Early Modern Alchemy

Last year I came across some of the book plates from Khunrath’s occult work Ampitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Hamburg, 1595), or “The Amphitheater of Eternal Knowledge,” and was floored by their complexity and beauty. Remarkably, only three copies of the first edition of this work are known to exist. The University of Wisconsin Library has been good enough to scan the images of its copy and make them available online along with an excellent critical history of the book (here). The same site also offers a good overview of the little that is known about Khunrath’s biography.

The figure of the hermaphrodite as a metaphor for the dualistic nature of the universe and the human body is a common one in alchemical imagery. Likewise, the sun and moon are frequently used to symbolize the male and female natures inherent in different elements (the sun is gold/male, the moon female/silver, etc.) The black peacock labelled “AZOTH” leads us deeper into Hermetic territory. Azoth was the hypothesized universal solvent, the “ultimate substance” which could transform all elements. Here it seems to be used to convey the union of male and female (and of all elements) which would allow the corporeal human form to transcend to a divine plane (note the symbol of the trinity above the peacock feathers, which resemble diagrams of the celestial spheres).

Read more at Res Obscura.

American Monsters: Images of Brazilian Nature from Early Modern Europe

“The most disgusting and nauseating thing which man ever saw.” 
-Spanish chronicler Andres Bernaldez on Christopher Columbus’ first impression of Caribbean iguanas, 1513.

IN HIS BOOK Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Harvard literature professor Stephen Greenblatt argues that “the production of a sense of the marvelous in the New World is at the very center of virtually all of Columbus’s writings about his discoveries, though the meaning of that sense shifts over the years.” Greenblatt thinks that Columbus emphasized wonders and marvels “because marvels are inseparably bound up in rhetorical and pictorial tradition with voyages to the Indies. To affirm the ‘marvelous’ nature of the discoveries is, even without the lucrative shipments yet on board, to make good on the claim to have reached the fabled realms of gold and spices.” Yet Greenblatt doesn’t devote much space in his book to the flip side of the “marvelous”: the monstrous.

As Iberian voyages of “discovery” segued into expeditions of conquest and settlement over the course of the sixteenth century, Europeans increasingly visualized the New World as a land of bizarre torments, freakish monsters and outlandish civilizations in thrall to the devil.

Map of Brasil, Dieppe School, 1547. Click to see
much larger version.
Spanish interpretations of the religious practices they encountered in the lands of the Aztec Triple Alliance have attracted the majority of historians interested in how Europeans expressed fear, apprehension and disgust — as well as wonder — toward the Americas (see below for some recommendations). The pictures below show that monsters and the monstrous were also depicted in the context of Portuguese Brazil. I’m particularly interested in how the incredible biodiversity of Amazonia was initially interpreted by European observers who had seen nothing to rival it in their temperate homelands. Although comparisons to the Garden of Eden were frequent, these images also reveal a profound anxiety about the abundance of nature in the Neotropics
The Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry‘s vision of Brazil mingles outlandish sea creatures with
flying devils who torment the Tupí Indian villagers at lower right. Theodor de Bry, Americae 
tertia pars (Frankfurt, 1592)
Birds of paradise feature in this detail from the 1547 Dieppe map of Brazil linked above.
Tupí Indians hunt leonine creatures, probably reflecting early accounts of jaguars. Another detail.
In the same pictorial field, villagers lounge while two tortoises amble by.
During the Dutch occupation of parts of Brazil in the 1640-60 period, a number of highly
skilled painters visited the new colony to record their impressions of its flora and fauna.
In this 1665 painting by Albert Eckhout, two dueling tortoises recall the pair in the detail
from the Dieppe map above.
Despite their skill in visual representation, however, Dutch artists were often at least as fanciful in their depictions of South American monsters as their French and Iberian peers. The engravings below, selected from the Dutch author Arnoldus Montanus’ 1671 De Nieuwe en Onbekende Weereld (The New and Unknown World), offer a positively bizarre take on American animals and peoples. 
The “draco” (dragon) in this one bears a passing resemblance to the “Jenny Hanivers” and
“Sea Monks” of early modern sailors’ lore.
Europeans were also fascinated and fearful of the “monstrous” forms of indigenous Brazilians themselves. Although most accounts remarked upon the good health, longevity and physique of Tupí Indians and other indigenous societies in Brazil (probably a reflection more of the poor health and diet of the European mariners than anything else), others focused on their tendency toward body-modification. The most entertaining and strange European take on piercing and tattooing I have been able to find is John Bulwer’s fantastically titled Anthropometamorphosis: Man Transform’d, or the Artificial Changeling. Historically presented, in the mad and cruel Gallantry, foolish Bravery, ridiculous Beauty, filthy Fineness, and loathesome Loveliness of most Nations, fashioning & altering their Bodies from the Mould intended by Nature. With a Vindication of the Regular Beauty and Honesty of Nature, and an Appendix of the Pedigree of the English Gallant. (London: J. Hardesty, 1650). (I wrote about this a bit in an earlier post). Below he describes how “the Brasileans… are pricked within the flesh” with paint.
Bulwer’s title page takes this a step further, showing an Amerindian figure sporting some truly remarkable tattoos! The European woman with facial tattoos to the figure’s left highlights Bulwer’s concern that this “barbarous” custom would become fashionable with his own countrymen (he was right, but it would take another three hundred years or so to really catch on, and the whole “face on a butt” tattoo fad seems to still lie in the future).
Readers wanting to learn more about the role of the devil and the monstrous in European interpretations of Amerindian societies might want to start with Fernando Cervantes’ The Devil in the New World and Jorge Canizares-Esguerra’s Puritan Conquistadors. Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions, quoted above, is a great study of how the fantastical and marvelous figured into colonization, while Joyce Chaplin’s Subject Matter: Technology, the Body and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, revises and critiques his claims in various interesting ways. Those interested in New World nature and particularly animals should check out A New World of Animals: Early Modern Europeans on the Creatures of Iberian America Miguel de Asua and Roger French, a fun, learned and highly-entertaining book (from which I stole the quote on iguanas that opens this post). 

The Art of Fooling the Eye

PARRHASIUS, it is said, entered into a pictorial contest with Zeuxis, who represented some grapes, painted so naturally that the birds flew towards the spot where the picture was exhibited. Parrhasius, on the other hand, exhibited a curtain, drawn with such singular truthfulness, that Zeuxis, elated with the judgment which had been passed upon his work by the birds, haughtily demanded that the curtain should be drawn aside to let the picture be seen. Upon finding his mistake, with a great degree of ingenuous candour he admitted that he had been surpassed, for that whereas he himself had only deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist. – Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (circa 77 CE), Book 35, Chapter 36.

Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time detail, (c. 1545).

THE ability to trompe-l’œil (“deceive the eye” in French) was among the most highly prized artistic skills of Pliny’s day, as evidenced by the many tales of Greek and Roman painters who boasted that their works were capable of fooling both man and beast. Although most figurative paintings offer an illusionistic “window” into a false reality to some degree, trompe-l’œil works take such verisimilitude to the level of optical illusion. The technique has been called a “triumph of the gaze over the eye.”

My favorite examples of trompe-l’œil come from the Renaissance and Baroque periods (roughly speaking c. 1500 to c. 1700). European culture of this era displayed a strong fascination with the interplay between the beautiful and the hideous, the secret and the visible, and the concept of truth. In the arts, these preoccupations were expressed through masks, stage plays (whose actors often functioned as a metaphor for life in seventeenth-century poetry), and the mask-like, mysterious figures of Mannerist painters, most famously exemplified in the brilliant and vaguely creepy works of Agnolo Bronzino.

It is not surprising, then, that paintings which expressly sought to fool the eye (and the mind) by experimenting with the boundaries between the artificial and the real enjoyed a high level of popularity throughout the 1500 through 1700 period — nor that these works could function as profound reflections on the nature of visible reality rather than as clever but gimmicky visual tricks, which is how we tend to approach trompe-l’œil today. Below are some of my favorite examples.

Domenico Remps, A Cabinet of Curiosity, 1690s.

I included this painting in an earlier post on curiosity cabinets, but wanted to revisit it here to show Remps’ incredible ability to evoke illusionistic details. Notice, for instance, the reflection of the mirror in the upper left part of the cabinet, which, much like Jan van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Wedding, reveals the room in which it was painted:

Even as Remps points out the artificial nature of the painting by revealing the site of its creation, however, he also creates the illusion that an actual curiosity cabinet (rather than its mere representation on canvas) stands before us. This photo-realistic effect is achieved by clever touches such as the broken glass on the right hand cabinet window.

Portraying paintings within a painting, as Remps does here, was an extremely popular approach — I suppose because it highlighted the painter’s skill in multiple genres while also maximizing the visual delight of the viewer by offering several vistas and scenes at once (modern tastes tend to be more minimalist, but the seventeenth century was all about maximalism). The ultimate example of this that I have seen is David Tenier’s incredibly over-the-top depiction of Archduke Leopold Wilhem‘s gallery:

David Teniers the Younger, ca. 1650, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery in Brussels, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Another typical approach of the period which I find to be in many ways more interesting was that of including written texts in paintings. This technique is actually visible in a surprisingly large number of famous works (for instance, in Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of a German merchant). It reached an extreme form, however, in paintings such as the following:
Jean-François de Le Motte, c. 1670, Still Life, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon.
A detail of the texts, which include a letter to the artist, a printed pamphlet and what appears to be an accounting
 notebook.
Cornelius Gijsbrechts (c.1630 – 1675), Trompe l’oeil, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Gent, Belgium.
 Edward (or Edvart) Collier, Trompe l’Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements
on a Wooden Board
(1699)

Incidentally, this last work offers a fascinating glimpse into the origins of the modern newspaper. One of the early “intelligencers” depicted here, the Apollo Anglicanus, can be previewed on Google Books. (Check out the blog Merciurius Politicus for more along these lines).
One interesting example of a painting of an illuminated manuscript can be found on Palazo Strozzi’s online exhibit of trompe l’œil works:

Detail showing early sheet music of a psalm.

Finally, there is the related style of “quadratura,” or painting architectural objects in an illusionistic manner. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Andrea Mantegna’s playful and highly original ceiling fresco for the the Ducal Palace in Mantua, Italy, a detail from which heads this post:

Andrea Mantegna, fresco, Camera degli Sposi, Ducal Palace, Mantua, c. 1470.

An even more interesting off-shoot is anamorphosis, which employs distorted perspective to create coded images that only become understandable when viewed from the right angle. The most famous example of anamorphosis is to be found in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (one of my favorite paintings), where a strange blur at the bottom of the painting…

…revolves into a skull when viewed from the right angle, designed to remind the viewer of the ever-presence of death:

I’ll stop there. For those interested in learning more, the Palazzo Strozzi museum in Florence has an online exhibit on trompe l’œil with many beautiful images and some interesting thoughts on the subject.

A Renaissance Merchant’s Life in Clothing

I’ve just finished reading Ulinka Rublack’s Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (Oxford, 2010) and came away from it with a newfound appreciation for how truly odd early modern clothing was — and how important these clothes were in people’s daily lives. Rublack, a Cambridge history professor, is very shrewd in noting that obsolete sartorial choices like codpieces, corsets or tight-fitting doublets were about more than adornment: they helped to structure the limits of physical movement while also expressing personal allegiances, social groupings, nationalities, and religious faith. What is more, early modern clothing offered a window into the inner emotional states of the wearer in a world that was far less receptive to that sort of thing than our own.

Matthäus Schwarz depicted by the painter Christoph Amberger in 1542.
This, his wedding portrait, displays Schwarz’s prosperity while also
including his horoscope, visible above the wine glass.

To me, by far the most striking piece of evidence Rublack analyzes in her book is a vellum manuscript of some one hundred and sixty five watercolor illustrations from sixteenth-century Germany. Each one depicts the same man: Matthäus Schwarz of Augsburg (1497-1574), a successful merchant who worked as an accountant for the powerful Fugger banking house. What makes this book extraordinary is that it depicts Schwarz and his clothing in every stage of his life, from what he called his “first dress in the world” as a days-old infant to the somber robes he donned as an ailing man of sixty-seven. Schwarz began to commission the illustrations from local Augsburg painters starting when he was twenty-seven, and in its pages we see a man’s life as if in a film: the small child in its early pages grows to become a proud 15-year-old riding a horse, then a young man wearing elaborate Italian suits of red silk. When Augsburg is threatened by attack, an older Schwarz is depicted in a suit of gilded armor protecting his city. When his employer Anton Fugger is married we see Schwarz as a handsome man of thirty attending the wedding in rich velvet with a dueling sword at his side; when Fugger dies, Schwarz is a sixty-three wearing black robes and a wintry white beard. Schwarz even had himself depicted naked (front and back!) for reasons that scholars are still debating. Simply put, this is one of the most extraordinary early modern historical sources that I’ve ever seen. Rublack’s publishers do a good job of including numerous color illustrations from what Schwarz called his Klaidungsbüchlein, or “Book of Clothes,” but a printed book can’t possibly include all of them. Below I’ve selected some more that stood out to me.

The opening pages of Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein, showing him as a twenty-three-year old.
Schwarz as a new-born infant. Note the five-pointed star on his cradle! Perhaps a charm against evil?
At five years and four months old, a pious child.
Riding in the back of a wagon with his parents at eight and a half years old.
Hawking in the countryside with a friend, nine years and four months old.
Schwarz trampling on his schoolbooks as a fourteen-year-old.
Proudly riding his horse at fifteen.
Hawking at nineteen and seven months in a fashionable suit with codpiece, sword at side.
A month later, working as a clerk to Jakob Fugger, one of the richest men of his era, and perhaps of any era.
Practicing at sword fighting, twenty-one and two thirds. Some bold color choices in this suit!
At an archery contest at twenty-two years of age, wearing a similar suit and a foppish ruffled hat.
A fop no more: Matthäus mourns the death of his father. All four figures in this picture depict Schwarz wearing
different varieties of mourning dress.
This is a particular favorite of mine. Here Schwarz is a businessman of twenty-six visiting Nuremburg, and looking
a little put out by the stray dog peeing at his right! Note the money-sacks at his belt and the fashionable cloak with arm holes.
Stark naked at twenty-nine. Schwarz noted in relation to this picture, “I had become fat and large.”
Schwarz at forty-one displaying the new cloak he bought to celebrate his pending nuptials.
Wearing plate armor and bearing halberd in preparation for the attack of Emperor Charles V, age forty-six.
Now middle-aged and bearded at forty-eight, Schwarz walks with his squire (and perhaps son? I can’t read the caption).
An old man: Schwarz suffered a stroke at fifty-two. He is shown here in recovery at home. I would guess that he suffers from partial paralysis of the left side in this picture, given the sling and staff.
The final portrait of Schwarz in the album. Wearing formal black in the “Spanish style” that would later evolve into
the modern business suit, a sixty-three-year-old Schwarz attends the funeral of his employer, Jacob Fugger.

Amazingly, these incredible images actually appear to be sub-par copies of the original paintings  – as I was writing this post I realized that the images in Rublack’s book are slightly different, with a greater level of detail and brighter colors. I’d urge anyone who found this post interesting to pick up Rublack’s Dressing Up – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. It’s one of the best-illustrated history books I’ve ever read, and it is also one of the most boldly-argued and insightful interpretations of early modern European culture to appear in the last few years, I think. As for the attribution of these images, I’m actually unable to say with any certainty. I found them as a result of a Google search for “Matthaus Schwarz” that turned up this mediafire upload of a complete scan of his book. I noticed that this German book blog posted images from what would appear to be the same copy (given the watermark). If readers have any information about who scanned the images or where they are held, please let me know [edit: thanks to John Overholt for pointing out that the original manuscript is owned by the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Braunschweig, Germany]. As ever, I invite comments!

Le Monde Aquatique

The images below are hand-colored details from two lavishly illustrated atlases of the world’s oceans produced by the workshops of Pieter Goos (d. 1670) and Johannes van Keulen (1654-1715).  Goos’ L’Atlas de la Mer, ou Monde Aquaticque (“Atlas of the Sea, or the Watery World”) the title page of which is visible at left, was published in Amsterdam in 1670. It would appear that van Keulen capitalized on the success of this work by reprinting the maps of Goos in slightly revised versions after his death in his Grand Nouvel Atlas de la Mer, ou Monde Aquatique (Amsterdam, 1696). Both Goos and Van Keulen shrewdly commercialized their knowledge of important commercial shipping lanes (which had once been proprietary to the Dutch trading companies) by publishing marine atlases in multiple languages, contributing to the hybridizations of knowledge and peoples that were a defining feature of the cosmopolitan late seventeenth-century.

What I find most interesting about these maps are the decorative, scroll-like ‘cartouches’ that ornament their corners, displaying a remarkable wealth of ethnographic and natural detail. These details, of course, were frequently wildly inaccurate, being based on second-hand information and long-held iconographies of the exotic and foreign (parasols, for instance, had a complex history in European depictions of Asians and Africans). Yet even these misperceptions are of interest, since, like the bizarre fabricated ethnographic sketches of Taiwan produced by the impostor George Psalmanazar, they offer insights into a vanished mental universe in which the boundaries of the known world were still shifting, uncertain and hazy, and when maps still contained huge swathes of blank space filled only by sea monsters and speculation.

All images are screenshots from hi-def scans of the works of Van Keullen and Goos that are accessible via a new online archive created by the French government relating to the Compagnie des Indes.

Detail from the title page of Goos’ Atlas de la Mer evidently depicting Urania, the muse of astronomy.
Another detail featuring beautiful depictions of an armillary sphere and various mapping devices.
Title page of Van Keulen’s atlas apparently depicting Europe (the woman with the torch) illuminating
the continents and oceans of the earth. Note the parasol, a popular iconographic marker of the exotic.
Cartouche for a map of Gabon in West Africa featuring an African writing and, oddly, what would appear to be a
Tupí Indian from coastal Brazil with a parrot-like bird.
A detailed painting of Fort Nassau near Moree, Ghana, a center of slave-trading.
A figure reckons the altitude of the sun using a cross-staff.
Another cartouche mingling African and South American iconographies.
The cartouche for a map of the River Gambia in West Africa apparently depicts a monkey preventing
a man from killing serpents with an axe — I’d be curious if anyone reading this could explain this image. 

Several excellent recent works of history have also considered the political, economic and scientific implications of seventeenth-century world maps, and the larger world of cosmopolitanism, travel and early modern globalization in which they were embedded. I would especially recommend Alison Games’Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion (Oxford, 2008), Benjamin Schmidt’s Innocence Abroad: the Dutch Imagination and the New World, 1570-1670 (Cambridge, 2001) and Harold Cook’s Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Dutch Golden Age (Yale, 2008).

Carnivalesque 74

What follows are my selections for this month’s Early Modern Carnivalesque, the seventy-fourth in an ongoing series of blog post compendia, or “carnivals,” curated by the web’s doyenne of early modern history, Sharon Howard. Thanks to Sharon and to all the authors of the posts cited below for making such rich stores of information freely available.

• The blog of the Dittrick Museum of Medical History presents scans from a macabre and rather hilarious rare book in its library: Le Livre sans Titre [The Book without a Title]. This 1830 work relates the “perils of self-abuse, or onanism,” i.e. masturbation, but bears no title because “merely speaking the word in polite company invited rebuke in the nineteenth century,” writes Jim Edmonson. It features some striking illustrations depicting the adverse health effects of “corrupting” oneself. A sample:

Before: “He was young, handsome and the hope of his mother.” After: “He is corrupted! Soon
he carries the pain of his fault, old before his time… His back is bent…

• The Readex Blog presents a guest post by Elizabeth Hopwood, a graduate student in English at Northeastern, on “Avoiding Errors, Fopperies and Follies: How to be a Good Wife.” This post offers extracts from a piece published in the New-England Weekly Journal in 1731 called “A Letter to a Lady on her Marriage.” The author inveighs strongly against showing “the least degree of Fondness to your Husband before any Witness whatsoever, even before your nearest Relations, or the very Maids of your Chamber.” PDA didn’t go over well in colonial New England, it would appear.

• The wonderful Powered by Osteons blog offers up “Artifacts… in Space!” The English warship Mary Rose sank in battle with French ships in 1545. What can the bones of its sailors and the remains of the ship itself tell us about its fate? The author, Kristina Killgrove, is a biological anthropologist at UNC Chapel Hill, so she is able to offer some interesting insights in regards to the sailor’s skeletal remains. A 2008 isotope analysis of the sailors’ bones found that part of the crew was non-English, thus occasioning the theory that the ship “may have sunk because a language barrier among the sailors caused poor communication leading to operator error”! This strikes me as a bit of a stretch, and it seems to have been debunked by a more recent study. Killgrove also writes about the reconstruction of a sailor’s face (seen at right) and the fact that a bead from the Mary Rose was recently sent into space aboard the Shuttle Endeavor. Quite a fascinating post.

• A food history blog called The Old Foodie posts about one of my favorite Englishmen of all time: the radical vegetarian and author Thomas Tryon (1634-1703). When I first stumbled upon Tryon’s works in a rare books library I was amazed at how modern Tryon’s advocacy of a healthy diet sounded (he loves salads and hates meat) and fascinated by the religious associations that he brought to bear in his polemics (he wrote an invented dialogue between a Frenchman and a “Brahmin” philosopher from “the Indies” advocating a form of deism). This post offers one of the best overviews of Tryon I’ve seen online. It also features a typically grim-sounding recipe he created: artichoke soup. The first ingredient: “blanched water.” Vegan cooking has come a long way since the 1600s.

• On Not Even Past, a new website created by the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin (full disclosure – I’m the assistant editor), my friend and graduate school colleague Maria Jose Afanador Llach writes about “Naming and Picturing New World Nature: The Codice de la Cruz-Badiano.” The Codice de la Cruz-Badiano, or Badianus manuscript, was the “first illustrated survey of Mexican nature produced in the New World.” Fascinatingly, it was a joint product of indigenous Mesoamerican and European medical knowledge, and was produced by Nahua-speaking artisans and physicians. The illustrations (an example is posted below) are beautiful and evocative, with an eye-popping neon color scheme that varies strongly from traditional European botanical illustrations. This incredibly valuable work is currently housed in the Vatican archives.

• The Renaissance Mathematicus blog examines a mathematical text written by a painter – Albrecht Dürer, to be precise.

• Elizabeth Roberts of Brain Blogger writes informatively about the oft-forgotten but crucially important barber-surgeons of the early modern era – one of my own favorite historical topics. “From Haircuts to Hangnails – the Barber-Surgeon” gives a broad overview of the topic, showing how the arts of hair-cutting has been intermingled in history with quite a few of the jobs we moderns associate with medical professionals, from lancing and blood-letting to surgery and amputation. At right, an engraving from 1524 by the Flemish painter Lucas van Leyden shows a barber-surgeon performing some dicey-looking maneuvers to a man’s ear region. “In the ancient Mayan civilization,” Roberts writes, “they were called upon to create ritual tattoos and scars. The ancient Chinese used them to castrate eunuchs. They gelded animals and assisted midwives, and performed circumcisions. Their accessibility and skill with precise instruments often made them the obvious choice for surgical procedures.” It all puts me in mind of my friend Chris, who once expressed the desire to write a history of the craft in Latin America called “Barberism and Civilization.” I hope he does it someday. (By the way, the earlier Res Obscura post “A Pirate Surgeon in Panama” sheds some light on the barber-surgeon’s sea-going compatriots.)

• The art history blog 3 Pipe Problem seems to keep getting better and better. This month saw a typically rich and well thought out post on “The elusive truth of art historical inquiry – a Raphael case study.” The author, H. Niyazi, takes to task what I’ve long regarded as the most obnoxious element in the field of art history — namely, the view that certain experts have quasi-supernatural gifts of discerning authorship in works of art. The author offers up the term “shamanistic connoisseurship” to describe such a view. I have to say I’m glad to see this ahistorical and snobby practice falling by the wayside. This post offers an interesting introduction to the contours of the debate, which has also been discussed in a fascinating recent piece on Jackson Pollocks in the New Yorker called “The Mark of a Masterpiece.”

• Finally, the ever-reliable BibliOdyssey, which was the direct inspiration for my own blog, offers up a selection of writing blanks. These were “were single sheets printed from copper or wood engravings, issued by print sellers (and, later, children’s booksellers), and sold to children across a broad socio-economic spectrum” in the period between 1650 and 1850, or thereabouts. Students would use the blank space in the center to show off their best hand-writing. The pictorial themes of the borders are quite varied, from the voyages of Captain Cook to the rather more prosaic topic of “Craneing Goods on Shore” (see below). Whether these reflect the interests of early modern school-children accurately or not is hard to say, but they are useful as scraps of evidence about what pre-modern kids were interested in, thus shedding light on highly elusive but fascinating topic of the history of childhood.

That’s all for now – I will probably update this to add new posts as I find them. Thanks to all whose blogs I have sampled!

The Key of Hell: an Eighteenth-Century Sorcery Manual [Updated]

Astrological talisman from an 1801 grimoire.

I found these amazing illustrations on Wellcome Images, a useful online database devoted to images related to the history of medicine from ancient times to the present. It is a small part of the larger Wellcome Trust archives. According to the image captions supplied by the Wellcome, all of the images below come from an eighteenth century German magical text known as the Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metatronawhich translates as “The Key of Hell with white and black magic proven [or approved] by Metatron.”

Cyprien et le démon, French, 14th century.

According to its catalogue entry, this mysterious manuscript was purchased from Sotheby’s on March 29, 1912. Although the title-page inscription seems to date it to 1717, the catalogue notes that “the script seems to be of the late 18th century.” As for the text’s origins, the Wellcome’s caption writes that it

is also known as the Black Book, and is the textbook of the Black School at Wittenburg, the book from which a witch or sorcerer gets his spells. The Black School at Wittenburg was purportedly a place in Germany where one went to learn the black arts.

I was somewhat dubious of this Harry Potter-esque claim so I researched the title a bit more and found that the attributed author, one Cyprianus, probably refers to St. Cyprian of Antioch (d. 304 CE): a very common apocryphal attribution for medieval magical texts, since Cyprian was reputed to have been a powerful magician and demon-summoner before converting to Christianity (see also the Iberian grimoire The Great Book of Saint Cyprian).

The martyrdom of Cyprian and Justina, medieval
Portuguese, oil on panel.

I also found that this very manuscript has actually been published by something called the Avalonia Press, which appears to be one of several such boutique presses devoted to occultism and attempts to revive ‘black magic’ as a religion or way of life. (I find that these folks usually do more harm than good by spreading poorly-researched information which hinders actual historical research into the history of magic and alchemy, but I am glad that they put texts like this into print).

An interesting-seeming book by a professor of Norwegian literature named Kathleen Stokker (Remedies and Rituals: Folk Medicine in Norway and the New Land) offers a different take on the reputed identity of Cyprianus (pp. 100-101). Stokker writes:

The identity of the mysterious figure Cyprianus varied wildly. People in Holstein, Denmark, imagined Cyprianus to be a fellow Dane so evil during his lifetime that when he died the devil threw him out of Hell. This act so enraged Cyprianus that he dedicated himself to writing the nine Books of Black Arts that underlie all subsequent Scandinavian black books.

Next comes a surprising twist:

In stark contrast, the Cyprianus of Oldtidens Sortebog [a Norwegian grimoire] is a ravishingly beautiful, irrestistibly seductive, prodigiously knowledgeable, pious Mexican nun. The nun’s gory story, dated 1351, details her mistreatment by a debauched cleric whose advances she steadfastly refused.

It goes unexplained how a Mexican nun could have even existed in 1351! Perhaps the identity of Cyprianus, and of the Wellcome manuscript attributed to him, will never be known with much certainty owing to the profusion of misinformation that seems to surround all things related to black magic. The images, however, are incredibly evocative and mysterious, and tell a fascinating story in themselves.

The work’s title page. Note the date, provided in curly Roman numerals toward the bottom of the page, and the cipher script above it. “Metratona” refers to the angel mentioned as God’s courier and scribe in the Talmud and Judaic lore. [Update 5/11] Also note the two lines at the bottom made up of Greek, Latin and a few symbols. The anonymous poster in the Comments section below has kindly translated these lines to something like “You hang it above the pentacle, you bring together the earth from a known thread.” With ‘thread’ (filo) having connotations of the thread measured out by the Fates. Still fairly opaque.

Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona. German, 18th century, ink and watercolor. The script is a cipher. According to the Wellcome’s caption, this image depicts “Maymon – a black bird – as King of the South; and Egyn – a black bear-like animal with a short tail – as King of the North.”

Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona. German, 18th century, ink and watercolor. “Uricus – a red-crowned and winged serpent – as King of the East” and “Paymon – a black cat-like animal with horns, long whiskers and tail – as King of the West.”

Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona. German, 18th century, ink and watercolor. A crowned dragon consumes a lizard, arching over a snake-wrapped cross with skull and cross-bones. The sword and branch probably refer to the common iconography of God’s twinned powers to create destruction or peace. The Latin text reads Qui facis mirabilia magna solus finis coronat opus. I translate this to something like “You who act alone with great miracles [or miraculous things], the end shall crown the work.” But my Latin is quite rusty.

Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona. German, 18th century, ink and watercolor. The archangel Metatron with allegorical objects. I have no idea what to make of this one. The text is in Kabbalistic Hebrew and cipher, with Greek alpha and omega symbols.

The final page. Note the symbol, which looks strangely like the emblem of the Society of Jesus to me. [Update 5/11] The same Anonymous in the comments section has also contributed a rough translation of this passage: “I truly, from the law of that Majesty, do receive and take the treasure requested by you in the sent proclamation. Go away now most calmly to your place, without murmor [assuming rumore instead of umore] and commotion, and without harm to us and to the circle of other men. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, AMEN.” Sounds like a spell or prayer to return a summoned being to its place of origin, perhaps.

These magical texts can make you feel a bit crazy if you spend too much time researching them (I was recently told as a bit of historian gossip that a prominent early researcher of John Dee went mad from precisely this cause, and I wasn’t surprised). So I’ll stop there.

As a side note, I’m hosting this month’s early modern Carnivalesque (a round-up of recent blog posts on early modern history) so please send submissions to resobscura@gmail.com!

The World’s Tallest Statues



As to boldness of design, the examples are innumerable; for we see designed, statues of enormous bulk, known as colossal statues and equal to towers in size.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), Natural History, Book 34, Chapter 9.

Wikipedia has its critics (some justified, some not), but I personally love the odd ways that it organizes information — especially the list-making tendencies of its members (I’m a longstanding fan of the List of Unusual Deaths). These lists are somewhat silly, to be sure, but not much more silly than the methods of famous figures such as Pliny the Elder. Pliny’s encyclopedic Natural History, written circa 71 AD, is essentially a running tally of natural phenomena which often deviates from ‘rational’ methods of organization:  Book XIII, for example, tabulates “trees, papyrus and other aquatic plants,” but, in the words of James Eason, actually devolves into a “tirade on luxury, masquerading as a description of fancy tables.”

All of this is meant to introduce an interesting Wikipedia list I recently came across that orders the world’s statues by height. What I love about this list is that virtually every statue on it was unknown to me: the vast majority are from the non-Western world, and nine out of the top ten turn out to be depictions of the Buddha. Many of these statues were created by authoritarian regimes in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, but not all: one 88 foot tall Buddha in a Chinese monastery dates from 430 CE! Below are some of my favorite images of statues from the list, accompanied by the country they inhabit and the date of their creation.

The Spring Temple Buddha in Lushan, China — the world’s largest statue at 420 feet. Constructed in 2002.

The Ushiku Daibutsu in Ushiku, Japan — significantly shorter at 361 feet, but in my view more imposing.

Rodina-Mat’ Zovyot! (Mother Motherland Calls), the tallest non-religious and non-Buddha statue on the list. Created in 1967 in Volgograd, Russia, the statue is a paragon of the socialist realist style and the most monumental work of nationalist propoganda ever created. At 279 feet, it is almost five times taller than the figures on Mount Rushmore. Changes to the ground water surrounding the base of this concrete colossus means that it may not survive the century – the statue has begun to tilt. 

This 233 foot tall giant Buddha in Leshan, China, is far older than the others: construction initially began in 713 and was completed in 803, making it a contemporary of Charlemagne and the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ in Europe (for a refutation of the concept of the Dark Ages, by the way, see Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity). I like this one quite a bit because it seems more integrated into the natural landscape than other colossal statues. It belongs to the style of sculpture that involves excavating soft stone outcrops to create figures — the 6th century CE Afghan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 strike me as very similar in construction and style to this one.

The 332 foot tall Mother Motherland statue created in Kiev, Ukraine in 1981 — a counterpoint to the larger  Volgograd statue above. It is made entirely of steel. This one scares me.

Statue of Lord Shiva, Kathamandu, Nepal. At 143 feet, it is the world’s largest depiction of a Hindu deity. It is also the newest statue on the list, having reached completion in 2010.

Another steel one – the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue in Tuv Province, Mongolia. It stands 132 feet tall and was completed in 2007. This is surely the most remote colossal statue on the list, and probably in the world.

The ancient Colossus of Rhodes, remarkably, was probably around the same size as these last two giants, standing around 107 feet high. According to classical accounts, including that of Pliny, it was partially cast from the bronze and iron weapons left behind by a Hellenistic king who attempted to lay siege to the port city circa 300 BCE. The Rhodians were said to have used a vast siege engine left behind by the king’s retreating forces as scaffolding for the statue.

"For they are very expert and skillful in Diabolical Conjurations": Lionel Wafer in Central America, 1681

“I sat awhile, cringing upon my Hams among the Indians, after their Fashion, painted as they were, and all naked but only about the Waist, and with my Nose-piece… hanging over my mouth. … ‘Twas the better part of an Hour before one of the Crew, looking more narrowly upon me, cried out, Here’s our Doctor; and immediately they all congratulated my Arrival among them. I did what I could presently to wash off my Paint, but ’twas near a Month before I could get tolerably rid of it.” – Lionel Wafer on his ‘rescue’ by fellow buccaneers off the coast of Panama, 1681

Title page of Wafer’s New Voyage.
The pirate-surgeon Lionel Wafer (1640-1705?) has won some modest attention from historians and those interested in pirate lore owing to his participation in the South Seas voyages of more famous buccaneers such as William Dampier and Bartholomew Sharp and his later role as an advisor to the disastrous Darién settlement scheme (I’ve also posted about him previously here). But the most interesting aspects of his story — which hinges on a period of four months during which Wafer lived with the Kuna people of Panama while recuperating from a leg wound — have gone without much notice. With that in mind, the remainder of this post is adapted from a conference paper on Wafer that I presented in Seattle last week. The theme is Wafer and his relation to science, demonology and indigenous spirituality. All images are from the Archive of Early American Images database of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, a wonderful online image resource.
When Lionel Wafer published his New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America, he was working as a surgeon in London, and he probably remained in England until his death. But if we go back to the fall of 1681, we find Wafer living not as an Englishman, but as a Kuna Indian of the Panamanian coast. In the four months he spent in the Darién, Wafer had been adopted into a Kuna community under the leadership of a king named Lacenta. He had seen a gruesome leg wound sustained during his travles cured by means of indigenous herbal knowledge. He had learned the Kuna language, traveled in a royal hunting party, and gained knowledge of local plants and medicines. He had used his surgical skills – specifically, his practice of phlebotomy, or blood-letting – to “save the life” of one of Lacenta’s wives.

And he had witnessed the work of shamans who had predicted the circumstances of his own return to the Christian world with uncanny accuracy. They had done so, Wafer claimed, by summoning the devil.

Lacenta, family and attendants. From Lionel Wafer, A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America
(London, 1699), 140.
Illustration of the Kuna method of blood-letting, performed on one of Lacenta’s wives.
Wafer, A New Voyage and Description, 28.
“The Indians in their Robes in Councel, and Smoaking tobacco after their way.”
Wafer, New Voyage and Description, 102.
Pedro de Cieza de León, La chronica de Peru (Seville, 1553), xxii
Wafer’s account of the devil in the New World was hardly new – on the contrary, Spanish and Portuguese chronicles of American conquest described indigenous Americans who wielded the power of Satan to make prognostications, place curses or effect cures. Yet Wafer’s account raised unsettling questions about the potentially supernatural (and Satanic) origin of traveler’s knowledge in a specific time and place – Britain in the Scientific Revolution – when such knowledge had never been more valuable, or more fraught with controversy. As David Livingstone, Simon Schaffer and Harold Cook have shown, traveler’s accounts provided the first-hand reporting of phenomena that fueled the development of the natural sciences. But who was an acceptable source for this data? 
Tupi Indians in Brazil tormented by devils (detail). Theodor de Bry, Americae tertia pars (Frankfurt, 1592), 223.
By the close of the seventeenth century, what Anna Neil has called ‘buccaneer ethnographers’ such as Lionel Wafer’s travel partner William Dampier had demonstrated that even criminals and pirates could collect empirical data about the world’s ethnography and geography. Yet the personal histories of such individuals, who frequently resided among non-Christian indigenous peoples for extended periods, put them in the complex position of serving as mediators between the practices of scientific travel and indigenous spirituality. 
Wafer stood squarely in between these two worlds. As Britain’s preeminent firsthand witness of the Panama region, he was a key figure in early attempts to understand the American tropics — and in efforts to make use of its resources. Indeed, in July of 1687 Wafer had been interviewed regarding the Darién’s colonization potential by none other than John Locke. Wafer’s account had also been printed and bound together with an account of Darien written by an unspecified “member of the Royal Society,” suggesting close links between Wafer and that institution.

How did this new generation of hybrid, cosmopolitan traveler navigate the boundaries between the scientific and the supernatural — and what can these negotiations tell us about the transformations of both the natural sciences and the British Empire at the dawn of the eighteenth century?

Wafer’s connection to the geographic and cultural space of the American tropics put him in a unique position to complicate understandings of Satan, science and the supernatural. He served as a courier of knowledge about a tropical world that was still largely unknown to European science. But Wafer’s time in this space had bestowed on him a form of indigeneity that, while offering insights into the workings of nature in the New World, perhaps also rendered his testimony unreliable and epistemologically suspect. Wafer’s adoption of Kuna dress and ceremonial body paint, in particular, raised concerns about his trustworthiness that were tied to larger debates about the role of the devil in both European and non-European societies. John Bulwer’s 1656 frontispiece to Anthropometamorphosis, or the Artificial Changeling, for instance, shows a European woman, a hair-covered man and a South American Indian with full body paint standing side by side. They are being judged by Nature, Adam and Eve and a body of disapproving magistrates (including the ghost of Galen) for transforming their bodies, while the devil flies above them laughing and saying, “In the image of God created he them! But I have new-molded them to my likeness.”

Details showing Europeans and indigenous Americans being judged by Nature for modifying their bodies.
John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis (London, 1656), frontispiece.
Wafer had written that his Kuna body paint eventually rubbed off, often with the “peeling away of flesh and all,” to reveal a European underneath– but did his time in the world of the Kuna leave traces of the indigenous that took longer to disappear? In the preface to the second edition to the New Voyage and Description, printed in 1694, Wafer attempted to reaffirm his status as a credible Christian observer, writing that he wished to “vindicat[e] my self to the World” regarding his previous account of “the Indian way of Conjuring,” which, he explained vaguely, had “very much startled… several of the most eminent Men of the Nation.” In this preface Wafer continued to maintain that the Kuna shamans practiced Satanism, and he buttressed his authority by citing parallel accounts produced by Scottish settlers in the Darién. He pointedly refrained, however, from defending his earlier claims about the accurate predictions this method produced.
As the geographer David N. Livingstone notes in his book Putting Science in its Place, “To ask what role specific locations have in the making of scientific knowledge and to try to figure out how local experience is transformed into shared generalization is, I believe, to ask fundamentally geographical questions.” Wafer’s account affirms the truth of this claim. Yet it also opens up new questions about the entwined geographies of scientific and supernatural knowledge– for religion is, after all, the other pre-eminent tool by which “local experience is transformed into shared generalization.” Would Wafer have requested and affirmed the truth of “Satanic conjurations” if he were in Europe and not Panama? Or did these powers exist in relation to the spaces that harbored them, and did long-distance travel and the exigencies of print and place transform perception of them in some fundamental way? Wafer’s account leaves the question open.

You can read Wafer’s New Voyage and Description free of charge on Google books here. Ignacio Gallup-Diaz’s The Door to the Sea and the Key to the Universe: Indian Politics and Imperial Rivalry in the Darién, 1640-1750 is the best account of the region’s colonial history that I have found – it comes highly recommended, and is available free as a Gutenberg e-book via Columbia University Press. The University of Ohio library has a great blog post on its copy of Bulwer’s Anthropometamorphosis with accompanying scans here. Finally, for those interested in the larger questions surrounding exploration, indigenous-European interaction and science, I highly recommend William Hasty’s recent essay “Piracy and the Production of Knowledge in the Travels of William Dampier” and the works of Schaffer, Livingstone, Cook and Safier, which are hyperlinked above.

History on the Web Roundup, Mk. 1

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about starting this site is that its made me aware of many other blogs devoted to history and visual culture. Popular sites like BibliOdyssey and 50 Watts (née A Journey Round My Skull) will probably be familiar to many of my readers, but others are less well known. With that in mind, here’s the first entry in what I hope will be a semi-regular compendium of recent history-related content posted to the web (with a marked slant toward my interests in the 1500-1800 period, global history and visual and print culture). All posts are from circa March 2011.

Joris Hoefnagel (artist), Mira calligraphiae monumenta,
Flemish, illumination 1591-1596, script 1561-1562.
Getty, MS 20, fol. 37v. Image here.

1. From Duke Ph.D. student Whitney Trettien‘s Diapsalmata blog, a post on manuscript trompe l’oeil illustrations entitled “Dragonfly Wings & Other Bookish Things“:  

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Rudolf II commissioned Hoefnagel to illustrate the Mira calligraphiae monumenta, produced by the calligrapher Georg Bocskay twenty years earlier. Because Bocskay’s calligraphic flourish crossed the entire page, Hoefnagel nestled the flower stem into a “slit” in the parchment. The shadows on both the flower and the mussel preserve the illusion… There’s a thin, sometimes obscure line between the page as a medium bearing representations — images and text that draw you away from its materiality — and the page as an archival platform in itself.

Lavinia Fontana, Self-Portrait at the Spinet, oil, 1577

2. At Three Pipe Problem, a fantastic blog devoted to art history, guest-blogger Monica Bowen offers an interesting piece on the female self-portrait in the Renaissance:  

Catherine King points out that in terms of self-portraiture, “the act of showing oneself to another was very different for a young woman than it was for a young man.” Hence, female artists needed to be careful in how they presented themselves in portraits. Fontana visually manifests this care by not only stressing her virginity, but by appearing in modest red dress that suggests marriage (red was the traditional color for wedding dresses in Bologna).

At the same site, also check out this fascinating discussion of Titian and mirrors and a post on the deep history of the virgo lactans motif in Western art.

A New Zealend native drawn by Jean Pirone, 1790s.

3. From peacay, the proprietor of BibliOdyssey, another typically well-crafted post on the Count de Lapérouse (1741-1788?), a French mariner whose ship disappeared in the Pacific in 1788. The writings and drawings of the ethnography and ecology of the Pacific Islands that his expedition produced largely survived, however, and were published in the following years along with related sketches produced by search and rescue missions:   

In 1785 Louis XVI appointed La Pérouse to lead an expedition to the Pacific to complete Cook’s unfinished work. His ships were the Astrolabe and the Boussole, both 500 tons. They were store-ships, reclassified as frigates for the occasion and his 114-person crew included ten scientists from different disciplines.  

4. At Got Medieval, a nicely-illustrated post on fools in the Middle Ages:

The late-medieval/early-Renaissance fool hat is kind of a combination of two previous types of hats. The first, usually without bells, had a single curly-pointed peak… The other hat had two peaks and bells, but was flat across the top.

And see this sample chapter from Beatrice K. Otto’s book Fools are Everywhere: the Court Jester around the World for more on the true history of this cliched stock figure. Courtesy of the University of Chicago Press, one of the best academic presses when it comes to making content available online.

Ben Jonson’s copy of Martial’s Epigrams, with marginal
annotations in Latin.

5. Sarah Werner at Wynken de Worde takes a look at an example of Ben Jonson’s marginalia. The playwright appears to have been even more devoted to marking up his work than most early moderns, whose pointy hands, underlines, asterisks and doodles put today’s undergraduates to shame.

I’ve been looking at another book that a student was working on. It’s unprepossessing on the outside, just a small, worn brown leather binding, with the remains of ties that have long since disappeared. But the book is much more interesting on the inside… 

The Old Library of Ilha de Moçambique.

6. [Update] I almost forgot to mention a promising very new blog: Macuti. This blog “on slums, museums and popular architecture in Ilha de Moçambique” was started in February by Silje, a Ph.D. candidate at Cophenhagen’s Royal Academy School of Architecture. The posts offer a highly observant and nuanced look at the Island of Mozambique, a world heritage site thanks to its 16th century Portuguese structures (the island’s chapel is the oldest still standing European-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere).

The library actually is in perfect order with book rows on heavy wooden shelves filled with information about modern agricultural production in Mozambique in the 1950s, French classics and a whole shelf of Hindi books…

For more history blog postings, see the Early Modern Carnivalesque for March 2011 on the Contemporary Jacobean Society blog and the links at right. [Update] While researching this post I came some other blogs of note: the newly-launched Big Map Blog, which features an excellent intuitive design and a huge array of digitized maps arranged by category, and Academitron, a blog on digital humanities. Finally, those with an interest in drug policy and history should check out Points: the Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.

Also, please leave your own suggestions in the comments!