Posted by: plbh88 | 17/12/2010

December Updates

I can’t believe that I haven’t updated this blog since September! This was a busy semester which included a lot of work on this project. In October I was invited by the French section of the Department Modern Languages and Literatures to give a presentation at the first annual French Research Department. I presented elements of my research thus far and it was great to hear faculty and student questions and feedback on my project.

I am now back in Paris for Christmas and still working on writing. I’m also taking the opportunity to visit different sites that I did not have time to see, as well as current exhibitions including one at Versailles on science and curiosities at court that promises to be really great. I was just at Versailles yesterday, where I had a private tour of the petits appartements with M. Olivier de Rohan, the former president of the Société des Amis de Versailles with whom I worked this summer as liaison for the American Friends of Versailles. The tour was fantastic, and I took the opportunity to take a lot of great pictures, many of which will be part of the appendix of my thesis.

I am currently working on a chapter devoted to what I am calling the “marketing” of the monstrous in early-modern France.  The hybrid and diverse nature of fantastic creatures including dragons, chimeras, and human-animal combinations made up an important repertoire of marketable “products” and attractions that continued to be produced, exhibited, and sold for a profit through the Ancien régime and into the nineteenth century.  Examples including mass-produced “basilisks” and “chimeras”, sideshow attractions, and decorative art speak to the ways in which monstrous images were molded and made marketable at the same time that such metaphors were coming to play significant roles in contemporary intellectual, scientific, and political discourse.  The very variety of monstrous forms that existed and that continued to be created in this period allowed the monster to be perfectly integrated in the different domains of consumerism.  These chimeras, dragons, harpies, and sphinxes speak to the ways in which monstrous images and metaphors were molded and made marketable at the same time that such metaphors were coming to play significant roles in contemporary intellectual, scientific, and political discourse.

For an example of what I am talking about:

In his Nouveau voyage d’Italie, published in 1722, François-Maximilien Misson describes his voyage to Italy in the 1680s.  The narrative is unique in that gives a record of how “monstrous” hoaxes could be created.  A 1687 letter published in this text gives step by step instruction on how one could create a basilisk, a mythological reptile that could kill with a glance and whose venom was just as deadly.  The basilisk was subsequently incorporated into Christian lore as well, and both Saints George and Michael are credited with its destruction.  Misson describes how Veronese charlatans would take “nothing more than a small ray”.  Rays and skates were cut and shaped by hand through a process of soaking and drying. The fins were then pushed up to make wings and the tail split to make legs.  With the addition an arrow-shaped tongue, claws could be pinned into side fins.  Filling in for eye sockets, the nostrils were filled with glass eyes, thus completing the basilisk.  The details contained in Misson’s letter echo earlier treatises such as Renaissance anatomist-naturalist Pierre Belon’s Histoire Naturelle des Estranges Poissons Marins, published in Paris in 1551.  Belon also notes the use of stingrays “disguised in the manner of a flying serpent.”

The trade in such miniature “monsters” was well-established in Venice, from where they were sold to private collectors for curiosity cabinets in addition to sideshow artists who would display them at fairs and festivals.  A 1622 engraving by Benedetto Ceruti and Andrea Chiocco illustrates the preserved remains of such a beast from the collection of Veronese naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi.  This is the kind of creation described by Belon and Misson. About the size of a human hand, these monstrous “fakes” could easily be transported and sold across Europe, fueling the fashion for the natural sciences- Paula Findlen offers that the “knowledge of nature could not increase without the commerce in nature” – and popular curiosity for the monstrous.

Here is an actual specimen in the collection of the Musée d’ethnographie of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.  Swiss naturalist and friend of Rousseau Abraham Gagnebin possessed such a creature in his cabinet of curiosities as late as 1765.

I see a link between the fabrication and trafficking of fake, portable monsters in late-seventeenth-century Italy and the creation of a mid-eighteenth-century French “dragon” teapot in the collection of the  Cité Nationale de la Céramique at Sèvres.  This faïence teapot was produced at the Manufacture de Sceaux, in the Ile-de-France near Paris, in the 1760s. Much like the “basilisks” created in Venice and Verona, such an object would have been produced in significant quantities for a market that was being more and more accustomed to novelty and consumer goods.  In addition, its small size lent it to be easily transported, allowing the power of the monstrous metaphor to take a new form and enter different spheres and social circles.

Unlike ceramic vessels of the Empire and Restoration periods, which often feature spouts or handles composed of stylized (to the point of simplified) chimera-like heads, this tea pot is a whole dragon in miniature.  With its long, twisting tail forming the handle, one of the Sceaux dragon pot’s humps creates a lid.  From its thick mane of hair or fur, a reptilian head emerges, providing a spout from which the tea can be poured.  The different parts of the beast’s body are captured in various tones, from the tousled, reddish blond mane to its scaly back, speckled wings, and bird-like lower appendages. Obviously, the dragon was a fascinating enough beast for the craftsmen at Sceaux to create a teapot that took its complete form in miniature.

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