Tag Archives: Renaissance

Fantastic Beasts (and where to find them)

When I need to find fantastic beasts I know precisely where to go: straight to Conrad Gessner’s five-volume Historiae animalium (1551-1558) or to its English variant, Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), both of which are illustrated extensively and digitized. Why do I need fantastic beasts? Principally for teaching purposes: there’s nothing better to illustrate the sense of the wonder of discovery in the early modern era along with a fledgling (in Topsell’s case very fledgling) scientific empiricism. Both authors describe what they have seen or heard about these beasts, and that is the difference between the early modern approach and the modern one: hearing about things seems to be just as valid as seeing them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consequently a unicorn can be just as real as a rhinoceros, as neither had actually been seen. What I generally do with the images and descriptions of these texts is examine very real, even mundane animals side by side with more exotic, fantastic ones, and compare the details of their descriptions: a more scientific empiricism is evident in descriptions of dogs, horses and sheep, while the much shorter chapters on camels and lions and tigers–and their more mysterious but fellow four-footed beasts–rely on ancient “authorities” and “sundry learned” authors. We do not see the hearsay purged from natural history texts until the later seventeenth and eighteenth century, and thereafter fantastic beasts roam into the realm of the imagination.

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You can see how dependent Topsell (bottom) was on Gessner (top) in their comparative illustrations of camels, along with many of the other beasts–both common and exotic–featured in both books. Gesner’s peacock is particularly beautiful, and he also includes a North American turkey.

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Beavers are very interesting to both Gessner and Topsell, as the European beaver had become very scarce, if not extinct, in the region and its American counterparts were the source of both valuable fur and a musk-like substance called castoreum, which is secreted by both male and female beavers every spring. Gessner and Topsell both feature rather ferocious beavers, and the latter added an alternate view exposing the supposed source of castoreum.

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Now for some truly fantastic beasts: the unicorns of Gessner and Topsell, a satyr from Gessner, along with some sea monsters and a seven-headed hydra.

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Topsell’s Baboon looks rather wondrous/monstrous, but his manticore, a composite beast of ancient Persian origin, and the legendary lamia, a vampire-like siren, represent a more threatening form of hybrid monster. Here be dragons and sea serpents too, as well as beast from the New World (where wonders abound) called the Su, all part of God’s plan.

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topsell-su1 Illustrations from Conrad Gessner’s  Historiae animalium (1551-1558) and Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), National Library of Medicine and University of Houston.


The Woodcut Witch

Witchcraft and witch trials are by no means an academic focus for me, but any European historian who studies and teaches the early modern era must take these subjects on. Consequently I developed an undergraduate course called “Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe” just a few years after I came to Salem, in part because I also felt that I had a certain obligation, given the local unawareness of the fact that over 100,000 people were put on trial for witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries across Europe and the consequential belief that the 1692 trials were the largest/most important/consequential in world history. My course goals consequently included: 1) putting the Salem Trials in a wider geographical and chronological perspective and; 2) placing the European witch trials in a longer and larger intellectual tradition, hence the “magic”. The course title is partially a misnomer, as we spend half our time in the medieval era, laying essential theological and historical groundwork, and the last few times I taught it, I became somewhat stalled in the fifteenth century. I think this was a bit frustrating for my students, as the most intensive period of witch hunting was the century between 1560 and 1660 (can’t we get to the trials?), but the more I studied both the primary and secondary texts the more I came to realize that the fifteenth century was absolutely key to the intensification that was to come. This is true not only because of the publication of the famous Malleus Maleficarum, an incredibly accessible, even riveting, “how-to” manual of witch identification and prosecution which itself is a consequence of fifteenth-century trends regarding what was seen increasingly as a “pestilential heresy” on the Continent, but also because of the visualization of diabolical witchcraft, most prominently in Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et pythonicis mulieribus (‘On Witches and Female Soothsayers, 1489). A Professor of Law at the University of Constance, Molitor’s point of view is traditional in terms of his opinions on witchcraft, unlike the more radical authors of the Malleus, Heinrich Kramer and  Jacob Sprenger, whose perspectives were inquisitional rather than reasoned. In the course of a ten-chapter dialogue, Molitor ultimately concludes that witches are generally products of demonic illusion. So his words did not incite, but one could argue that his images did, as De lamiis was the first illustrated treatise on witchcraft, and a text with a remarkably long run: 43 editions were published between 1489–1669—more than the Malleus Maleficarum. Molitor’s insistence on the illusionary  powers of witches was definitely undercut by the inclusion of woodcut illustrations of middle-aged “witches” engaging in some of the things Kramer and Sprenger accused them of: stirring up storms, flying to the sabbat, frolicking with their demon lover. And so, in both words and woodcuts, stereotypes were created, and cemented over the next century.

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Woodcut illustrations from the 1489, 1500, and 1544 (last one) editions of Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus. [first published in Reutlingen: Johann Otmar, not before 10 Jan. 1489]. University of Glasgow Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.34. For more and the later visualization of witches and witchcraft, see Charles Zika’s excellent The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-century Europe.


Preparing to Paint

Is there anything more engaging than an artist’s sketchbook? Or even a notebook with a few sketches in it? I suppose the end product doesn’t have to be visual, it’s the insight into that conception/creation/ working it out process that I’m interested in, but imagery tends to be far more accessible, of course. I use Leonardo’s notebooks extensively in my Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and early modern courses, and students are immediately engaged, entranced even, far more than they are when I show them the finished product. It’s interesting to see the wanderings of a very fertile mind in his case, what inspired him and what he also had to work out: perspective, motion, hands. Most of Leonardo’s sketches never made it onto canvas; once a particular challenge was overcome he moved on to the next one, but the sketchbooks of more (focused, disciplined, on-task???? it’s hard to compare Leonardo negatively to anyone) artists illustrate the progress from page to paint: those of Claude Monet immediately comes to mind. But again, it doesn’t have to be about images. The sketchbooks of  Massachusetts artist Alvan Fisher (1792-1863), a pioneer in American landscape, genre, and “view” paintings, gives us insights into his preparation for one of the first views of Salem from “Gallows Hill”, a scene that would be imitated time and time again over the course of the nineteenth century. Fisher jotted down notes about the Salem Witch Trials in his sketchbook, indicating that his inspiration for the Salem painting was not just the view he saw before him, but the events that brought him to this particular place.

Fisher View of Salem from Gallows Hill

Fisher Sketchbook no 5 1824

Alvan Fisher’s View of Salem from Gallows Hill (1818), Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, and Sketchbook no. 5, containing notes about the Salem Witch Trials, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. With the recent validation of Proctor’s Ledge below rather than Gallows Hill above as the 1692 execution site, it occurs to me that the inspiration for this famous “view” is based on a falsehood! Indeed, I think that the figures in the foreground are sitting on THE ledge. But clearly a perspective from that point would not be as revealing of the city below.

From what I can see, most of the sketches in Fisher’s notebooks in the Museum of Fine Arts contain more conventional preparatory sketches: houses, hills, streams, animals. Creatures, particularly creatures in motion and even more particularly birds, seem to captivate artists for centuries, from Leonardo to Salem’s most famous artist, Frank Benson. Browsing around sketchbooks which have been digitized (especially those included in this archived exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art), I can’t tell which is more captivating to me: individual sketches or the entire sketchbook, the works themselves or the works in progress. 

Fisher Notebook 1

Benson Sketchbook 1882

Bird Collage

Sketchbook Rockport

Sketchbook Porter

Page from Alvan Fisher’s Sketchbook no. 1, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Autographed sketch by Frank Benson, 1882, Skinner Auctions; Leonardo’s sketches from the Codex on the Flight of Birds and one of Benson’s bird sketches, Northeast Auctions; Covers of sketchbooks of Harrison Cady (1943) and Fairfield Porter  (1950) from the Archives of American Art.


A Breech-less Brute

The students in my Elizabethan class had quite a lot to say about Marcus Gheerhaerts’ 1594 portrait of Captain Thomas Lee yesterday: it is indeed a provocative portrait and he was indeed a provocative man. A poor relation of Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s Champion and Master of the Armouries, Thomas’s career is characterized by his long “service” in Ireland, from the mid 1570s until the late 1590s, after which he was implicated in the Essex Rebellion of 1601 and executed for treason. In his pursuit of the conquest of Ireland and his own personal gain, Captain Lee murdered, blinded, stole, and conspired. When he was not “serving”, he engaged in highway robbery and was imprisoned for debt. He was not a happy outlaw, however, and the Gheerhaerts portrait, along with his two essays, A brief declaration of the government of Ireland  (1594) and The discovery and recovery of Ireland with the author’s apology (1599), are attempts to repair his reputation. Too little too late–though his arrest and execution at Tyburn in February of 1601 were consequences of his involvement in the Essex plot rather than any of his actions in Ireland, which were supposedly on behalf of the Queen.

Captain_Thomas_Lee_by_Marcus_Gheeraerts Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee by Marcus Gheeraerts II, 1594, Tate Britain.

Well of course this personal history does not explain why Captain Lee is not wearing pants (or breeches, or hose). Clearly that is the defining feature of this portrait, commonly known as “the man with the bare legs”. There’s something vaguely classical about the painting, with its pastoral background and Latin inscription on the right: Facere et pati Fortia, “To act and suffer bravely”, a quotation from Livy’s history of the Roman commander Caius Mucius Scaevola, who defeated Etruscan rebels by penetrating their camp and living among them, so he could know the enemy. He was recognized for his bravery and rewarded handsomely by the Roman government for his efforts and thus represented a useful example for Lee, who perhaps saw himself as performing a similar service for the Queen among the “wild” Irish. Despite its fanciful fabric, Lee’s outfit is actually a bit more pragmatic: he is fully-armed and wears some semblance of the “uniform” of an Irish foot-soldier, or “wood-kerne”, bare-legged to better accommodate the boggy terrain of the Emerald Isle. So Lee is presenting himself as Irish: he has “gone native” in the (sacrificial) service of the Queen. The true measure of his claimed “sacrifice” can only be grasped through a realization of just how “wilde”, barbaric, and brutal the English perceived and presented the Irish to be: John Derrick’s Image of Irelande (1581) is a good source for this, as is a book by another man who was constantly currying favor with the Queen, Edmund Spenser’s thoroughly racist View of the Present State of Ireland (c. 1596).

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Lee’s discoverye and recoverye of Ireland with the authors apologie, ca. 1600. Folger Shakespeare Library: John Derrick, The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne, 1581, Edinburgh University Library.

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Salem Film Fest 2016

CATS, architecture, the Renaissance (or pseudo-Renaissance)…all my favorite topics are featured in documentary films screening at this year’s Salem Film Fest, which opened last night with Curious Worlds: the Art & Imagination of [miniaturist] David Beck. The festival is now a Salem tradition, in its ninth year, and of course a welcome addition to the non-witchy/kitschy calendar. I usually go to one or two films, and regret not seeing more. Even though the slogan of the festival is Come to Salem, See the World, its organizers always include some local productions, so the entire experience has a “glocal” feel to it, which seems appropriate for our city, our time, and this particular medium. This evening we will see Concrete Lovethe Böhm Family, which purportedly “paints an intimate and pointed portrait of the complexity and inseparability of life, love, faith and architecture” through its examination of the life and work of German architect Gottfried Böhm, the patriarch of an architectural dynasty which includes his three sons. This weekend, I’ve got my eye on Projections of America, featuring 26 short propaganda films about America: the people produced for European audiences following the liberation of France in 1944, Kedi, all about the hundreds of thousands of cats that roam the streets of Istanbul, American Renaissance, a short on Renaissance-faire culture (I can’t miss this, as hopefully it will give me all sorts of insights into my students), and The Million Dollar Duck, (not to be confused with the 1971 Disney film of the same name) about the fierce competition among six artists to win the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the only juried art competition sponsored by the U.S. government. I feel honor-bound to see this last movie, as one of Salem’s most illustrious artists, Frank Benson, was actually one of the competition’s first victors!

Salem Film Fest Concrete Love Poster

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Salem Film Fest Kedi Still

Salem Film Fest Kedi Cat

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Salem Film Fest Million Dollar Duck

Duck Stamp

German poster for Concrete Love: the Böhm Family; Projections of America poster;  character cats in Kedi; a “Renaissance” plague doctor in American Renaissance, poster for The Million Dollar Duck, and Frank Benson’s winning design from 1935.


Bits of Bosch

I show a lot of art in my classes but most of the time the images are serving as mere backdrops for the era or issue I am discussing rather than the focus of our collective attention. This is due to the fact that I am historian, rather than an art historian, so art is primarily illustrative for me, and I also find that many paintings (apart from portraits) require a great deal of explanation and elaboration–time that I just don’t have–so I use them to evoke the past rather than explain it. When I do focus in on a painting, and spend some time with it and on it, it’s usually the details on which I dwell. For this reason, I am absolutely enraptured with this amazing high-resolution zoomable “interactive documentary” of The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490-1510) by Hieronymus Bosch. You can–I did–spend hours zooming in on every little detail: strange and familiar animals, birds big and small, large strawberries and tempting apples, grotesque figures, wanton entanglements, horrific punishments, bewildering vignettes. You can acquire an intimate knowledge of the painting, much more intimate than could ever be possible any other way (even by examining it in person at the Prado where the whole overwhelms the parts). You can “take” an audiovisual tour if you like, or just wander around on your own in silence, zooming and opening up helpful notes as you move from place to place. And you can go back, again and again and again. As the Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych, so too is this particular presentation: it is part of a “transmedia triptych” which also includes a documentary film, “Hieronymus Bosch, Touched  by the Devil” and the “virtual reality documentary” “Hieronymus Bosch, the Eyes of the Owl'”.  You can check out all three projects here.

A few bits of Bosch, starting with my own triptych of his favorite owls: an elephant, mouse in a tube, hedgehogs or porcupines, coupling in a mussel shell and moving into hell, the dreaded knife between the ears, strange music, the mirror reveals all, hanging through a key.

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Bosch Hedgehogs

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Bosch Ears

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Bosch Keyp

The entirety here.

 


Epiphany Eclipsed

Why do we “celebrate” Christmas so spectacularly and ignore its closing act, Epiphany? How did Christmas come to overshadow Epiphany so completely? Well of course we know the answer to this question: crass commercial consumerism, beginning in the Victorian era. But before that, it was all about Epiphany, one of the earliest Christian feast days. Consider this beautiful painting by Hieronymus Bosch of the Adoration of the Magi, one of thousands of Renaissance paintings depicting this moment when the world, represented by the Three Magi/Kings/Wise Men, came to view the Christ child in his humble birthplace. Here we see nothing less than the manifestation of God in the form of human flesh through his Son, Jesus Christ, before the Kings and the world. It’s a really big moment, and one that medieval and early modern Christians wanted to think about, hear about, and see time and time again. I like this particular painting not only for its aesthetic qualities but also the familiarity and intimacy of its setting: Italian Renaissance painters like Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio made this moment even more familiar and intimate by painting themselves and their patrons right into the scene!

Adoration of the Magi

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Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1475; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1475, Uffizi Gallery (with Botticelli in the right lower calendar and all of the Medici clan present); Domenico Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1485-88, Spedale degli Innocenti (with Domenico facing us in the midst of his patrons, on left).

It’s quite possible that the underestimation of Epiphany is apparent only from my western (American) Protestant perspective, but apart from its theological importance, there are many customs and traditions associated with Epiphany and Twelfth Night, its more secular incarnation, that would seem to lend this holiday towards more popular celebration (or exploitation): elaborate feasting, including a variety of Kings’ Cakes, containing beans, slips of paper, or Baby Jesus charms, wassailing, frolicking, dancing, gift-giving, marking homes with blessed chalk. Many of these Twelfth Night activities have been appropriated by Christmas in the modern era, especially here in the United States, where Santa Claus seems to have vanquished St. Nicholas, the Three Kings, and even the Italian “Christmas Witch”, la Befana, who delivers presents (or coal) to children on Epiphany Eve rather than December 24. Although given her identity rather than her occupation, I suppose it is only a matter of time before she finds her way to the Witch City.

Twelfth Night Feast 1662

Epiphany Coles 1888

Epiphany Le Petite Journal 1914

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Twelfth Night Feast by Jan Havicksz. Steen, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Epiphany. Illustration from Holy Seasons of the Church by E Beatrice Coles (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1888); a Spanish Epiphany custom illustrated in Le Petite Journal, 1914; the famous “Befana Regatta” held every January 6 in Venice.


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