to depict Manuel of Portugal ("Emmanuelis Regis Portigalliae") surfing on a sea-frog off the coast of Madagascar!
Chatelain's Atlas Historique is now extremely rare and pricey and seems not to have been reprinted in a modern edition, but the works of Blaeu, the great cartographer of the Dutch Golden Age, are available in some neat fascimile editions, such as these for France and Italy. J.B. Harley's The New Nature of Maps (2002) is a good scholarly introduction to issues relating to cartography, power and science for those interested in learning more.
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