Friday, 15 May 2020

Monkeys and tulipomania

Greed is part of human nature and, from time to time, this is exploited in schemes that promise enormous wealth - and thus status. In recent times we’ve had explosions in the value of bitcoin, and giddy prices paid for shares of profitless technology companies in the dotcom boom of the late 1990s. In 1969, there was large-scale speculation in a mining company called Poseidon, rumoured to have struck it rich; and going much further back, we had the South Sea Bubble, when a raft of speculative investments rose spectacularly in value. All were followed by slumps and, while some people made large amounts of money by timing the market, many who were sucked in to the speculation lost a large part of their investment.

There are many other examples, but perhaps the oddest was the huge prices paid for certain types of tulips in Holland in the early 17th Century. Anna Pavord’s excellent book The Tulip describes what happened in the speculation and this is a brief excerpt [1]:

..tulip prices continued to rise inexorably. By 1623 the fabled flower “Semper Augustus” was already selling for 1,000 florins a bulb (the average income was about 150 florins).. ..”Semper Augustus” held its price over a long period.. ..In 1624 only twelve bulbs of the variety were known to exist, valued at 1,200 florins each; by 1625 the asking price had more than doubled. By 1633 though, estimates of 5,500 florins were floating round each bulb, almost doubling to 10,000 florins at the height of the tulipomania. The highest price ever asked for “Semper Augustus” was.. ..more than the cost of the most expensive houses on the canals at the centre of Amsterdam

“Semper Augustus” (see above) was prized for its “breaking” (the patterns of many types on an otherwise single-coloured bloom) that resulted from the action of a virus that could not be transmitted by seed, but only from offsets produced after flowering. These tulips were thus limited in numbers, as propagation took time, and there was also no guarantee that the flower produced in the next generation would be the same as the parent, as the expression of the virus attack could vary.

All was therefore set for exploitation by speculators and that is what is shown in the painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger, where humans have been replaced by monkeys. The use of monkeys to represent humans was made popular by Jan Brueghel the Younger’s grandfather, the innovative, and justly famous, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (shifts in the spelling of their name were used by members of the family) in a painting entitled Two Monkeys. Jan’s father, Jan Breughel the Elder also painted Feasting Monkeys, so he would have known about this satirical device. It became popular among Flemish painters of the time and led to the Singeries of early 18th Century France, that featured monkeys in a range of settings [2]. Monkeys were not depicted because of any allusion to human evolution; more to their usefulness as symbols of exaggerated human behaviour.

Jan Brueghel the Younger’s painting Satire on Tulip Mania, from the collection of the Frans Hals Museum (see above and [3] for a larger-scale version), depicts the fate of various players involved in tulipomania. Flowering tulips, including examples of “Semper Augustus”, are displayed in front of a large mansion, where the owners are enjoying the high life, supported by the vast sums of money being paid for tulips. A sale is being prepared for a noble monkey who is determined not to be left out, and the price to be paid is being negotiated, agreed, and formalised by a contract. To the right of the picture we see gamblers (tulipomania was a form of gambling), a monkey urinating on tulips (clearly ones that were not deemed good enough after they had been purchased – the monkey holds a contract note), and other monkeys being led into a courtroom dock (for getting into debt by speculating in tulips). In the background, it appears that a duel is being fought, and a lonely funeral procession moves away in the distance. Both indicate the folly of being drawn into such a strange competition for status.

As satire, the painting reminds us of some of the works painted by Hogarth to point out the mores of society. Tulipomania was certainly a strange event, but the desire to become rich, and having possessions that convey status, is always with us. It’s just that sometimes these desires get out of control and we lose our powers of reasoning.

[1] Anna Pavord (1999) The Tulip. London, Bloomsbury Publishing.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Castles in paintings

Castles were built for defence and also acted as symbols of power. Moats and drawbridges added to the fortifications, and walls were massive, and built to withstand attack by all manner of weapons, from rocks slung by trebuchets to iron balls fired from large cannon. Even if the outer walls were breached, or undermined, there were inner defences like keeps. If all attacks failed to result in surrender, then there was always siege and the starving of the castle occupants into submission.

There are hundreds of paintings that feature castles, but let me give six examples, grouped into three categories:

Castles as safe retreats

St George and the Dragon (1502) by Vittore Carpaccio

In The Golden Legend, Jacobus da Varagine (ca. 1230 -1298) describes how St George killed a dragon that terrorised the people of Silene, and rescued a princess who was to be the latest victim. In this painting, Carpaccio shows us the three principal characters in the drama, with the foreground strewn with the remains of previous victims, including humans, other vertebrates, and invertebrates. Among the remains is the shell of a large marine snail that the dragon must have captured from the nearby sea.

In the background, we have ships and other craft (being a Venetian, Carpaccio was familiar with these), and the town from which the princess has become isolated. There are several castles that would provide protection, but they are too far away, something that would have been perceived readily by mediaeval viewers of the painting.

Madonna del Prato (1505) by Giovanni Bellini

Bellini shows Mary in a pastoral setting, cradling the infant Jesus. As we look to the middle distance, we see cows and a cowherd, and a crane with wings partially outstretched, resembling the wings of an angel. Another bird sits in the branches of a dead tree, acting as a contrast to the crane, and this bird is black and is a symbol of death, a device sometimes used in paintings. On the right, we see the town from which the Madonna and Child are isolated, the castellated walls emphasising that it is a place of refuge. All viewers know Jesus’ eventual fate.

Castles as impregnable fortresses

The Enchanted Castle [Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid] (1664) by Claude Lorrain

The story of Cupid and Psyche is told in Metamorphoses by Apuleius, written in the second century of the common era. It is a complex story of love and passion, with Psyche falling hopelessly in love with Cupid, even though she had only met him in darkness. After she lit a candle to see what he looked like, Cupid ended the relationship and Psyche attempted suicide. The story did have a happy ending though, as they were reunited and Psyche became immortal.

In this painting we see Psyche yearning to see Cupid, who is in an impregnable castle and is thus unattainable. The symbolism is powerful and the melancholy atmosphere created by Claude certainly adds to the tension of the scene, with the luminosity of the background highlighting the adjacent landscape and casting the castle into shadow. It is a powerful painting.

Château de Chillon (1874) by Gustave Courbet

Château de Chillon was built on a rocky island on the shores of Lake Geneva, near Montreux. From the 12th to the 16th Centuries it was occupied by the Counts of Savoy and was then captured by the Bernese and, later, by the Vaudois. It has a commanding strategic position on the lake and alongside a trade route. In Courbet’s painting, we feel a sense of impregnability and the castle is the only obvious sign of human influence in an otherwise natural landscape.

The slope of the mountains in the background emphasises the isolation of the castle and the sunlight falling on one wall, echoed by the light on the distant mountainside, draws our attention to its massive construction. Further emphasis comes with the luminosity of the background behind the castle, focussing our attention on its imposing strength. The castle symbolises the power of the Counts, and also shows that humans can produce buildings whose grandeur matches that of Nature. However, we know that castles are only transient.

Castle ruins and despair

The Ruins of Castle Landskron in Pomerania (ca. 1825) by Caspar David Friedrich

Best known for his paintings of remote figures in harsh landscapes, Friedrich shows us how a ruined castle can convey a haunting sense of loneliness. It is isolated within the landscape, and what was once a bustling place, is now empty, with extensive damage around the windows, as well as to the main walls. We are left to wonder what life was like at Landskron, and what happened to its last residents: any power and influence has certainly gone and we are left with just a vestige, as successive owners neglected the castle and allowed it to fall into ruin. Painted in watercolours, Friedrich uses a light palette and we focus solely on the castle, and what became of it.

Hadleigh Castle. The Mouth of the Thames – morning after a stormy night (1828-9) by John Constable

If we get a sense of loneliness and quiet melancholia from Friedrich’s picture, we get rather different feelings from Constable’s painting of Hadleigh Castle. We know from the full title of the work that it shows the castle after an earlier storm, with the turbulent sky conveying the impression that it is still very squally. Being painted in oils, it has a much more disturbed feel than the watercolour by Friedrich, and both the castle and the sky convey a sense of anger. This is not surprising, as Constable’s wife had died in 1828 and anger is part of bereavement. The portrayal of a ruined castle, painted this boldly, gives an insight into how emotionally vulnerable Constable must have been when he painted it. Hadleigh Castle is all about pain and we can feel it.

There are so many other paintings that feature castles and it was difficult to choose six. My three categories for the symbolism of castles is not exclusive and it is interesting that castles are among the buildings that we most like to visit, whether intact or in ruins. They certainly stir the imagination.

 Large-scale illustrations of these works can be seen in these links:

St George and the Dragon (1502) by Vittore Carpaccio

Madonna del Prato (1505) by Giovanni Bellini

The Enchanted Castle [Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid (1664) by Claude Lorrain

Château de Chillon (1874) by Gustave Courbet

The Ruins of Castle Landskron in Pomerania (ca. 1825) by Caspar David Friedrich

Hadleigh Castle. The Mouth of the Thames – morning after a stormy night (1828-9) by John Constable

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

How a great auk “flew” from Durham to Glasgow

Fifty years ago, I travelled to Durham University to be interviewed for a PhD studentship to work with Dr Lewis Davies on the blackly larvae (Simuliidae) living in streams in Upper Teesdale. I had always liked moorland and the project involved regular sampling of streams on the Pennines, to collect larvae and then analyse the life histories and production of the populations. Among the questions I was asked at the interview were whether I was prepared to work on my own on the fells and whether I had a driver’s licence, as the studentship came with a short wheelbase Land Rover that would allow access to some of the rougher tracks that I would need to use. I was positive about the first, but I hadn’t passed my driving test and would need to do so. Despite this answer, I was offered the post and accepted readily.

I then needed to take an intensive course of driving lessons that resulted in a pass in what was a very high-pressure test. It was such a relief as I was very keen to go to Durham and I had been impressed by the wonderful city and, especially, the people whom I had met in the Department of Zoology. It wasn’t only the people that impressed – so did the stuffed great auk that had a prominent position at the foot of the staircase in the Zoology Building. I knew that these birds had become extinct but had never before seen a museum specimen and I found it fascinating.

When I moved to Durham, the great auk became a “friend” as I had to pass it as I made my way upstairs to the common room, where we took coffee. Recently, I was intrigued to read about its history, and current location, in a paper by R.A.Baker  in the Archives of Natural History [1]. It is worth quoting from his paper:

The ”Durham” Great Auk had a long association with the University of Durham, from about 1834 to 1977 – a span of over 140 years.. ..Canon Thomas Gisborne (1758-1846), a Prebend at Durham and early benefactor, bought and presented the Great Auk to the new university.. .. When science was re-established at Durham in 1924, the Great Auk was transferred to the newly-built Dawson building and insured against fire and theft. J.J.O.Mason, the Head of Science at the time, recalled “When I came, I begged it for the new department (Science), remarking that some day we should have a Zoology department, which would be glad of it.”.. ..By the late 1970s the Head of the Department of Zoology at Durham, Professor David Barker, decided to sell the specimen.. ..Some disquiet was expressed after the sale was agreed. The sale went ahead on the agreement that the money raised would be placed in a fund “to make purchases to maintain the quality of the zoological specimens teaching collection”.. .. The auction of the “Durham” Great Auk took place at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday 21 September 1977 and was sold to a Michael Pilkington for £4200.. .Mr Pilkington eventually decided to sell the Auk, and gave the museum [the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, where it had been on loan] the first option on it. The Glasgow Great Auk Appeal, launched the day before the 150th anniversary of its extinction, helped to raise sufficient funds for the museum to purchase the specimen for £30,000 in 1994.

It continues to be exhibited at the Kelvingrove Museum (see below), although I have not been to visit my old “friend”

What is the attraction of extinct animals? We are all familiar with the enthusiasm that many have for dinosaurs and the ammonite fossils of the Jurassic Coast, and these animals became extinct millions of years ago, overtaken by evolution and climate change. Those factors may also explain the much more recent demise of mammoths (like dinosaurs, strong favourites with the public), but very recent extinctions, like that of the great auk and some other flightless birds, were the result of human exploitation. We know that Ole Worm (1588-1654) had a live specimen from the Faroe Islands that he fed on herrings and he also had at least one stuffed great auk in his private museum [2]. With the rise of interest by collectors in rarities, and with little defence against humans, great auks didn’t stand a chance, having already been taken as food and for their feathers [3,4]. Perhaps our fascination with them results from a sense of loss and a recognition that we have been responsible for their being wiped out - and knowing that we will never see one alive? 

It is all a long way from collecting blackfly larvae in Upper Teesdale, but the Durham great auk certainly had, and continues to have, a strong appeal for me. I think it is a pity that it was sold (at what appears a knockdown price), but good to know it “lives on” in Glasgow.

[1] R.A.Baker (1999) Going, going, gone – the “Durham” Great Auk. Archives of Natural History 26:113-119.

[2] A.V.DeLozoya, D.G.García and J.Parish (2016) A great auk for the Sun King. Archives of Natural History 43:41-56.

[3] W.R.P.Bourne (1993) The story of the Great Auk Pinguinis impennis. Archives of Natural History 20: 257-278.

[4] T.R.Birkhead (1994) How collectors killed… New Scientist Issue 1227 May 28th 1994.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

COVID 19 – and more bad press for bats

In an earlier blog post [1], I asked the question “What’s not to like about bats?”. Accepting that bats are not universally popular, I pointed out that, for many, they are associated with unpleasantness and feature in several stories about witches. This is illustrated in the frightening image of Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath, where bats fly over the witches’ heads as they worship the devil in the form of a goat (see below, with detail).

Further in the blog post [1], I wrote:

This association with the “dark world” stems from the crepuscular and nocturnal habits of bats, and our nervousness about what happens during darkness – a “fear of the night” and anxiety about the possible presence of evil spirits. There is also something about the rapid flight of bats that some find disturbing and one belief is that they can become entangled in hair. ..A further prominent feature of folklore is that bat blood, or other extracts from the animals, cure eye diseases; arising, no doubt, from the ability of bats to be active in darkness.

We can now add another negative to the reputation of these fascinating mammals with the discovery that bats may be the source of the COVID19 global pandemic. In a paper published in The Lancet [2], Lu et al. write:

..on the basis of current data, it seems likely that the 2019-nCoV causing the Wuhan outbreak might also be initially hosted by bats, and might have been transmitted to humans via currently unknown wild animal(s) sold at the Huanan seafood markets.

One suggested intermediary is the pangolin, but other animals present in the market are more likely. But then, what if some of the Huanan stallholders knew of the folklore that bat blood aids the cure of eye diseases and rubbed infected bat blood into their eyes? This practice was known from Ancient Egypt, but mythologies travel. We will probably never know if this happened, but I hope that one of the solutions to our problems with this coronavirus is not the attempted extermination of bats, when the pandemic almost certainly results from the activities of humans.

[2] Roujian Lu + 34 co-authors (2020) Genomic characterisation and epidemiology of 2019 novel coronavirus: implications for virus origins and receptor binding. The Lancet 395:565-574.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

The zoology of Bruegel’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels

Pieter Bruegel the Elder is best known for scenes of everyday life and he can be regarded as the first well-known exponent of genre painting. The Fall of the Rebel Angels shows a quite different topic: the expulsion of Lucifer from Heaven by St Michael and a group of angels loyal to God. Bruegel shows us St Michael (with his shield bearing the cross of the resurrection), but it is difficult to make out Lucifer in his many-headed form. Heavenly light shines from the top of the picture, through the blue sky, and we then move down to the darkness of the abyss of Hell. Some animals are present in the sky, together with angels, and most are descending into Hell, which is not fiery, as it is described in The Holy Bible and as it is usually shown in paintings. The only hint of fire in Bruegel’s work turns out to be a feathery headdress.

An excellent commentary on the painting has been provided by the Royal Museums of Fine Art in Brussels, where the painting is exhibited [1]. As mentioned in this commentary, several of the animals shown are based on those from collections of curiosities, which were becoming popular as sources of wonder at the unfamiliar.

I would like to make some additional comments on some of the animals shown in the painting.

The puffer fish

Bruegel shows a puffer fish with the body distended. One defence mechanism used by these fish is to rapidly take water into the stomach to “inflate” the body and make spines stand out: the same mechanism is used when the fish gulp air should they be caught out of the water. In this state, puffer fish have been preserved by drying and it is likely that Bruegel saw a preserved specimen displayed in a collection of curiosities. While the eyes look unnatural, he shows the fused teeth that are used by the living fish to bite into their prey [2].

Interestingly, some puffer fish have another defence mechanism in the production of chemicals within the liver that are highly toxic to humans. So much so, that raw fugu – a delicacy in some parts of the world – requires preparation by specially-trained chefs. It tempts us to think that the inflation of the body, and the production of toxins, evolved to prevent predation by humans, but both must have existed long before the evolution of humans.

Two dead fish and bloated frogs

The fish are shown with their mouths open as if gasping, an indication of distress that Bruegel clearly wished to convey. The same intention of providing images that cause us to become frightened comes in the bloated frog, whether bloating was caused by decomposition or, should the frog be female, by being filled with eggs that will now not be laid. A second frog-like creature is shown with the abdomen split open to show what appears to be spawn, but this animal is different to Bruegel’s frog (having what looks like the “parson’s nose” of a chicken at the end of the abdomen). I have no idea what Bruegel was trying to show here.

Mussels + a crustacean

In this image we see two open mussel shells containing the body of each mollusc. The two mussels, each shown inside one of their shell valves, have clearly been cooked as, in life, the mantle (the pink/yellow fold) is closely applied to the shell for almost all of its length. Lying between the two mussels is what appears to be a crustacean, blue in colour like a lobster when alive, and the whole reminds us of a flying creature, with the mussel shells forming “wings”.

The stenogastrine wasp

Although stylised, the stenogastrine wasp is probably included as a threat and also as a bizarre creature that would also have occurred in a collection of curiosities. These wasps, like other social insects, are likely to be female and possessed of a mild sting. However, they are not usually aggressive and their appearance more frightening than reality, especially when shown at such a large size relative to other recognisable animals in the painting.

The falling birds

Two birds are shown falling into the abyss. One appears to be laying an egg, but it is impossible to identify what type of bird it might be: the other resembles a great auk, now extinct. Interestingly, Ole Worm (1588-1654), the Danish natural historian and physician, kept a great auk as a pet and, after its death and preservation, it might have found its way into his splendid cabinet of curiosities [3].

We can spend much time in speculating on what Bruegel intended in his use of images of animals, both real and imaginary. His view of the expulsion of Lucifer is certainly unique and is based on his imagination, with no attempt made to show the realistic scale of the different components. Dead terrestrial and aquatic animals are present in all parts of the painting, together with images that are supernatural and were likely to have been strongly influenced by the earlier works of Hieronymus Bosch (as mentioned in the commentary).

It is an extraordinary painting.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Eating live animals

The reality TV show I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here is justifiably popular in the UK. Set in Australia, the contestants live in a basic camp and we viewers see edited versions of their conversations and other interactions. To boost their diet of rice and beans, selected individuals compete in “Bushtucker Trials” that involve something very unpleasant, like having large numbers of cockroaches, mealworms etc. thrown over them in a confined space (see below). Until the last series, the trials most popular with the viewing public were those involving the eating of animal body parts and also live insects. The latter torture has now been banned as it is perceived by some as being cruel; yet eating live animals is encouraged elsewhere – take the case of oysters.

Oysters are bivalve molluscs that produce a feeding current using enormous numbers of tiny hairs, or cilia, that are present on the gills. This current has a dual function as it evolved from the respiratory current, particles trapped on the surface of the gill then being transferred to the mouth by other tracts of cilia. To aid retention, oysters, like other bivalves, produce mucus, or slime, on the gills and particles captured are thus bundled up into packages from which nutritious material can be selected by an ingenious sorting mechanism using the lips (labial palps) around the mouth.

The two shell valves are joined by a hinge and a muscle runs from one shell valve to the other and this serves to close the oyster if it is exposed to the atmosphere, when attacked, or not feeling. Sea water is trapped when the shell valves are closed and this prevents damage to the soft body tissues. When we buy oysters, they have frequently been out of water for hours, so the content of the water is changed by the addition of mucus and excreta, although not at levels that poison the mollusc.

The classic way to open oysters is to shuck them and this is shown in the video [1]. Note that both the hinge and adductor muscle (between the shell valves) are cut, but no reference is made to the oyster being alive and that the water + excreta are referred to as the liquor. The flavour of the liquor is an important part of eating oysters and there are debates over whether one should chew the animals or crush them against the palate using the tongue. Fortunately, the molluscs are often served on a bed of ice so, at least, their metabolism is reduced, even if they are sometimes sprayed with dilute acid (lemon juice).

For those who do not like the idea of eating live animals, there are many recipes for cooking, and preserving, oysters and that is not a surprise, when they were such a common food, and not the luxuries that they have become today. Cooking also serves to kill bacteria that might otherwise cause intestinal disorders in those eating them: something that may have been common when oysters were collected from areas where there was a high level of pollution.

Lovell [2] gives many recipes for cooking oysters and they can be listed. Some involved rapid killing of the molluscs, others did not:

Oyster soup (7 recipes)
Oyster sauce (4 recipes)
Oyster atlets – with sweetbreads
Curried oyster atlets
Curried oysters
Stewed ousters (6 recipes)
Dutch oysters – coated in breadcrumbs and fried
Fried oysters (6 recipes)
Oyster ragout (2 recipes)
Grilled oysters
Oysters broiled the Dutch way
Roast oysters (3 recipes)
Ostras á la Pollada
Boiled oysters
Oyster sausages (2 recipes)
Minced oysters
Oyster forcemeat
Oysters and chestnuts
Oyster steak
Scalloped oysters (3 recipes)
Oyster fritters
Oyster loaf
Oysters and macaroni
Oyster pie (3 recipes)
Oyster and eel pie
Oyster and parsnip pie
Pickled oysters (4 recipes)
Oyster powder (2 recipes)
Oysters on toast (2 recipes)
Oyster ketchup
Oysters au gratin

An impressive list, and gourmets among you should refer to Lovell [2] for descriptions of how to prepare oysters for each dish. Its length is a reflection on the importance of these molluscs in the diet of many European nations (and beyond) in earlier centuries.

Arguably, the most interesting way of preparing oysters is described thus by Lovell [2]:

The oldest way of cooking an oyster, of which we have any mention, is that recorded by Evelyn, who, in the year 1672, saw Richardson, “the famous fire-eater”, perform wondrous feats, one of which was, “taking a live coal on his tongue, he put on it a raw oyster; the coal was blown on with bellows, till it flam’d and sparkl’d in his mouth, and so remained till the oyster gaped, and was quite boil’d.” Who ate the oyster thus cooked, we are not informed.

Anyone fancy trying that?

[2] M.S.Lovell (1884) The Edible Mollusca of Great Britain and Ireland, with Recipes for Cooking them (Second Edition). London, L.Reeve & Co.