Tag Archives: Flora and Fauna

Beauty Sleep

As it happened I was watching the 1935 film version of Romeo and Juliet (starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer) while I was going through seed catalogs and doing some (late) garden planning. Just as Juliet went into her deep sleep, I came to the herbal sections of one catalog, and remembered that I always wanted some belladonna (Atropa Belladonna; Deadly Nightshade) for my garden–just because it’s one of the most storied poisonous plants in history. A decade or so ago, when I had given over most of my garden to herbs which served as either plague cures or poisons (for scholarship!), a student gave me some belladonna seeds–which I thought was very nice/cheeky of him–but the plant lasted only one season. So I’d like to try again. Juliet reminded me:  Shakespeare is not specific, but it must have been belladonna on his mind. His contemporary, John Gerarde, wrote that a small quantity could lead to madness, a moderate amount to a “dead sleep”, and too much to death in his Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597). As Friar Laurance observes in the play,”within the infant rind of this small flower/poison hath residence and medicine power” and later instructs Juliet: Take thou this vial, being then in bed, / And this distilled liquor drink thou off; / When presently through all thy veins shall run / A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse… And in this borrow’d likeness of shrunk death / Thou shalt continue two and forty hours.

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L0058356 Glass bottle used for tincture of belladonna, England, 1880-

Juliet considering her options and holding a belladonna? tincture in an 1830 print by William Say (British Museum) and an apothecary bottle from 1880 (Wellcome Library Images).

Friar Laurence was right: belladonna has the virtues of both medicine and poison, but throughout history, its emphasized use has been on the latter (poison-tipped arrows, “inheritance powders”, magical ointments which enable witches to fly) with the exception of the cosmetic application which explains its vernacular name, “beautiful lady”. The Renaissance image of beauty encompassed not only a high forehead but also a certain wide-eyed (literally) look, and Atropa Belladonna contains a muscle-relaxant substance (atropine) that dilates the eyes for long periods of time. Presumably the fashionable Renaissance lady had to be quite knowledgeable about how to prepare her tincture, or have a reliable apothecary. I always thought the Raphael’s mistress Margheriti Luti was the perfect belladonna girl, and he certainly admired her. Perhaps the “spring beauty must-have”, Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette, can create a similar look (and I wonder if Mr. Armani knows that the name conjures up as many references to death and it does to beauty?)

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Belladonna-Pallette

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Raphael, Woman with a veil (La Donna Velata), 1516, Galleria Palatina, Florence, Italy; Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette for Spring 2014; Atropa Belladonna as depicted in one of Mary Delany’s beautiful collages , 1791, British Museum.

 


Monarchs and Monkeys

When you teach with a lot of images, as I do, you’ve got to be ready to answer all sorts of questions, because students will notice every little thing and be much more interested in the margins than the focal point. I have been rendered answer-less on more than one occasion, so I always try to be prepared. When discussing queenship in my Tudor-Stuart class, for example, I would never, never, never show them two of my favorite portraits of queens, Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout and Henrietta Maria by Anthony van Dyck, because I know that their attention would almost immediately move away from the women and turn to the monkeys. Why would these two dignified Queens have their portraits painted with monkeys? Well, it varies with the Queen, so let’s start with Katherine, the first wife of Henry VIII, whose miniature portrait by Lucas Horenbout was painted in 1525, just about the time that Henry began the long process of attempting to annul their marriage, a desire that would eventually result in the severing of ties with Rome and the English Reformation.

PicMonkey Collage

Katherine panel

I’m featuring several versions of this image: the original miniature (from the Duke of Buccleauch Collection), doubled for effect, and a later and larger copy on wood panels, featuring a younger Katherine and a clearer view of her monkey and its message–because there is a pretty obvious message here. Like her father-in-law, Henry VII, and several other contemporary royals, Katherine probably enjoyed having a monkey as a pet (and it was said to hail from her native Spain), but the pet has a purpose in this image: he (or she?) holds a Tudor rose in one hand and is reaching for Katherine’s crucifix rather than the coin she is offering to him. While medieval monkeys could represent all sorts of negative things–the Devil himself, foolishness, vice–the monkey of Katherine’s time was more likely a symbol of exotic worldliness and an imitator of man. A tethered monkey, like Katherine’s, can therefore represent ascetic discipline, which is reinforced by his gesture towards the cross: faith over greed. This is the message Katherine is sending out there, just as (and after) Henry is replacing her.

So now let’s look at two other depictions of royals and their monkeys: Daniel Mytens’ posthumous portrait of Katherine’s sister-in-law, Margaret Tudor, the Queen Consort of Scotland (Royal Collection), and Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria, with “her” dwarf Jeffrey Hudson and a monkey (National Gallery of Art). What a contrast between these two royal portraits, which were painted at about the same time (1620s-1630s, though Mytens’ painting harkens back to an earlier era). The monkeys have lost their message and been reduced to mere exotic pets, especially in the extravagant depiction of Henrietta Maria: here the monkey is still tethered, but to the dwarf rather than the Queen. This is a woman whose extravagance (and Catholicism) would contribute to the intensifying division between the King and Parliament, a division that would soon lead to the English Revolution. So perhaps I can teach with these particular portraits–if the depictions of monkeys can open up a larger discussion of events as significant as the English Reformation and the English Revolution, why not?

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Monkey and Henrietta Maria Van Dyck

 

 


Stumped by Shamrocks

I was going to do a rather straightforward post on the shamrock for St. Patrick’s Day, but it turns out that there is nothing straightforward about this plant, but rather an age-old confusion about what it actually is/was. The history of the shamrock and its association with Ireland is misty and murky: if indeed St. Patrick plucked a tender three-leaved (trefoil) sprig of some sprawling plant to illustrate the Holy Trinity we don’t know what that plant was, nor do we know precisely what plants Elizabethan authors like Edmund Campion and Edmund Spenser were referring to when they referenced the “wild” Irish eating shamrocks. The general consensus is that the word is derived from the gaelic seamróg, a diminutive form of seamair, meaning “clover”, but there is no botanical consensus that the shamrock is a clover variety: opinion seems to have been divided between various varieties of clover (trifolium) or wood sorrel (oxalis) for quite some time, with a weed called medic (medicago) mentioned occasionally as another candidate for the shamrock label. If you look at illustrations of the first two plants in one of the most lavishly illustrated medieval herbals, the Tractatus De Herbis (British Library MS Egerton 747), you can understand the confusion between these two look-alike, supposedly sacred plants.

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Clover (also called “Trinitas”) on the lower right and Wood Sorrel (also called “Alleluia”) on the upper left in BL MS. Egerton 747, c. 1280-1310.

The other source of confusion, much more modern and almost-exclusively American, I think, is between the shamrock (whatever it is) and the four-leaf clover. Both might be clovers, but if you embrace the trinitarian nature of the former, you can’t also have the secular charm of the latter–or can you? Americans seem to want it both ways, and consequently they fashion a St. Patrick’s Day holiday that combines a bit of faith and fortune, and much, much, much more fortification.

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St. Patrick’s Day postcards c. 1906-11 from the New York Public Library’s collection: a trefoil shamrock, four-leaf clovers, and both on one card.

There is much less confusion about how the shamrock (whatever it is) became inextricably identified with Ireland: this was much more a Victorian development than a medieval or early modern one. In the visual culture of the Great Britain, the Irish shamrock looms large, along with the English rose and the Scottish thistle (and occasionally the Welsh leek). These symbols appear together on all sorts of items–textiles, pottery, wallpapers–as both official “Arms” of the United Kingdom, decorations for royal palaces and personas, and patriotic embellishment.

The Rose, Thistle and Shamrock. The Floral Badges of England, Scotland and Ireland

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James King design for the National Arms of Great Britain, c. 1890; Norris & Company silk curtain border design for Windsor Castle, 1850s; C.F.A. Voysey textile design with garland of Tudor roses, thistles and shamrocks, c. 1915, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections.

These integrative designs are interesting aesthetically and politically, but you can’t beat a single shamrock (whatever it is), especially if it is made up of diamonds! Paired, perhaps, with a companion four-leaf clover brooch for extra luck. But even if there are no sparkling stones, a bright green shamrock (like the holiday it has come to represent) represents hopefulness and gaiety in the often murky month of March.

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March Calendar Postcard with Little Girl Wearing Stole and Muff. 1906, March Calendar Postcard with Little Girl Wearing Stole and Muff

Diamond shamrock brooch, c. 1890, Victoria & Albert Museum; Art Deco platinum, diamond and jadeite clover brooch, c. 1935, Skinner Auctions; Ullman Manufacturing Co. calendar page for March, 1906.


Up in the Air, In the Margins, On Stilts

I have been pondering several nineteenth-century prints, paintings and photographs of people walking around on stilts in the Landes region of Gascony (now Aquitaine) in France: in their road-less, marshy landscape, this was apparently the best way to get around. And so they walked around on stilts everywhere, doing everything. Very adaptable, they were. The best images are of shepherds, knitting on stilts while they watched their flocks. Most representations of these Landes stilt-walkers (and -sitters) make them look completely natural: it’s only when you take the stilts out of Landes that you know that something odd is afoot. The next-to-last image below is a French caricature mocking a corpulent Englishman on stilts: he clearly looks unnatural. He’s clearly more comfortable than his (presumably English) companions in the near-foreground, but something’s still not quite right. On the other hand, it seems quite logical, if not natural, for an English caricaturist to put Napoleon up on stilts, in another example of patriotic mockery.

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Prints from Victor Adam’s Charades alphabétiques. (Paris : Aubert, [1836]), the NYPL Digital Gallery, and caricatures (Paris: Aaron Martinet, [1816]), (London: Piercy Roberts, [1803]), British Museum.

The use of stilts to convey a certain precariousness goes way back, to the Renaissance at least. Albrecht Dürer puts Cupid on stilts and we know what he is conveying: love can be a little destabilizing. I’m pretty comfortable with Renaissance allegory but much less so with medieval meanings: when I look in the margins of illuminated manuscripts from the fourteenth century and before, I find lots of things that I don’t understand, including grotesque and hybrid creations of any and every kind, profane imagery and activities, and people and animals doing all sorts of things, including, of course, walking on stilts. What is the veiled pig doing on stilts? And why would a woman nurse her child on stilts (with a heavy-looking pot on her head)? It’s not quite natural. Somehow only the last man, playing his animal-headed pipe, affects the ease of the Landes stilt-walkers.

Stilts Pig BL FROISSART

Royal 10 E.IV, f.29v (det)

Stilts Royal MS BL

British Library MSS. Harley 4379, f. 19v; Royal 10 E IV, f. 29v; Royal 14 B V, Membrane 1.


Books for my Break

The break between the fall and spring semesters used to be one of my favorite times of the year; now that I am Chair it won’t be quite as long or restful. When you’re a professor, you think about your courses a bit and write up the syllabi, but this January I’ll be doing transfer evaluations, a bit of scheduling, advising, meetings, correspondence, and planning for the semester to come. Woe is me! Nevertheless, there’s still time for some reading so I have assembled my year’s end list of books. I probably won’t get through all of these but they’ll sit by my bed all year long and put me to sleep (no slight to the book; I fall asleep almost instantaneously and very forcefully). As usual, it’s a list (exclusively) dominated by nonfiction, and the first two BIG books will probably take me through most of the year: the first volume of Victoria Wilson’s Barbara Stanwyck biography (I’m a huge Barbara Stanwyck fan) and the recently-updated Field Guide to American Houses. The latter probably won’t leave my bedside for years to come–in fact, I should probably buy two copies of the latter, one for my bedside and the other for the car.

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Two popular histories/biographies of gilded-age people on either side of the Atlantic (and around the world): I see a lot of parallels between Prince Edward and Prince Charles (though not the playboy characterization).

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Fauna and Flora, past, present, future:

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Books for my break

I’m not really a cook or a foodie, but I do like reading about food: its production, its history, its role as a cultural force. Of all the food books that came out in this past year, these two titles appeal to me the most: one is quite specific and narrative in its approach, the other more general and historical:

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What could possibly be more interesting than the story of punctation!!!??? and epistolary history (Simon Garfield is always on my list)?.

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Books to the Letter border


Christmas Roses

I like to decorate with live plants at the holidays–and all year round–but I don’t particularly care for the traditional Christmas plants: cyclamen is too gaudy for me, as are Christmas cacti, and I can’t stand the smell of paperwhites. I suppose amaryllis are alright, but I can never get them to bloom on time and, again, I find them a bit showy. Poinsettias are too predictable (and I have cats). So the only flowering plant that I seek this time of year are hellebores, varieties of which are alternatively called “Christmas Roses” (helleborus niger) and “Lenten Roses”. You’ve got to love a winter-blooming flower, and the association with Christmas is based not only on the season but also on the story of a penniless shepherdess who sought to give a gift to the baby Jesus–an angel turned her tears into pale waxen flowers, which were, of course, the greatest gift. Like tears, hellebore petals are seemingly-fragile, especially in contrast to their sturdier stems, and white, like winter (although there are pale pink varieties too–but the Christmas rose is white). There is another dissonance between the virtues of the plant and its seasonal beauty:  all of the classical and medieval herbals testify to its toxic qualities.

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Hellebore after John White BM 1600

Hellebore Mary Delaney BM 1770s

Hellebore Cooper Hewitt early 19th century

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A succession of hellebores:  British Library MS. Egerton 747, Salernitan Herbal c. 1280-1310; two images from the British Museum: after John White, c. 1600 and Mary Delaney, 1770s; early 19th century British soft paste plate from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian; a Charles Rennie MacKintosh drawing, c. 1901-1914, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; one of my potted hellebores, overlooking a snowy Chestnut Street.


Black Cat Covers

Many months ago I wrote about a small publishing company in turn-of-the-century Salem named the S.E. Cassino Company with a diverse list of publications that included Black Cat Magazine, a pulp fiction/short story magazine (which featured Jack London and Henry Miller among its authors) that was in publication from 1895-1923. The Cassino company acquired Black Cat after the unfortunate death of its founding editor in 1912, and moved its operations from Boston to Salem, at least briefly–and then there was a twenty-year run of really cute black cat Black Cat covers. I recently came across a treasure trove of these images, and because they are so so striking (and it’s October in Salem) I thought I would feature a series of them. The Cover Cat cuts a pretty conventional silhouette on the first 1895 cover, but as you can see on this series of October covers, he gets bolder with each passing year. My favorite is from 1907, with the squirrels. Unfortunately, I can’t find the artist (s) responsible for these covers; if anyone has any information, please pass it along.

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Black Cat 1900 cover

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Black Cat 1913 cover

October Black Cat Covers from the digital collection of an amazing magazine bibliographer, 1895-1913.

Much, much more unfortunately, I have very bad news about a real black cat:  a kitten, to be more precise. This past Tuesday, someone stole a weeks-old black kitten named Sunshine (with an intestinal condition !!!) from our animal shelter here in Salem: this is just the sort of story that intensifies my dislike and disdain for October in the Witch City.


Little Pumpkins

It’s time for the obligatory Halloween decoration post; I can’t delay it any longer as we are well into October. Actually, even though I dislike Salem’s endless Halloween festivities in general, I like to see houses dressed up for the season, especially if the decorations tend more toward “harvest” than the macabre. One of the things I like best about living in a small city full of streets lined and fronted with old houses is “entryway decor”:  people really make an effort in Salem, and not just on Halloween. I used to make more of an effort, but I think I’ve been in a funk since the antique planters on my front steps were stolen this summer–there’s just one replacement planter out there now, filled now-lackluster summer plants that I neglect terribly. I did manage to put some spiders on my door wreaths this weekend; they will have to suffice for me this Halloween.

The photographs below, taken on Federal, River and several streets around Salem Common, show homes of people who have made much more of an effort!  As you can see, I have a preference for little pumpkins, preferably white, but orange will do–and I like whimsical Halloween decorations, even if they are store-bought: the eyeball lights in the yew below captured my attention, even in the daytime. If I were to give out an award for best decoration, I would give it to the raven-festooned white house on River Street: those birds made me stop in my tracks.

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Intricate Insects

There are beetles in my garden and some West Nile-carrying mosquitoes in Salem: I’ve got bugs on the brain. On a more pleasurable note, the Getty Museum has expanded access to thousands of its digitized images through its new Open Content Initiative. Another treasure trove to explore (and eat up time)! One of the most precious manuscripts in the world is in the Getty collection, the Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, or Model Book of Calligraphy, the collaboration of two late Renaissance artists who never met! In this first age of printing, when it was feared that the skill and beauty of writing would soon be lost, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I commissioned his court scribe, George Bocskay, to produce the Model Book; 30 years later, his grandson Rudolf II instructed his court artist, Joris Hoefnagel, to illustrate it. And thus the beautiful little (6+ inches by 4+ inches) was created, over the period from about 1561 to 1591.

Bugs About Hoefnagel Getty

Bugs About Hoefnagel 2 Getty

Hoefnagel (1542-1601) worked in every medium and all over Europe: though generally classified as a Netherlandish artist he also spent time in England and really flourished in central Europe at the courts of two major royal patron-collectors, Albert V, the Duke of Bavaria, and Rudolph II, who was in the process of assembling the largest Kunst- and Wunderkammer (“Cabinets” or collections of art and natural wonders) of the era. While in Munich, he completed his three encyclopedic collections of  zoological and botanical miniatures, Animalia Aqvatilia et Cochiliate (Aqva), Animalia Volatilia et Amphibia (Aier), and Animalia Rationalia et Insecta, between 1575 and 1580. These images are amazing blends of art and science, and while the animals are compelling (especially the hairy people–more in a later post), the insects almost jump off their pages!

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Joris Hoefnagel’s insect miniatures, watercolor and gouache on vellum, 1575-1580, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Is Hoefnagel’s inspiration primarily artistic or scientific? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, really. He is a transitional artist in so many ways–transitioning between the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, between manuscript culture and print culture, between the medieval miniature and the early modern still life with his precise eye for detail. But at the same time he is merging all these things rather than evolving from one to another. At about the same time that he was engaged in his “collaboration” with Bockskay, Hoefnagel was part of another artistic partnership, this time with his son, the teenaged Jacob Hofsnaegel, whose collection of printed botanical and entomological engravings, Archetypa Studiaque Patris (1592)  was inspired by his father’s early allegorical drawings and accompanying verse. You can see more of the younger Hoefnagel’s images here and here, as well as at the British Museum.

Hoefnagel Allegory of Winter Louvre

Hoefnagel Insects and the Head of a Wind God

Hoefnagel Archetypa frontspiece

Hoefnagel Archetypa 2 BM

Hoefnagel Archetypa 3 BM

Joris Hoefnagel, Allegory of Winter, c. 1589 (The Louvre, Paris); and Insects and the Head of the Wind God, c.  1590-1600 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Jacob Hoefnagel, frontspiece and plates from Archetypa Studiaque Patris Georgi (Joris) Holfnaegeli, 1592 (British Museum, London).

Below: Art and nature, father and son, INSECTS:  Allegory on Life and Death, Prague, 1598: Figure and landscape within oval drawn by Jacob Hoefnagel, surrounding flora, fauna and bugs, by Joris Hoefnagel, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hoefnagel Allegory of Life and Death Met


Rockefeller’s Teeth

I’ve returned from our camping trip to Mount Desert Island off Maine, home to America’s oldest, and most eastern, federal park:  Acadia National Park. Mount Desert is more than the park: its dramatic landscape, characterized by the close encounter of sloping coastal mountains and sea, also includes several pretty towns and villages (Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Somesville, Tremont) but this was a camping trip dictated by nature. Nevertheless, Acadia, like all national parks, is a product of both private and public initiatives, and few people in the former sector contributed more than John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil, who donated more than 11,000 acres to the park and financed and oversaw the construction of one of its most notable features, the network of crushed-stone carriage roads topped by quaint cobblestone and granite bridges and lined with broken boulders, occasionally referred to as “Mr. Rockefeller’s teeth”. To me, these roads are the perfect blend of human achievement in harmony with nature–and they also afforded a welcome escape from camping.

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Mount Desert Island:  harbor, coastline, and the view from Mt. Cadillac.

Mr. Rockefeller designed, financed, and oversaw the construction of 57 miles of carriage roads between 1913 and 1940, using local labor, local materials, and the island’s landscape as his guideposts. The roads run through fir forests, around glacier lakes and mountains, and over streams and chasms, offering perfect vistas at every opportunity. To stand on one of his 16 bridges, several of which have built-in viewing spaces, is literally to be served up nature: they represent multidimensional access. No cars (which Mr. Rockefeller apparently detested): only feet, horses and bicycles. I remember walking down one of these roads a few decades ago when they were not in such superlative condition; now they are pristine.

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Mr. Rockefeller's Teeth

The Jordan Pond Gate Lodge, commissioned by Mr.Rockefeller and designed by Grosvenor Atterbury, and several bridges of Acadia; Mr. Rockefeller’s teeth along the road.

More tomorrow:  fog and sun.


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