Giolo, the Painted Prince

Prince Giolo, Son of ye King of Moangis or Gilolo: lying under the Equator in the Long[itude] of 152 Deg[rees] 30 Min[utes], a fruitful Island abounding with rich spices and other valuable Commodities. This famous Painted Prince is the just Wonder of ye Age. His whole Body (except Face, Hands and Feet) is curiously and most exquisitely Painted or Stained full of Variety and Invention with prodigious Art and Skill perform’d. In so much of the ancient and noble Mistery of Painting or Staining upon Human Bodies seems to be comprised in this one stately Piece. The more admirable Back-parts afford us a Representation of one quarter part of the Sphere upon & betwixt his shoulders where ye Arctick & Tropick Circles center in ye North Pole of his Neck... The Paint itself is so durable, which nothing can wash it off or deface ye beauty of it. It is prepared from ye Juice of a certaine Herb or Plant, peculiar to that Country, w[h]ich they esteem infallible to preserve Human Bodies from ye deadly poison or hurt of any venomous Creature whatsoever, & none but those of ye Royal Family are permitted to be thus painted with it. This admirable Person is about ye Age of 30, graceful and well proportioned in all his Limbs, extreamly modest & civil, neat & cleanly; but his Language is not understood, neither can he speak English. (1697)
In 1691, the buccaneer and naturalist William Dampier returned to England after a daunting circumnavigation of the Earth, his first of what would be three round the world journeys. When he returned to London, Dampier was accompanied by a slave from the island of Miangas he had acquired in the course of this journey — a man he called ‘Prince Giolo.’ 
As Dampier recollected in his published account of his travels, “[Giolo] was painted all down the breast, between his shoulders behind; on his thighs before; and in the form of several broad rings, or bracelets, round his arms and legs. I cannot liken the drawings to any figure of animals, or the like, but they were very curious, full of great variety of lines, flourishes, checkered work, etc. keeping a very graceful proportion, and appearing very artificial, even to wonder, especially that upon and between his shoulder blades… He told me that most of the men and women of the island were thus painted.” (William Dampier, A New Voyage Round The World, 1697)

Dampier was blunt about his reasons for taking Giolo back to London: “I proposed no small advantage to myself from my painted prince… [that] might be gained by shewing him in England” (Voyage, 347). A manuscript by Dampier curently housed in the British Library is even more blunt: “I only brought with me this Journall & my painted prince which I might haue made a great deal of money by but I lep out of the frying pan into the fire in leaueing gouernour Senden to come home with Captain heath.” For more on this see Geraldine Barnes, “Curiosity, Wonder and William Dampier’s Painted Prince,” in the Journal for Early Modern Studies. Giolo is also discussed in a recent book on Dampier called A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. I hope to consult Dampier’s manuscripts when I do research in London this July, so perhaps I’ll be able to write about Giolo in much more detail in a month or two.

At the moment, the best account of Dampier and Giolo that is freely available online seems to be this blog entry. Although usually mentioned as an interesting anecdote, Giolo’s story was quite tragic. Exhibited for money in London, Giolo was later taken to the University of Oxford to be examined, where he died from smallpox. Apparently, samples of Giolo’s tattooed flesh were preserved in the library of St. Johns College, Oxford under the macabre entry, “a bit of an Indian prince’s skin,” but they appear not to have survived.

Pintados, ‘the Painted Ones,’ in an early Spanish record of the Philippines, the Boxer Codex, c. 1595.

Ildar Khanov’s All Religions Temple in Kazan

This are images of a building called the All Religions Temple, built by Ildar Khanov, “a Tatar artist and faith healer.” It’s located in the Russian city of Kazan. Once the seat of the 15th century Kazan Khanate, a successor state to the post-Mongol Golden Horde, Kazan has always been a crossroads between Islam and Christianity, and the city currently bills itself as the place “where Europe meets Asia.” Khanov’s intention with this remarkable structure is apparently to combine Islamic and Russian Orthodox influences to create a universal house of worship. According to Kazan’s official tourism website, “in opinion of Ildar Khanov, famous healer and public figure, all the religions are isometric and that is why there is no point in dividing them and performing religious disputes.”

I wish I knew more about this astonishingly beautiful building (as well as why all religions are ‘isometric’!). I discovered it on Wikipedia’s Kazan page, but there is very little information on the web about Khanov. I’m especially curious about his apparent status as a ‘famous healer’ among Kazanites (Kazanis?). The best English language source I could find online is this article from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Read on:

For the past eight years, Khanov has been building the Church of All Faiths, a temple he hopes will house 16 different religions, an astronomical society, a puppet theater and a school of classical philosophy. Most of the worship halls are still under construction. Khanov, who financed the entire project himself, relies on donations of brick and glass from the people he heals, while patients he treats for drug addictions help with the construction. …
Khanov’s plan to include a Catholic cathedral equipped with a separate bedroom for the Pope, whom he says has already agreed to visit the temple, left some students skeptical.
“He really had me going until he started talking about a separate room for the Pope,” said student Dan Evans.
Others found Khanov’s regimen of two hours of sleep, three hours of meditation and one meal a day strange. His insistence that he sees UFOs and communicates with Jesus Christ was met with skepticism by still more members of the group. But some were impressed by Khanov’s dogged pursuit of his vision.

Attention documentary filmmakers: please go to Kazan and make a film about this guy as soon as possible!

Image of the Week 1: Bathing Machine

I love this late Victorian postcard of a woman leaving a ‘bathing machine,’ a now-forgotten wagon-like vehicle that was wheeled a discrete distance out to sea so that ladies of quality could swim without showing a scandalous amount of flesh to the general public. Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.

I’m also quite fond of the rather surreal caption: “5505 DONT BE AFRAID.” Reminds me of Ed Ruscha.

Vanished Civilization 1: Carthage

My people shall, by my command, explore
The ports and creeks of ev’ry winding shore…

– Queen Dido in John Dryden’s translation of The Aeneid, Bk. I

First in a series of once-weekly posts on my favorite vanished civilizations, I present THE CARTHAGINIAN EMPIRE. To understand Carthage, one has first to understand the Phoenicians, who were originally located in what is now Lebanon. The preeminent trading power of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, the Phoenician city-states of Tyre, Sidon and Biblos (origin of the word ‘Bible’) sheltered a dynamic merchant community who regularly traveled from Mesopotamia in the East to Cadiz and Cornwall in the West. A Phoenician mariner, Hanno, even sailed as far as Senegal in West Africa, and Herodotus claims that Phoenicians in the employ of an eighth century Egyptian pharaoh successfully circumnavigated Africa, a feat that would not be repeated until the time of Vasco de Gama.

A Phoenician coin featuring a sea monster. c. 600 BC?

Cyrus the Great, Emperor of Persia, ultimately subdued the Phoenician city-states in 539 BC, with the final insult occurring when the supposedly unconquerable island city of Tyre was sacked by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. (Alexander achieved this feat by creating an artificial causeway linking Tyre to the mainland, creating an isthmus that lasts to this day).

 A beautiful Phoenician/Carthaginian sculpture, c. 5th century BC.

The city of Carthage was founded by a mythical ruler known as Pygmalion in the 9th century BC, but it wasn’t until these defeats that large numbers of Phoenicians appear to have emigrated to North Africa. The result was a rapid expansion of Carthaginian/Phoenician power into what was effectively a political vacuum in the coastal lands of the Western Mediterranean. Recent genetic testing has shown that one in seventeen inhabitants of southern Europe and North Africa may be directly descended from Phoenician forebears, including up to one half of the population of the island of Malta and a large percentage of Sardinians.

By the third century BC, Carthaginian dominance in the Western Mediterranean was being challenged by an aggressive new power, the Roman Republic. This is by far the best-known period of Carthaginian history, so I’ll skip over it here. (For a good overview of the subject see Nigel Bagnall’s The Punic Wars.)

Suffice to say, the Carthaginians ultimately lost, and their cities and provinces were devastated by the Romans. Few civilizations have been more thoroughly eradicated. The Roman conquest was so effective that almost everything we know about the Carthaginians today derives from (heavily biased) Roman sources. For instance, it was (and to a degree still is) commonly believed that Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice to the god Ba’al and the goddess Tanit — a legacy of Roman propaganda that has continued to circulate for over two thousand years.

Fourth century BC Carthaginian coin featuring the goddess Tanit.

As an historian I’m doubtful about these claims because I’m familiar with the degree to which the victor rewrites history, but some archeologists do take them seriously. According to the archeologist Shelby Brown, Carthaginian parents were expected to place their child into the arms of 

the lady Tanit… The hands of the statue extended over a brazier into which the child fell once the flames had caused the limbs to contract and its mouth to open… The child was alive and conscious when burned… Philo specified that the sacrificed child was best-loved.

 A Carthaginian Tophet, or ‘burning place,’ the reputed site of human sacrifices.

The fact that we need to appeal to conflicting archeological evidence to reconstruct Carthaginian society points to the degree to which the Romans eradicated Carthaginian literary sources, of which only a handful survive. The survival of even a single Carthaginian library would immeasurably enrich our understanding of ancient history.

Tanit was the preeminent Carthaginian deity, the goddess of motherhood and the moon. Her symbol, above, is probably the most common surviving visual legacy from ancient Carthage, a testimony to a vanished religion and civilization which will probably never be fully understood.

Owing to the paucity of sources, books on Carthage are scarce. Adrian Goldsworthy’s  The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars, deals mainly with military matters. The best bet for a general overview may be Serge Lancel’s Carthage: A History.

Europeans as ‘Other’

They eat with their fingers instead of with chopsticks such as we use. They show their feelings without any self-control. They cannot understand the meaning of written characters. – From Charles R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650 (London, 1951).

Chinese and Japanese representations of sixteenth century Europeans have always fascinated me. We’re used to seeing early modern Europeans as the normative figures in the story of global exploration. After all, they were the ones who wrote the chronicles, diaries and letters upon which traditional historical narratives of the so-called ‘Age of Discovery’ were based. Japanese Nanban (“Southern Barbarian”) art, or Nanbanbijutsu, and the accompanying chronicles such as the one quoted above, can be fascinating correctives to these Eurocentric narratives.

A seventeenth century Japanese painting of a group of Portuguese merchants, accompanied by what may be an African slave. Japanese depictions of early modern Europeans in paintings and literature tend to emphasize their terrible personal grooming — “they stank of butter” as one observer put it — and physical ugliness.

A nanban painting of a Portuguese carrack, seventeenth century. This particular ship design was quickly adopted and assimilated by Japanese craftsmen, as was the arquebus, the direct ancestor of the flint-lock rifle.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, East Asian depictions of Europeans began to change. Chinese painters at the court of the Kangxi Emperor, for instance, began to depict European Jesuits in a more sympathetic light. I’m particularly fascinated by this 1685 portrait of the Dutch Jesuit astronomer Ferdinand Verbiest. Clad in the robes of a Chinese man of learning, Verbiest’s European origin is virtually indiscernible:

This sketch by Peter Paul Ruebens of the French Jesuit Nicolas Trigault makes for an interesting visual contrast. The note on the drawing states that he is adorned in Chinese dress.

The late eighteenth century witnessed an increase in European power in the East Asian sphere, and with it a new visual vocabulary for depicting Europeans. This painting by the remarkable Japanese artist Shiba Kokan (1747-1818) depicts A Meeting of China, Japan and the West. Note the European (probably Dutch) figure’s up-to-date anatomical book.

For those interested in learning more, Charles Boxer’s The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650 is an excellent start, as are many of the essays in Stuart Schwartz’s collected volume Implicit Understandings (Cambridge, 1994). Wikipedia’s page on the Nanban trade is pretty good as well.

First post – The History of Four-Footed Beasts

Greetings friends and strangers.

This is the first post in a blog, RES OBSCURA, designed to serve as a record of the strange things I come across in the course of my research as a graduate student in early modern (sixteenth through eighteenth century) history. 

Early modern visual culture and natural history are special interests of mine, so with that I christen RES OBSCURA with some selections from Edward Topsell‘s learned, lavishly-illustrated and often unintentionally hilarious Historie of Fovre-Footed Beastes (London, 1607, 1658).

Although early modern contemporaries like Montaigne showed an evident fondness for cats, Topsell appears to have been wary of humanity’s feline companions:
Above all the brain of a Cat is most venomous, for it being above measure dry, stoppeth the animal spirits, that they cannot passe into the ventricle, by reason whereof memory faileth, and the infected person falleth into a Phrenzie… To conclude this point, it appeareth that this is a dangerous beast, and that therefore as for necessity we are constraned to nourish them for the surpressing of small vermine: so with a wary and discreet eye we must avoid their harms (83).

Topsell also apparently had a bone to pick with small dogs:

These Dogs are little, pretty, proper and fine, and sought for to satisfie the delicatness of dainty dames and wanton women’s wils, instruments of folly for them to play and dally withal, to trifle away the treasure of time, to withdraw their mindes from more commendable exercises, and to content their corrupted concupiscence’s with vain disport (a silly shift to shun irksome idleness). 

Most of Topsell’s animal entries have some basis in fact, but occasionally he let imagination (and the hearsay of sailors and travelers) get the better of him:

A greatly exaggerated boa constrictor.

And a rather unsettling ‘Manticore.’

The University of Houston Library has kindly digitized the illustrations from this remarkable book and made them freely available online here. A reprint appears to be available on Amazon, Topsell’s Histories of Beasts, and extracts from his work are also included in a book called Curious Woodcuts of Fanciful and Real Beasts.