The Medici Giraffe: And Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Powerby Marina Belozerskaya
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
A fascinating exploration, spanning two thousand years, ofthe central role exotic animals have played in war, diplomacy, and thepomp of rulers and luminaries.
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The Medici GiraffeAnd Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power
By Marina Belozerskaya
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2006 Marina Belozerskaya
All right reserved.
IntroductionA 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.
Excerpted from The Medici Giraffe by Marina Belozerskaya Copyright © 2006 by Marina Belozerskaya. Excerpted by permission.
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