Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Monsters Among Us (1665)

 by Stephen J. Gertz

Well, the first thing is that I love monsters, I identify with monsters.
Guillermo del Toro

A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.
Adrienne Rich 

I strongly suspect Guillermo del Toro will love this book. Ms. Rich might want to rethink her sleeping arrangements.

In the ancient world, both the sophisticated and the credulous, and the knowing and the ignorant, believed in monsters. Monsters were considered a part of the natural world, representing punishment for sin or the diversity and fecundity of life. In a world whose religions and mythology accepted belief in demons, spirits, the afterlife of ancestors into the present, and legendary beasts, monsters fit right into the scheme of things.

During the Renaissance in the West, with its revival of ancient learning and lore, and curiosity and quest to discover all that could be known about the world, the emerging flood of  information about new lands and animals created a sense that anything was possible. Within that context, human and animal monstrosities were considered probable, the consequence of human vice, curses, human and animal sexual congress, or magic.

Curious natural objects such as strangely shaped horns, fossils, skins, and minerals, human artifacts such as gravel stones from the bladder, and Siamese twins (not then known as Siamese twins) were all subjects for allegory and commentary. Folklore, cultural history, medicine, morality stories, and scientific curiosity mingled together, as reflected in the thinking of the seventeenth century Jesuit polymath, Athanasius Kircher, and the works of his assistant, Gaspar Schott.

The fervor over fantastic creatures began with Fortunato Liceti’s 1616 volume, De Monstris, not the first but certainly the most influential and respected survey of such, reissued in 1634 in a second edition edited by Flemish anatomist Gerard Blasius (1626-1692). This edition, the first to include illustrations, was certainly seen by Kircher. Schott's classic, Physica Curiosa (1st ed. 1662), based upon Kircher's notes and observations, deals with the marvels and curiosities of natural history and myth, including monsters.

Indeed, Physica Curiosa contains engravings (by a different hand) of some of the same "monsters" found here, i.e., the elephant man at p. 582 of Physica Curiosa (1662) is seen here at page 185;  others, such as those seen in the plate at page 593 in Schott, are here in the engravings on pages fifty-eight and sixty; and more.

Figure Explanation
A shamed woman's genitals.
B A membrane of the flesh, feeling shame, a church
attached to a woman  firmly on all sides, after childbirth
becoming too much like a purse, flaccid...

Treatises by other learned writers appeared in the wake of Liceti’s De Monstris, and soon museums and collections of curiosities in which monstrosities took a central, edifying role became popular throughout Europe, often enjoying courtly patronage; Kircher's museum at the Collegio Romano in Rome drew visitors from around Europe. Pygmies, mermaids, crocodiles, mandrakes, deformed fetuses, and other natural marvels were displayed and discussed in many similar places throughout the seventeenth century. They were the menageries, side-shows, the circus freak-shows of their era, evoking fear, wonder, fascination, and repulsion, proto-Barnum museums without the crassness and ballyhoo that Phineas  T. brought to the subject in the nineteenth century.

Liceti (1577-1657), however, took a different, more nuanced, positive view of the origins of monstrosities.

"The Paduan physician Liceti contested the 'vulgar' opinion that identified monsters with errors or failures in the course of nature. Liceti likened nature to an artist who, faced with some imperfection in the materials to be shaped, ingeniously creates another form still more admirable.

"On this view, monsters revealed nature not as frustrated in her aims but as rising to the challenge of recalcitrant matter, a constricted womb, or even a mixture of animal and human seed. 'It is said that I see the convergence of both Nature and art,' wrote Liceti, 'because one or the other not being able to make what they want, they at least make what they can,'" (Daston & Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature).

Lazarus Colloredo and his parasitic twin, Johannes.

"One of the earliest classifications of deformities Liceti's work was still under review in works on malformation in the 19th century. Includes both real and imaginary cases [as Physica Curiosa] and accurate descriptions of cases observed in the years following the first edition" (Garrison & Morton).

The Satyr Indica, aka an Orangutan.

This, the second illustrated edition (1665), is the most desirable, the first edition to  contain Gerard Blasius' fifty-three page Appendix of new and rare monstrosities including an additional fifteen engravings absent in the first illustrated edition of 1634, not the least of which are the famous plates of Lazarus and his parasitic twin, and the Satyr Indica, an orangutan mistaken for a deformed human, and the earliest, it appears, depiction of that now endangered primate.

Alas, this copy, as with most of this book and so many other antiquarian volumes with famous, wondrous and stunning illustrations ripe for excision, lacks a key plate. We have, however, with the covert assistance of a secret agent librarian at a major institution, gained possession of  a reproduction of the missing plate, an ominous portent of monsters too frightening to contemplate living amongst us as jus’ folks, the family of man corrupted by a family of monsters in our midst:

Televisionicum Familia Munstris, w/strange blond humanoid at right.

LICETI, Fortunio. De Monstris. Ex recensione Gerardi Blasii, M.D. & P.P. Qui Monstra quaedam nova & rariora ex recentiorum scriptis addidit. Editio Novissima. Iconibus illustrata. Amsterdam: Sumptibus Andrae Frisii, 1665. Second illustrated edition (third, overall; first edition 1616; second and first illustrated, 1634), complete. Quarto. [16], 316, [28] pp [*4(f 1 as frontispiece), **4, ***1, A-z4, Aa-Pp4, Qq8, Rr-Tt4]. Seventy-three woodcut engravings.

Garrison & Morton 534.52. Osler 3235. Wellcome III, 514. Thorndike VII, pp. 52-53. Waller 5779. Rosenthal, Bibl. Magica 4375.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

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