The Medici Giraffe: And Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power

The Medici Giraffe: And Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power

by Marina Belozerskaya
     
 

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A fascinating exploration, spanning two thousand years, ofthe central role exotic animals have played in war, diplomacy, and thepomp of rulers and luminaries.See more details below

Overview

A fascinating exploration, spanning two thousand years, ofthe central role exotic animals have played in war, diplomacy, and thepomp of rulers and luminaries.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The title of this masterful and beguiling book is misleading. In Belozersakya's adept hands, exotic animals are mere jumping off points for marvelous adventures through worlds ranging from bustling, heroic Alexandria, Egypt, circa 300 B.C., to the creepy confines of William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon in the mid-20th century. While each of the seven sections revolves around exotic animalsa giraffe in Medici Florence, menageries in 16th-century Prague and Napoleonic Franceit's the story that Belozersakya weaves around these beasts that draws the reader on. A common thread is the obsession caused by these fanciful beasts. Rudolf II, spent so much of his kingdom's fortune on collecting animals that there wasn't always enough money to feed his voracious lions. . "This might explain why on several occasions the Emperor had to recompense servants and subjects mauled by his felines." A meticulous researcher, the Russian-born Belozersakya, an art historian who has taught at Harvard and Tufts, uses these tales to consider how exotic animals have served as diplomatic gifts, as "symbols of power and learning," as mirrors of the cultures that prized them. This is a sumptuous readsmart, funny and utterly compelling. 8 illus. not seen by PW. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Moscow-born art historian Belozerskaya has an exceptional talent for making history come alive for the general reader. This work is a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening romp through history, starting in ancient Alexandria and ending in present-day Washington, DC. Belozerskaya aims to "show that the way we perceive and treat animals illuminates our own values, concerns, and ambitions," and in this she has clearly succeeded. Her first chapter, "Elephants for a Kingdom," is a fascinating look at how elephants were acquired, transported, and trained in the Mediterranean region in the years following the death of Alexander the Great as well as the power and influence afforded those who acquired the animals. The following chapter, "Controlling Nature in the Roman Arena," is just as enthralling, as are all subsequent chapters leading to the gift of giant pandas to the United States in the late 1970s. Belozerskaya is a talented writer able to blend unique and little-known historical facts into a narrative that never fails to keep the reader interested. The only disappointment is that the book eventually ends. Highly recommended, not only for animal lovers but for history buffs and social sciences fans as well; this work deserves a broad readership.-Edell M. Schaefer, Brookfield P.L., WI Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A lively account of how exotic animals have helped further the political ends of princes and potentates, from the Ptolemys to Chairman Mao. "In our world of easy travel and global media," writes Belozerskaya (Luxury Arts of the Renaissance, not reviewed), "we tend to take [exotic animals] for granted." It was not always thus. Alexandria's Ptolemy Philadelphus sponsored arduous and costly expeditions to capture war elephants, camels, bears, giraffes, even a two-horned white rhinoceros, to demonstrate his resourcefulness and intimidate rivals. Pompey the Great personally financed stupendous death matches in the Roman arena featuring leopards, baboons and rhinos, seeking to wow the crowd. (Politically tone deaf, he approved the slaughter of a group of terrified, howling elephants that had unexpectedly won the spectators' sympathy.) Lorenzo the Magnificent brought honor to his Florentine family by arranging a trade agreement with Egypt, from whose sultan he received a giraffe that inspired a sensation throughout Renaissance Italy and further enhanced Medici prestige. Almost contemporaneously, Montezuma demonstrated his power by maintaining a menagerie comprising creatures drawn from the far reaches of the vast Aztec empire. Later, Cortes would use these same jaguars, ocelots, monkeys, parrots and armadillos to dazzle the Spanish court and shore up his tottering position as governor of New Spain. With his aviaries, menagerie and cabinet of natural-history specimens, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II turned 16th-century Prague into an intellectual capital. The Empress Josephine achieved the same for Paris under Napoleon, filling the grounds of her chateau in Malmaison with plants, birds and animalsfrom all over the world. Media mogul William Randolph Hearst channeled his emotional neediness, political disappointment and genuine love of animals into his San Simeon estate, creating the most extensive private zoo of the 20th century. Belozerskaya acknowledges that her perspective on long-ago events could be viewed as overly precious, but these intriguing and little-known stories easily justify themselves. Animal lore and history have rarely been treated so delightfully.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780316525657
Publisher:
Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
08/21/2006
Pages:
432
Sales rank:
1,532,501
Product dimensions:
5.87(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.37(d)

Meet the Author

Read an Excerpt

The Medici Giraffe

And Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power
By Marina Belozerskaya

LITTLE, BROWN

Copyright © 2006 Marina Belozerskaya
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-52565-0


Introduction

A few years ago I read Silvio Bedini's The Pope's Elephant, a fascinating account of a white elephant named Hanno that the king of Portugal, Emmanuel I, sent to Pope Leo X in 1516 to cajole the pontiff into granting him a trade monopoly in the Spice Islands. The story captured my imagination. Animals as diplomatic gifts, I thought; how clever, how perfect. The more I considered it, and paid attention, the more I noticed exotic beasts peeking from the margins of history. Yet if they were such effective and memorable presents, why did they so seldom appear in history books?

In our age of easy travel and global media, exotic animals still delight but rarely truly astonish us. We are superficially familiar with a great variety of them and tend to take them for granted. For much of history, when fauna from distant lands was scarce and communication slow, strange beasts could be potent, marvelous, and terrifying.

Mesopotamian kings, who received foreign beasts as tribute, for example, laid out splendid parks called paradeisoi, in which they kept their exotic stock. These royal preserves provided the model for the Garden of Eden, the biblical paradise where Godcreated all the animals before sculpting man.

The very difficulty of finding rare beasts made them impressive diplomatic gifts. Seeking to climb higher and higher in society, the Medici married into the French royal family in 1533.

During the wedding Pope Clement VII, who arranged the union of his kinswoman Catherine de' Medici to Henry II, exchanged a series of lavish gifts with his French in-laws. He gave them splendid objects of gold and precious stones, a unicorn's horn, and a tapestry replicating Leonardo's Last Supper. The king of France reciprocated with a live lion. For millennia people have endowed lions with regal connotations, so the animal was a flattering gift to the Medici, who had risen to the papal throne from humble merchant beginnings.

The Chinese emperor Xian Zong Zhu Jianshen, however, was presented with so many lions that when an embassy from Sultan Ahmid, the Timurid ruler of Samarkand, arrived at his court in the 1480s with two more of these beasts, the emperor protested. Quite contrary to the Confucian tradition of graciously accepting gifts from vassals, he declared that lions were useless animals, too expensive to keep and not even fit to harness in front of his carriage. He had had enough of them.

Akbar the Great, the Mughal emperor of India in the sixteenth century, meanwhile, treated his exotic pets with such care and esteem that he ordered his personal doctors to look after his tigers, cheetahs, and deer, as well as his army of five thousand elephants. And he invited the populace at large to visit his animals, urging them, "Meet your brothers, take them to your hearts and respect them."

In coming across such stories, I found that what people thought about exotic animals and how they treated them in different times and places is most revealing. As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss remarked, societies accord animals special status not because they are "good to eat," but because they are "good to think."

As I began gathering examples of animal collecting, I realized that I did not want to write an encyclopedic account of all the zoos ever kept. (For those who want such a study, I recommend Gustav Loisel's three-volume Histoire des ménageries de l'antiquité a nos jours, published in Paris in 1912.) Instead, I decided to concentrate on a smaller number of collectors whose preoccupations with exotic creatures and treatment of them somehow reflected the mentality and aspirations of their age. I focused my investigation on princes, because through much of history only the rich and powerful had the means to acquire and maintain large groups of rare beasts. Zoos as we know them - public institutions created for educating and diverting the masses - grew out of royal collections only in the nineteenth century. Before that, menageries were privately owned and privately enjoyed, even if- as in the case of Montezuma's vast assortment of animals, birds, and human oddities from across the Aztec Empire - they could be something of a state institution. Besides, I was less interested in zoological organizations shaped by committees than in the individuals who felt compelled for one reason or another to expend enormous resources on tracking down, capturing, transporting, and maintaining wild animals from distant lands.

This book, therefore, consists of a chain of stories that begins in ancient Alexandria and ends at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The first story looks at how elephants helped Ptolemy Philadelphos build his kingdom and usher in the golden age of Alexandria. The next one witnesses Pompey the Great gathering hundreds of rare beasts from the territories he conquered and slaughtering them in a public spectacle to assert Rome's mastery over the world and his over Rome. In the Renaissance, the Medici, eager to present themselves as true princes, used exotic animals to boost their image: Cosimo de' Medici staged animal combats in the ancient style, while his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent imported an unusual beast to shore up his authority in a moment of political crisis.

The story of the vast zoological complex of the Aztec king Montezuma, and of the Spanish conquistadors' response to it (and to the Aztecs themselves), considers the ambiguous and slippery boundary between "humans" and "animals." Rudolf II's collection in seventeenth-century Prague reveals how in that age of renewed fascination with natural history, animals were thought to hold a key to the universe. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the nationalistic urge to advance science led a French captain, Nicolas Baudin, on a perilous voyage to Australia. One of the chief beneficiaries of this spectacular and catastrophic expedition was Josephine Bonaparte, who hoped to use her menagerie to stake out a position independent of Napoleon.

In the early twentieth century, William Randolph Hearst cared passionately about his zoo at San Simeon, in part out of a boyish delight in four-legged creatures, but also out of concern for animal well-being, a preoccupation gaining momentum at that time. Finally, the stories of the giant pandas presented to the United States by the Chinese government demonstrate that the tradition of animal gifts at the highest levels of international diplomacy continues into the present. At the same time, the pandas have come to symbolize an international commitment to the preservation of a highly endangered species- even as they bring into relief our overwhelming modern tendency to anthropomorphize wild animals, as we do so often with our pets.

Each of these stories has its own theme: how menageries served the practical needs of empire building, reflected the wonder of God's creation, or spurred exploration and science. But running through the whole book are larger questions: Why have exotic animals exercised such a pull on people in so many eras and cultures? Why have they been counted among the most advantageous diplomatic gifts, the most cherished royal treasures, and the most impressive symbols of power and learning? How did they make or break rulers and help to shape the definition of what it means to be civilized?

Animals provide us with a useful mirror. From the slaughter of foreign beasts in Roman arenas to our own efforts to perpetuate endangered species in modern zoos and animal preserves, we can see a panorama of human ambitions and ideals, accomplishments and failings. In telling the following stories, I hope to show that the way we perceive and treat animals illuminates our own values, concerns, and aspirations. By pondering the relationships we have had with them across the centuries, we may discover something about ourselves.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Medici Giraffe by Marina Belozerskaya Copyright © 2006 by Marina Belozerskaya. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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