Categories
Early modern Europe Monuments Museums

The Virus, the Virtual, the Virtuoso’s Cabinet, and the World

By Saara Penttinen

This blog post was supposed to be about something else.

Being inspired by the ongoing coronavirus situation is not something I expected or wished to happen. In fact, I feel conflicted about even admitting it despite many rather stimulating articles written in apparent lighting speed exploring, for example, epidemics and plagues in history, sprouting up in recent weeks. There might never be a return back to ‘normal’ – everything might have changed before we got a chance to say good-bye. There’s nothing else to do except to adapt, as people have done countless of times in history. I haven’t been able to write in about a month, but today I felt it was the time. Perhaps this is me, adapting.

Nevertheless, I’ve had some difficulties in centering my scattered thoughts, especially since the focus of this text has changed so drastically. But I want to start from the beginning: in the original marble lid of the famous Tradescant tomb in Lambeth. Since the early modern collections commonly known as cabinets of curiosity became a popular research subject in the last decades of the 20th century, the inscription – dedicated to father and son John Tradescant, eager seventeenth-century curiosity collectors – has been quoted in numerous publications The most quoted lines go as follows:

By their choice collection may appear
Of what is rare, in land, in seas, and air:
Whilst they (as HOMER’s Iliad in a nut)
A world of wonders in one closet shut.

Especially the last line describing the Tradescant collection, aptly called The Ark, as “a world of wonders in one closet shut” has been perceived to sum up nicely the microcosmic nature of these collections; in other words, they were understood as worlds in a miniature form. But how exactly were they ‘worlds’? What was their relationship with the wider world, the macrocosm? Were they considered substitutions of the real thing, simulations, or worlds in themselves? Since asking these questions in the beginning of my PhD studies, I have fallen deeper and deeper into the abyss of early modern ambiguities and analogies. Especially one of my key concepts seems to evade me. This concept is virtuality.

Virtuality is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot nowadays – I mean a lot. It has been used so much especially since the beginning of the internet age that it has lost its novelty and started to appear commonplace, even mundane. Despite its popularity, virtuality as a concept is more often than not taken for granted and not actually understood very well. What does virtuality, in fact, mean?

Nowadays everything seems to be virtual from shopping and entertainment to therapists, maps and communities. Through a huge array of avatars on different social platforms also our social lives and most intimate communications are, at least partially, virtual. But this was the situation only in February – it is nothing compared with were we are right now. If there ever was a time for virtuality, that time is undoubtedly now. How to be present without being present – that is the question on everyone’s lips. How to work, or go to school? How to visit elderly relatives? How to stay sane, or to feel connected with the world, even just a little bit? How to substitute the experiences that were taken away from us? Is it okay to drink a bottle of wine alone, if you’re doing it on Zoom?

Virtuality as a term holds many futuristic connotations, even if the future seems, to some extent, to be already here. The virtual future might mean an era of connectivity, shared experiences, and democratic opportunities. It can also mean a time of blurred lines between right and wrong and losing the touch of reality. Though many things are arguably gained in the current dystopia, many are also lost, perhaps for good. Besides the devastating human and economic cost, some of the loss happens in the very translation of the actual to the virtual, never to be recovered again.

Despite the futuristic connotations, and the contemporary usage of the term, virtuality has a history just like everything else. The first associations for most people are the different technologies, such as virtual memory, simulations, and virtual realities. The history of virtual reality is usually stated to have started in the 1930s, sometimes with a mention of earlier technologies, such as 19th-century stereoscopes and panoramas. The main function of virtual reality technologies seems to be in creating a sensory immersion of a kind – essentially, in fooling the eye and sometimes other senses too to feel like the experience is taking place somewhere completely different. Oliver Grau’s 2003 book Virtual Art takes a media history’s point of view and traces the history of illusory techniques in art from modern days all the way to Antiquity. My own research period, the seventeenth century, had a huge array of ‘virtual art’ alongside a multitude of devices for creating spatial and optical illusions. In general, the early modern period can be described as an era of un utmost interest in modifying the sensory experience.

Nevertheless, virtuality doesn’t only entail technologies, devices, or even illusory techniques. What’s the thread holding it all together – what’s the essence of virtuality itself? Alongside the computer-related meanings, the modern-day definition of virtuality according to a (virtual) dictionary is “in effect or essence, if not in fact or reality; imitated, simulated” while actual is “existing in act or reality, not just potentially”. Therefore, the term could be used in context of something being ‘as good as’ something else – as can be perceived in the everyday use of the adverb virtually.

The etymology of virtual most likely originates from Medieval Latin’s virtualis derived from the notoriously equivocal Latin word virtus, meaning for example, ‘excellence, potency, efficacy’. In a late 14th-century meaning, virtual meant something in the lines of “influencing by physical virtues or capabilities, effective with respect to inherent natural qualities.” In the beginning of the 15th century, this had been concentrated to the modern meaning: “capable of producing a certain effect”, and therefore, “being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact”.

Virtual travel is a concept that instantaneously comes to mind when thinking of substituting the real thing with something ‘as good as’. For most seventeenth-century people, travelling virtually was the only way to see the world. Most classes, professions, and age groups rarely travelled. Religions and customs often frowned upon the concept of ‘worldliness’, and people were suspicious about wanderers and rootless people. Even those that were able to travel, usually only got to do one big journey in their lifetimes – such experiences were cherished and relived, and eventually turned into travel writings, plays, and collections for other people’s armchair travel. Experience didn’t necessarily have to be direct; even an ad vivum picture could be made by an artist only consulting a previous representation of the subject.

Before March, I had no idea I wanted to travel (or at least, to wander aimlessly through hardware stores) as much as I do now. A couple of weeks ago, at the pajamas stage of the pandemic, I witnessed a morning show host pointing at the window behind him, and with a straight face suggesting, that for those viewers not being able to go outside, their windows could substitute the world outside. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. The question of substitution becomes especially important when thinking about people who can’t experience things actually: How to replace the world for people confined to their homes? Even before the COVID-19 this was an important issue. For decades, there has been a growing market for technological innovations designed for the lonely, the disabled, and the sick. Now that a vast number of people have found that their world has been taken away, there’s suddenly a desperate need for some kind of a window back to it. If virtual is something that can replace the actual, the question is: what can be replaced, and what cannot?

However, virtuality is not simply synonymous with replacement; according to Wolfgang Welsch, its philosophical roots go back at least to Aristotle’s concept of dynamis, meaning literally potentiality – something later writers, starting from Thomas Aquinas, called virtual. However, dynamis, or Aquinas’ virtual, didn’t mean an alternative to the actual, but a prerequisite; a possibility, in the limits of which reality was able to actualize. In later centuries the nature of the concept changed with different writers, slowly disconnecting virtual from the actual. As the one-two step connection vanished, the virtual realms could in some cases even exist separately from the actual. The eventual actualization didn’t necessarily empty the realm of the virtual possibilities; they stayed alive, in some other realm. At some point, we ended up in the situation we’re in now, with the virtual and the actual existing in completely different, but in some ways, mutually supportive realms. (3–6)

The idea of having something beyond or before actuality, something to possibly support, to substitute or even to replace it, fits well to many phenomena in different eras, cultures, media, and genres: the idea might be generally human and global, a concept larger than the etymology of the term itself. In fact, all time periods and people have had virtual media of some kind, and experienced virtual travel in some form or another: reading books, going to the theatre, listening to stories, daydreaming, playing, and creating – all of them have a quality of substitution, of making plans awaiting realization, of dry running, of conceptualizing. Virtuality might just be a way of life for humans, to some extent.

The multiple nuances of the term enrich (or confuse) my research on the relationships of the cabinets of curiosity and similar collections had with the world: they can be seen, all at once, as representations of the wider world; as private worlds of the collectors; as cultural lenses to the world; or as worlds in themselves. Could the collections, just like the television and the internet nowadays, substitute the world at large, and be a replacement for travel? And whose travel was that – and whose world: the visitors’, the collector’s, or someone else’s?

The research on the virtual worlds in cabinets of curiosity can open up interesting connections to the modern-day conversations on virtuality. There is surprisingly little research that takes into account or even acknowledges the full history of the concept – usually the focus is on some niche contemporary meaning. Virtuality is not solely about technologies and illusionism, but about much larger and more fundamental themes: what is reality? What is experience? What is the effect of different kinds of media to experience and its authenticity? How does cognition work? How do we make sense, simulate, and create worlds?

This new and sudden era of virtuality might be a modern society’s attempt to cling onto an old version of the world; to save it in an ark – in ‘one closet shut’, as the Tradescants did with their collection. At the same time, something brand new is beginning to form. We might even realize that some of the old is not worth replacing after all. Perhaps the situation will force us to re-evaluate our priorities: is it more important to be constantly productive and active, or to take it slow, to keep in touch, to touch, to walk in the park, to be able to sit down outside and watch the spring arrive. What is the right ratio of the actual and the virtual for the recipe of human happiness? What even is real, and what does it mean to be real?

I’m sure that in the end, we will find the balance – we will all, yet again, adapt to the new world we are thrown into.

Saara Penttinen is a PhD Student at the University of Turku department of European and World History working on virtual worlds in seventeenth-century English cabinets of curiosity. She’s currently a visiting associate at the Department of English at Queen Mary University of London.

Featured Image: Engravings of the Tradescant Tomb from Samuel Pepys Drawings, Philosophical Transactions, 1773.

Categories
diaspora Intellectual history Latin America Monuments Museums religious history Spain

The myth of la llave in crypto-Jewish Poetry

By Editorial Intern Rachel Kaufman

In a 1996 Sage Junior College museum exhibition entitled “Llave: A Key to the Secret,” New Mexican poets, artists, and historians celebrated Sephardic Judaism’s presence in the New World by means of the myth of la llave (the key). The myth claims that when Jews left the Iberian Peninsula during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they took with them the keys to their homes “in the hope that they might some day return.” (Emma Moya Collection, Box 10, Folder 13) The keys perhaps no longer contain the hope of actual return (though some physical keys continue to be passed down through generations). Instead, la llave today serves as a symbol of a lost homeland and an emblem of renewed Jewish and Sephardic identity for crypto-Jews in the Southwest.

Crypto-Judaism, the secret practice and transmission of Jewish faith, originated on the Iberian Peninsula after a wave of pogroms in 1391. Hidden faith traveled through Jewish diaspora to the Ottoman Empire, Europe, and the Americas. The Spanish Inquisition followed fleeing Jews across the Atlantic, and the Mexican Inquisition was established in Mexico City in 1571. Increased Inquisitional presence in Mexico, along with colonial opportunity, pushed conversos north, into the region which would become New Mexico. But despite geographical distance from Mexico City, crypto-Jews continued to practice their religion secretly. Even following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, crypto-Judaism remained a hidden religion. Over the years, it mixed with other cultural or religious practices, creating a multicultural, multi-religious set of traditions.

Judaism could not flourish amongst hidden Jews in the New World from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. But crypto-Jewish life, passed covertly and sometimes unconsciously across generations, could survive through nostalgia and faith in a continuous Jewish past. Attempting to establish domicile in exile (see Yerushalmi’s use of “domicile” in “Exile and Expulsion in Jewish History”), these hidden Jews created an identity based in memory. One element of this claimed memory landscape was the myth of la llave.

The exhibition included a 1995 poem written by Dr. Isabelle Medina Sandoval, a New Mexico crypto-Jew, entitled “Trancas Abiertas” or “Opened Locks.” Sandoval’s family came to New Mexico in 1598, and her ancestors came from Toledo through Mexico to New Mexico. (Fractured Faiths, 218) Each stanza of the poem ends with a line about la llave, relating the object to escape, community, and homeland. Sandoval writes (and translates):

Las llaves de las puertas están en la cocina

para esconder secretos profundos de las cuartos

cerca del trastero que no compró tío Raquel

en una casa donde santos no miran por paredes

Raitos de luz escapan de la casita

​The keys of the doors are in the kitchen

to hide the profound secrets of the rooms

near the cupboard that Uncle Raquel bought for us

in a house where saints do not look through walls

Rays of light escape from the house

For Sandoval, the key represents hidden and lost identity, but in its journey to the present, the motif adopts registers of renewal and hope. The keys in the kitchen hide markings of Jewish identity, but when “saints” (presumably Catholic neighbors or Inquisitors) are not around, the light of Judaism escapes from hidden corners to the world outside. The poem continues:

Nos separamos y veinte años pasaron en

estados diferentes y juntamos y por la primera

vez hablando del sentido judío que tenemos

en el privado de nuestro entendimiento y ser

Llaves de pensamientos abren nuestra plâtica

We separated and twenty years passed

different states and we united for the first time

talking about the Jewish feeling we have

in the privateness of our understanding and being

Keys of thoughts open up our conversation

As Medieval scholar Mary Carruthers writes about the pearl-image in Middle English poem, Pearl, images can mutate, collecting symbolic meanings as time, or poetic time, progresses. (Carruthers, “Invention, Mnemonics, and Stylistic Ornament in Psychomachia and Pearl.”) The keys in “Opened Locks” begin confined in a home’s interior but soon serve to unlock the past and create room for identity reclamation—the keys “of thoughts” open up space for Jewish discussion. The poem ends:

Los sefarditos de España se escaparon con llave escondida

y sé dentro de mis huesos que ésta misma llave fue perdida

y que ya hemos encontrado la llave en la neshama dormida

The Sephardim of Spain escaped with a hidden Key

and I know deep in my bones that this same key was

and that now we have found the key to the

sleeping Neshama

The last line of the poem opens up the image to the spiritual world, the world of the Neshama, meaning “soul,” and the reader feels the movement from closed kitchen doors to present-day liberation. 

The 1996 exhibition also included a poem written by curator Nasrallah, entitled “Crypto-Jew,” that focuses on the discomforts of crypto-Jewish identity and the process of looking for an absent past. Nasrallah writes: I’m staring. / And, though I am entitled, / I feel like I’m prying. // I’m looking through a keyhole… / crouched in awe of wisdom, / expectant and hesitant. // I’m listening….lapping up the pearls of wisdom….as I squat, uncomfortable, / before the door to antiquity.

The speaker can and cannot access Jewish knowledge, within earshot but forbidden. The key to the past is missing, and the gaping keyhole creates distance between past and present. Unlike in Sandoval’s poem, the past is undefined and indistinct, described through a single word: “antiquity.” Nasrallah writes elsewhere in the exhibition that her mother and friends used to sing a song she assumed referred to the keys brought from Spain: “Donde esta la llave, matarilerilerile, donde esta la llave, matarilerileron. En el fondo del mar…” (“where is the key, gone forever at the bottom of the sea”). The lyrics belong to a Spanish children’s song with a longer narrative, but Nasrallah’s assumption remains plausible. The remembered excerpt emphasizes absence. Without a cultural key to the past, and perhaps without the myth of la llave, diasporic identity falters.

The myth of la llave connects crypto-Jews to a romanticized vision of their ancestral land. But the myth also supports faith and religiosity. In a 1992 article, “El leñador y los enanitos: A Crypto-Jewish version of a Spanish Folktale,” Roger Parks discusses the evolving adaptations of a Sephardi legend. He quotes Reginetta Haboucha, a collector of Judeo-Spanish tales in Israel: “Many of the judeo-spanish oral narratives contain, and therefore transmit, images of comfort and consolation. They give the assurance of divine justice…In spite of the dismal [images] of misery [they] show faith and hope in the face of adversity. The tales seem thus to have had an enormous social impact, providing the tellers with the necessary strength to endure a life of hardship with fortitude and resignation.” (Moya Collection, Box 10, Folder 14) Crypto-Jewish poems and songs recognize the dismalness of centuries of secrecy and oppression but ultimately present hope. The mythology of the llave translates to desire for faith and divine justice: “ya hemos encontrado la llave en la neshama dormida.” Even Nasrallah’s pessimistic poem contains an element of awe (“crouched in awe of wisdom, / expectant”).

Scholar Svetlana Boym defined nostalgia as “a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed…a romance with one’s own fantasy.” Nostalgia selectively reconstructs places and times, creating an ideal version of the past. Amongst exiles who can only imagine their homelands, she continues, nostalgia must rely on the sensual: “on materiality of place, sensual perceptions, smells and sounds.” (Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 1, 258) These sensations, latent in objects like la llave, transport an immigrant and her descendants to a past homeland. In Cary Herz’s book, New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory, crypto-Jew Gloria Trujillo says about her Jewish identity: “The thing was that all along I had the key. I knew inside of me all my life, but I hadn’t put it all together. The more I learned about my Jewish heritage, the more it all fits into place.” The key not only transports diasporic Trujillo back to her geographic homeland (or homelands) but it contains her innate tie to Judaism.

Boym also wrote that “the nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology.” (Boym, XV) Nostalgia does serve as a means of collective mythology and identity for New Mexico crypto-Jews, but because their nostalgia exists only in the private world of memory, it does not obliterate, or even alter, history. Boym distinguishes between restorative nostalgia, a “return home” by means of reconstruction of the homeland and monuments of the past, and reflective nostalgia, a “longing” which delays the return home by dwelling in the act of remembering and longing. New Mexico crypto-Jews practice reflective nostalgia. They attempt to patch up gaps in memory between New Mexico and Sepharad, but their work ultimately—as demonstrated through the preservation of the myth of la llave—functions as a means of dwelling in of itself.

To read more of Rachel Kaufman’s work on New Mexico crypto-Judaism, look for the forthcoming publication of her thesis, “New Mexico crypto-Jewish Memory, Origins to 2007” in the Yale Historical Review.

Feature image from the New Mexico Digital Collection.

Categories
Colonialism empire Intellectual history Museums Theory universities US history

Catalogue Now!: Professional Anthropology and Making the Northeast United States

By guest contributor Morgan L. Green

Mid-twentieth-century anthropology was in crisis. Already influenced by World War II, anthropologists in the 1960s encountered a variety of dramatic changes. The scientific method and the pressure to be “objective” dominated as institutions like the National Science Foundation, ushering in a new wave of research standards. Anthropologists, who had been collecting interviews in the field (among other things), needed to prove their usefulness as the American government demanded clear answers about the world around them. The field was also growing exponentially, in part due to the GI bill and the returning veterans who often sought to better understand the places where they had served. The result: an increasingly large discipline trying to find a balance between understanding culture and receiving funding for long-term projects. Anthropologists stood at a crossroads in redefining their discipline.

This began what Matti Bunzl has described as a profound reorientation of the epistemological and political contours of the discipline in the 1960s. In 1968, James J. Hester described the new methods of “salvage anthropology.” Hester wrote specifically about how archeologists could extract information from sites before they were redeveloped as power plants or reservoirs, for instance. However, American cultural anthropologists quickly adapted this to apply to human subjects. In the Americas, Native people became prime subjects of this salvage mindset, imagined to be on the verge of disappearance. This perceived threat of loss was in many ways a revitalization of a Jacksonian racial theory that assumed the inevitable disappearance of Native people, articulated as an attempt to “save” or “preserve” Indigenous cultures. The 1960s ushered in a growing moral rhetoric that it was the duty of anthropologists to preserve the vanishing knowledge of Native peoples in the Americas. 

Despite their “crisis,” anthropologists continued to return to established sources of knowledge that non-Natives deemed “authentic.” Unlike archeology, within the salvage mindset of cultural anthropology, cultural practice and history were embodied in Native people. Whether they listened to informants to understand linguistic components or observed community relationships, anthropologists mapped ideas of authenticity onto the bodies of Native people. The intimacy of contact, of connecting, listening, and observing Indigenous people had long been established in the twentieth century as an important method, perhaps most clearly reflected in Frank Speck. By the 1960s and 1970s, while cultural anthropology remained wedded to the importance of contact, Native people had to exist in particular ways to be recognized as Native, valuable or worthy of preservation. 

Emerging from this moment was a massive contribution to anthropological canon: The Handbook of North American Indians. Talks began in the late 1960s, but official work began roughly in 1970 with William Sturtevant at the helm.Originally planned as a twenty-volume series, The Handbook was an attempt to catalogue at an encyclopedic level the diverse histories of tribal groups across the United States with. Each volume would act as a large-scale reference work of 500 to 750 pages summarizing what was known of the anthropology and history of Native peoples north of Mesoamerica (William C. Sturtevant, “Preliminary Note for Contributors” [1970], Elisabeth Tooker Papers, American Philosophical Society). The ultimate goal was to present a concise and exhaustive survey of Indigenous peoples in North America that would be accessible to both anthropologists and educated non-anthropologists. I want to focus here on the Northeast volume published in 1978, directed by William Sturtevant and Bruce G. Trigger, not only because it was the first published volume (the whole project faced considerable delays), but because it provides a glimpse into the contradictions and political implications of non-Native anthropological production.  

Partial series of The Handbook on North American Indians 

Faced with myriad troubles, ranging from missed deadlines to massive rewrites, The Handbook limped along until November 1972. Many of those contracted specifically for the Northeast Volume were gathered for the annual Conference on Iroquois Research, originating in 1945, to discuss the state of anthropology and hear work related to the Iroquois. This particular conference, however, was a kind of watershed moment for Bruce Trigger. Seizing this moment Trigger organized a meeting at the conference to establish the Iroquois as the centerpiece of The Handbook. The enmeshment of the Iroquois conference with the production of the Northeast volume suggests that the content of The Handbook would not be as broad as promised. This became even more clear when Elisabeth Tooker from Temple University was recruited to coordinate the Iroquois chapters, a move that would help secure her promotion. Following 1972, The Handbook began looking more like a professional opportunity for Iroquoianists rather than an encyclopedic reference of the myriad of Indigenous nations who called the Northeast home. 

As authorship skewed toward Iroquoianists, The Handbook relied on already established connections between anthropologists and the Iroquois to serve as its foundation. While there were moments that challenged what was often extractive information gathering, collecting stories from Native peoples still continued to shape anthropological literature. The seventy-three chapters included linguistic studies, historical surveys of acculturation, and examinations of religion, to name a few topics.Despite the range, twenty-five chapters, or roughly 34% of The Handbook related to the Iroquois in some form. This distortion exposes one of the oversights in salvage anthropology, namely that assumptions about who and where Native people were corresponded to the work that anthropologists had already been doing throughout the twentieth century. Anthony F.C. Wallace, for example, assisted Tooker in her emerging work on the Iroquois, and William Fenton’s intimate relationships with interlocutors shaped chapters on the Mohawk. This is not to say that information was not important; rather, by the second half of the twentieth century many Northeastern Indigenous peoples were ignored as sources of knowledge because they had few intimate connections with non-native anthropologists and their cultures were thought to have not survived colonization. Wallace captured this sentiment at a session on culture and personality at Dartmouth College in 1968, using the Lenni-Lenape as an example, saying they were acculturated beyond recognition – unlike the Iroquois, he was quick to add. In this moment, non-Natives elevated their intellectual authority by determining who and where Native people were based on anthropological methods of cultural recognition and disciplinary security. In the process, Iroquoianists continued to shape anthropology in the Northeast, thereby preserving their professional opportunities. The Northeast volume was published in 1978 and the remaining volumes continue to be released.

Non-Native anthropology organized itself around gathering knowledge before an assumed rapidly approaching disappearance, which meant that the Native peoples within anthropology’s gaze were often those imagined to be less changed by colonization. Not only did this lead to the ignorance of many other Native peoples; this thinking ignored the historical realities of settler colonialism and the various survival strategies that Indigenous people, including the Iroquois, engaged in to navigate a rapidly changing world. The seventeenth-century Northeast was ground zero for a settler project that would quickly metastasize. Indigenous peoples in the Northeast have navigated, resisted, succumbed, and reimagined the relationship to Euro-American colonization for centuries. To make a lack of change the litmus test for Indigenous authenticity grossly misunderstood the continued power and resourcefulness of Native peoplesBearing this in mind, we must rethink the role of the archive and what we as scholars consider canonical. Holding onto, cataloguing, and the encyclopedic impulse of the archive(s) are all functions of desire; desire to possess, dictate, and stabilize subjects of study. This process, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminds us, brings with it multiple silences that can limit our understandings of history and its legacies.The anthropological archive contained in The Handbook, despite its claims of breadth, limited its scope while defining itself as a totalizing and objective source of knowledge. Taking this as one of many examples of settler knowledge production, we must remain critical of the very categories of analysis that shape our work. To not would be to risk a reproduction of that arm of settler colonialism that claims non-Native knowledges as objective and position settlers always already “experts” of the world and its histories. Paying attention to the epistemology of indigeneity allows us to produce work that enacts the decolonial strategies we theorize.

Morgan L. Green is a Ph.D candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research examines relationships between white settler, Indigenous, and African-American communities in Northeastern urban spaces, both literal and rhetorical, in the late 20thcentury.

Categories
book history Early modern Europe French history Museums philosophy

Montaigne’s Bones

By guest contributor Max Norman

On November 16th, Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux, made an important announcement: the bones of Michel de Montaigne have been discovered.

Or, at least, the bones might have been discovered. “Let’s keep our cool,” said Juppé at a press conference that morning. “We haven’t yet found Montaigne. But if it were the case,” he continued, “it would be a great moment for Bordeaux.”

Montaigne, two-time mayor of Bordeaux, minor aristocrat, and inventor of the essay form, died in his tower in 1592, cause of death unknown. The next year the essayist was interred in a chapel on the west bank of the Garonne, the current site of the Musée d’Aquitaine. Montaigne’s cenotaph—a gaudy white marble affair—has been on more or less continuous display since it was carved in 1593. But his physical remains were lost in one of their 19thcentury translations to and from the nearby Chartreuse cemetery, for safekeeping when a fire devastated the chapel. No one seems to have looked for them until last year, when a curator at the Musée, Laurent Védrine, decided to investigate a mysterious crypt in the museum’s basement, sealed since 1886. Miniature cameras returned grainy images of a dusty wooden box, with the big black letters “MONTAIGNE” clearly visible beneath some chunks of fallen plaster. Researchers announced their intention to inventory the contents and to track down a descendant for DNA confirmation, but we’re still waiting for the results.

image

After the announcement, Juppé sounded a philosophical note in a mid-morning tweet: “In a world in which we speak of anger, and where we confront violence, we must return to our heritage and to the values that are dear to me [sic]. #tolerance #balance #Bordeaux.” Juppé of course knew that the Gilets jauneswould march for the first time the next day, flooding the streets of cities across the country in protest against the economic policies of Emmanuel Macron.

*

image
Michel de Montaigne

“C’est moy que je peins,” Montaigne writes in his opening preface “To the reader.” “It’s me that I paint.” The Essays are an intellectual portrait of one of history’s great minds, whose gentle humaneness and grinning wit are as familiar as the high forehead, ruffled collar, and thin moustache with which he is depicted in paintings and on frontispieces. But the book is also the portrait of one of history’s most average bodies, a very particular specimen that readers get to know with the intimacy of a doctor or a lover. We learn, among other things, that Montaigne didn’t like salad but was fond of melon, that he liked to ride on horseback, preferred to make love lying down, not standing up, and walked with a firm gait. This is a book, after all,  “consubstantial with its author” (Villey-Saulnier edition, 665C). Finding bones, then, is almost as good as finding a manuscript.

Montaigne’s idiosyncrasies give the Essays much of their charm. They’re also one important source of what might be called Montaigne’s philosophy—a philosophy, or at least an ethics, that is rather accurately summarized by Juppé’s hashtags. “There is no quality so universal in our image of things than diversity and variety,” he writes in “On Experience,” his final essay (1065B). Human beings are simply too complicated to be theorized: “I study myself more than any other subject. It’s my metaphysics; it’s my physics” (1072B). Metaphysics and physics collapse when “every example limps”—every case is peculiar, every example is imperfect—and therefore every inference and every assumption is a kind of violence (1070C).

Even literary interpretation is risky, particularly when books are, like Montaigne’s, “members” of a life, and memorials to it. Montaigne learned this the hard way from the fate of Etienne de la Boétie, the friend of the famous essay “On friendship.” de la Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Slavery praised republican Venice and critiqued monarchy, arguing that, since people willingly grant a tyrant power, people can willingly take it away. The treatise was naturally appropriated by anti-monarchists in the Wars of Religion. But this was a misreading, Montaigne claims: if you knew de la Boétie like he did, you’d see that there was never a better subject, “nor a greater opponent of the disturbances and innovations of his time” (194A). If de la Boétie had written his own Essays, you would never have so misunderstood him. It’s possible, of course, that Montaigne himself was the one willfully misreading de la Boétie. Either way, his polemical interpretation reminds us that we should never entirely trust the fiction of artlessness that the essayist so often affects.

As he got older, Montaigne seemed to realize that his skepticism was, like de la Boétie’s Discourse,  potentially dangerous, so in the Essays “I leave nothing to be desired or guessed about me” (“On Vanity,” 983B). Exhaustive self-description is not only a means to self-knowledge or literary immortality. It’s also an insurance policy: The flood of Montaigne’s words will overwhelm reductive misreadings with their sheer copiousness, as indeed the sheer size and labyrinthine complexity of the Essayshave defied all critical attempts at a unified interpretation. Eschewing systematic argument or organization, Montaigne prevents us from using his book, though we may profit from it. Just as we will never know if Montaigne’s representation of de la Boétie—grounded, he tells us, on intimate knowledge that is inaccessible to readers—was accurate, so we will never know for certain just what the Essays are supposed to mean, just what Montaigne is about. And that’s the point: the Essays, like the person who wrote them, ultimately prove to be something of a black box. “What I can’t represent, I point to with my finger,” he writes (983B). In the end, the Essays do no more and no less than point to their author, that infinitely peculiar human being, who, even with all the ink the world, could never be fully incorporated into his book.

*

Readers tend to remember Montaigne as individualist,as pioneer of a certain kind of Renaissance egoism. But in the final sighs of the Essays, Montaigne concludes that “the most beautiful lives to my mind are those which hew to the common human pattern, orderly, but without miracles or eccentricity” (1116B/C). When things are this complicated, the best policy is to mind your own business. Don’t assume you know better than anyone else (a lesson for Macron, who has publicly proclaimed that the French people never meant to kill their king)—and (for the Gilets jaunes) don’t try to rock the boat. Think of politics in human terms. Read your opponents charitably. Most of all, don’t be cruel.

The newly discovered box, like the cenotaph, may be empty. Part of me hopes that it is, and that readers have to keep searching for Montaigne’s bones in the Essays, reading them quite literally as a portrait, a vivid depiction of a “you” en chair et en os, in flesh and bone. This fleshly Montaigne has all too often been replaced in memory and imagination by a Montaigne made only of words. But you can’t separate the body from the book.

Max Norman studies literature at the University of Oxford.

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art history Museums

Beyond Mere “Exhibitionism”: Exhibiting Fashion at the Museum at FIT and Beyond

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“Exhibitionism” installation view, Museum at FIT, 2019. Photograph: Eileen Costa, courtesy of the Museum at FIT.

By Contributing Writer Sarah Pickman

For those with an interest in fashion history, springtime in New York City heralds the opening of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual summer Costume Institute exhibition. The Costume Institute show (this year’s is “Camp: Notes on Fashion”) and its glittery opening gala in early May inevitably attract a huge amount of press and public attention – so much that they threaten to overshadow other fashion exhibitions. But any museum visitor who wishes to understand more about how these exhibitions developed as a scholarly practice will be rewarded by a trip to the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT). MFIT – originally called the Design Laboratory and Galleries at FIT – opened in 1969. Since then, it has played host to over two hundred exhibitions, most organized by MFIT’s dedicated team of in-house curators. In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the museum’s founding, earlier this year MFIT opened “Exhibitionism: 50 Years of the Museum at FIT.” This show is a reminder of how fashion scholarship has developed over the past few decades, and the potential for even the most eye-catching garments to be pedagogical tools.

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art history Art installations Early modern Europe Museums

Leonardo’s Leicester Codex at the Uffizi Galleries: a review of “Water as Microscope of Nature”

By contributing editor Luna Sarti

This year several events will take place across the world to celebrate Leonardo da Vinci on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death. In Florence, where Leonardo lived and worked for several years, the Uffizi Galleries hosted the exhibition entitled “Water as Microscope of Nature”, which  focused on Leonardo’s multidisciplinary engagement with water. Organized by the Uffizi Galleries in collaboration with the Museo Galileo, this project was made possible thanks to the generosity of Bill and Melinda Gates, who loaned the Leicester Codex to the Uffizi Galleries, as well as to the financial support of the Fondazione CR Firenze and the Comitato Nazionale per le celebrazioni dei 500 anni dalla morte di Leonardo da Vinci.

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Almost 400,000 people visited the exhibition and stared in amazement at Leonardo’s writings. Individual folios were displayed in vertical glass cases which allowed visitors to read the recto and verso sides of each page while moving through the dark, arched room.

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The exhibition room and two of the codescopes.

The curatorial team, guided by the director of the Galileo Museum, decided in fact to group folios according to topics while several codescopes were installed in the space to allow visitors to virtually flip through the pages of the Leicester Codex, thus reproducing the order in which the folios were bound together. Thanks to the codescopes, it was also possible to browse the codex and eventually visualize transcriptions of the text while getting information on some of the most significant issues addressed by Leonardo, particularly the physics of water movements, the structure of the Moon, and the history of the Earth.

As the exhibition title suggests, water intrigued Leonardo perhaps more than anything else. In his writings, he discusses its nature, its movements, and the difference between springs, rivers, seas, and rain. Defining the mechanisms connecting all these different phenomena became almost an obsessive thought for him. In order to deal with this complex system of problems, Leonardo meticulously recorded observations from experience and compared them with existing sets of knowledge, drawing on a variety of sources and devising experiments to verify hypotheses.

 

 

Leonardo’s experiments on water. Video available on the exhibition website.

Although Leonardo’s myth in popular discourse undoubtedly plays a role in attracting visitors to events of this kind, it is remarkable that the curator managed to orient such a vast audience toward the manuscript pages and other forms of “row documents”. A variety of texts, such as other manuscripts, incunabola, and maps were, in fact, on display as Leonardo’s possible sources, thus fostering the interest of the public toward the historical processes that inform not only knowledge formation but also its circulation and legacy. The inclusion of such documents as Leonardo’s sources contributes to dismantle conceptions such as that of geniality or the irrelevance of history for scientific engagement, while stressing the role of education and tradition in any process leading to new knowledge.

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Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia (1458). Manuscript conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 82,4. Folio available on the exhibition website .

Certainly, some of the items that were on display also have an incredible aesthetic quality that captivated the audience and thus amplified the call for the significance of history that informed the exhibition. For example, among the manuscripts that were likely consulted by Leonardo for their relevance on the questions of the nature and physics of water were a 13th-century manuscript edition of Ristoro d’Arezzo’s La compositione del Mondo (The composition of the world) now conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Riccardiana, and a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Pliny’s Natural History, which belonged to the Medici Family and is now part of the collection of the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. Remarkably, almost to reiterate the importance of access to sources and of history in the making of knowledge, all the materials that were part of the exhibition, including the curatorial narrative, are now available for public consultation on the official website.

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Ristoro d’Arezzo, La composizione del mondo con le sue cascioni (XIII century). Manuscript conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Riccardiana, Ricc. 2164. Folio available on the Exhibition website.

Although some of the celebratory language and the Promethean tones informing the curatorial narrative might sound overwhelming for many science historians, this exhibition was particularly interesting for assessing the way in which the dualism art/science can still characterize public discourse around figures who would actually be functional to question such a divide. Leonardo is, in fact, a pivotal figure for any discussion on the relationship between artistic practice and scientific thought and can spark interesting considerations on the benefits of interdisciplinarity.

While walking through the exhibition and learning about Leonardo’s reflections, it becomes clear that much of the audience’s amazement stems from the variety of tools and languages on which Leonardo could draw to investigate problems of physics, mechanic engineering, and geology. Together with geometrical representations illustrating physical problems, the Codex also includes an “image bank” and several attempts to develop a lexicon for describing water.

Thus, much could be said on the curator’s decision to keep the two parts of Leonardo’s work separate, even if motivated by practical reasons, such as the absence of alarm systems in the space that was used for the temporary exhibition. Leonardo’s paintings, although referenced, were not in fact part of the exhibition which instead focused on documents, particularly manuscripts and maps, to position the viewer within that part of Leonardo’s work which is considered “scientific”. Unfortunately, the choice of material presented as well as the title seems to suggest the persistence of the dualism science/humanities when considering historical processes of knowledge making. On the contrary, Leonardo’s engagement with tradition, his open mindedness when combining historical research, field-work, and different languages for the investigation of problems, could have been easily presented as a model-story advocating for thinking across disciplines.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Leicester Codex (1501-1508). Folio 7v and 30r. Available on the exhibition website.

Hopefully, this beautiful show will be of inspiration for more exhibitions that are able to work across the division between art and science when presenting historical process of knowledge formation to the public. With this in mind, we look forward to the upcoming exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: a Mind in Motion” in London at the British Library this summer.

Water as Microscope of Nature” was on view at the Gallerie degli Uffizi  in Florence, Italy from October 30, 2018 to January 20, 2019. The exhibition was accompanied by a beautiful catalogue (available in Italian or English).