Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Marina Belozerskaya - The Medici Giraffe

“The Medici Giraffe” is a remarkable book that spans from about 250 years before Christ up until the last century. From ancient Egypt to the Aztec court of Montezuma, from the court of Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor to the opulent Florence of Lorenzo de Medici and from the menagerie of Josephine Bonaparte to the vast hills of Hearst Castle in California the author never falters.

Marina Belozerskaya’s book is subtitled “and other tales of exotic animals and power”, so expect no fuzzy tales of roman emperors and the love they lavished on favorite pets. While this was also a reality, this book focuses on the many ways exotic animals served as currency to those powerful enough to obtain them. “Exotic” is the keyword here – it was because particular animals were rare and strange that they were used as a way to gain leverage, impress neighboring rivals, give a little push to whatever diplomatic conundrum was going on at the time. Vast menageries with hundreds of animals from hundreds of different locales (such as the one Spanish conquistadores found in Montezuma’s court) were a way to state that their owner was a man respected and feared in all those faraway provinces. Montezuma even kept humans in his zoo – albinos, who were considered precious additions. The Spanish took this as a further proof of the Aztecs godless ways, and proceeded to slaughter them in a cruel and vicious fashion, more to the liking of Christ’s soldiers, apparently forgetting all the dwarves, hunchbacks and hairy men kept in European courts for the entertainment of their monarchs.

For Ptolemy Philadelphos, king of Egypt, elephants were a way of terrifying his opponents. Although neighboring kings had been able to procure some tens of elephants all the way from India, Ptolemy wanted his army to have hundreds. He sent expeditions into the wild and unknown regions of what is today Sudan, and ended up putting into place a vast network of trading posts along the Nile to keep the steady flow of animals into Alexandria, a city he was also shaping into the most beautiful and grandiose in the known world (the famous library dates from his reign).

For the roman leader Pompey, exotic animals were also a way to make his might obvious to all. However, in true roman fashion, the circus was their final destination. For animal lovers this chapter makes for very uncomfortable reading. That roman leaders would routinely organize spectacles ending in the slaughter of a lion or bear is not news, but the numbers butchered under Pompey’s organized circus in 55 BC are staggering: for five days, twice a day, lions and leopards chewed their way through monkeys, antelopes, sheep and gladiators alike. For the grand finale a herd of wild elephants was brought out to match their wits against a group of elephant hunters from Sudan. Cornered, the animals still standing after the initial massacre are said to have let out such awful cries of despair that even the jaded roman audience pleaded for them to be spared. Pompey did not heed their requests. In time Julius Caesar’s henchmen would not heed his.

Lorenzo de Medici was no warm and cuddly boy himself. In roman tradition he tried to organize his own circus in Florence, but the lions kept as a symbol of the city were so well fed they ended up dozing amid the petrified sheep brought for their enticement. But this setback was not enough to render Lorenzo insensitive to the diplomatic power of exotic animals. He wanted, after all, to be seen as a king, instead of a republican merchant leader. A giraffe had a neck almost as high as the importance he thought he should get.

Now, Rudolph II was probably mad as a hatter. I mean, it’s all very well to emulate family tradition, but when that tradition involves allowing lions to roam your palace and maul subjects at their will as your father once did, it’s probably best to review your priorities. If obsessive collecting has a shade of mental illness to it, you can also check that square: Rudolph became so obsessed with collecting every zoological specimen he could get his hands on (alive or stuffed) he even forgot he had a kingdom to run and ended up deposed.

My favorite chapter was “The Black Swans at Malmaison” regarding Josephine Bonaparte’s menagerie. It’s not only that she was kinder to her exotics than any male counterpart on the book: she also had a head on those pretty shoulders. At a time when cabinets de curiosités and menageries were all the rage among the wealthy and crowned, she stepped into a male hobby without skipping a heartbeat and with a lot more discernment. Josephine wanted the animals at Malmaison to roam free and as such gave away to Natural History Museum all the offers she got of large carnivores, keeping instead flocks of herbivores, birds and large cages of parrots. Also, the story of the French naval explorer Nicolas Baudin is absolutely riveting: he had the responsibility of amassing Australian specimens for Josephine’s menagerie and although he died in the middle of his return voyage and his reputation was soiled by a lying rival, his expedition brought many new exotic specimens to France, among them kangaroos, emus and the famous black swans.

The last chapter tells the story of the complex character of William Randolph Hearst. Although there is little doubt the mogul truly cared for the well being of animals (he was vocal against vivisection and passionate about dogs), his ranch at St Simeon seems, in the long run, to align with the flaunting of power so common in men of wealth and more than a little with the craziness associated with hardcore collecting. Hearst, after all, nearly finished off his own fortune amassing works of art – and exotic animals were another hobby. True to his gender he couldn’t stay away from the large cats, but the primates probably suffered the most in their cramped, bare cages.

“The Medici Giraffe” is a book of rare width and breadth – each chapter brings alive the time to which it pertains drawing from many historical sources. Belozerskaya doesn’t just stick to the story at hand but instead brings in all sorts of characters and historical episodes that further illuminate the particular tale. The chapter on Montezuma’s menagerie made something I had never even heard of come alive with detail, and Josephine’s chapter I felt really adds detail to her life. It enchants and tingles the little grey cells – a must for anyone interested in history and animals.

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