Luke Demaitre

title.none: Paravicini, ed, Il Mondo Animale (Luke Demaitre)

identifier.other: baj9928.0110.014 01.10.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Luke Demaitre, Univiversity of Virginia,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Paravicini, Agostino. Il Mondo Animale. Micrologus: Nature, Sciences, and Medieval Studies, Vol. VIII. Firenze: SISMEL, 2000. Pp. vi, 679. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.10.14

Paravicini, Agostino. Il Mondo Animale. Micrologus: Nature, Sciences, and Medieval Studies, Vol. VIII. Firenze: SISMEL, 2000. Pp. vi, 679. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Luke Demaitre
Univiversity of Virginia

A day at the zoo is less fun than a journey through these two volumes, even though they offer a panorama of humanity rather than an account of medieval fauna, and the reading requires a certain level of commitment and knowledge. Written in five languages, the thirty articles represent a broad spectrum of disciplines, but they are addressed to a relatively narrow audience of medievalists. They maintain a high level of erudition while, naturally, varying widely in appeal and relevance. About half are based on research in textual sources, half on the analysis of visual evidence.

The animal world is treated collectively in several essays, but a total of some130 different creatures parades through these pages. This tally does not follow modern taxonomy but medieval criteria, allowing separate spots for the cow, bull, ox, and calf, or for the cock, hen, and chicken; on the other hand, many varieties are subsumed under categories such as worm or snake. A few characters are missing from the cast in spite of being celebrated in fantasy or ubiquitous in life during the Middle Ages: these include not only the capricorn and cockatrice, but also the louse, eel, finch and partridge. With regard to the inventory, it is fair to warn the researcher who is not versed in Italian to be resourceful in consulting the index for certain subjects, for example, crossbreeding ("incrocio," under "animali"). In addition, the apparently very detailed index is not totally reliable. Thus, perhaps not too surprisingly, the rat is hiding in the entry for mouse; there are broader implications in the misrepresentation of the moth (p. 88) as butterfly ("farfalla"); the most conspicuous erratum befalls the ermine which, even though discussed in the text (p. 581) and shown in a corresponding illustration, [1] is not indexed.

Minor glitches are not entirely avoidable, but there are editorial oversights that diminish the usefulness of this publication. Above all, the illustrations could have more effectively documented the authors' descriptions and supported their arguments. Several reproductions are far too small, and judicious enlargement of details need not have entailed added expense; the reader's frustration will be especially keen with regard to two interesting essays (one by Jean Wirth, the other by Isabelle Engammare) on drawings in the margins of manuscripts. Worse, in a discussion (by Judith Raeber) of a sumptuous Cistercian breviary written and illuminated in Freiburg-in-Breisgau shortly after 1300, there is no correspondence between the references and the illustrations which, with erroneous captions compounding the confusion, lose all supportive value as pictorial evidence. Similarly, a key exhibit is spoiled by defective reproduction and inaccurate description in the already difficult argument (by Francesco Santi) that a charge of "scurrility" by the Inquisition against Paolo Veronese was triggered by the painter's suggestive depiction of dogs in sacred scenes. [2]

On the whole, the collection could have made a more solid contribution if the material had been integrated or, at least, if the essays were tied to the context of living scholarship. There is no information about the forum in which they originated. Brief notes on individual contributors would have fostered interdisciplinary connectedness, and even added a human dimension. There is one poignantly human note, however, namely in the dedication of the collection to the memory of Jole Agrimi (1943-1999), Pavia's bright historian of medieval medicine who still had much to offer and whose valuable work is not yet sufficiently known to English-only readers; her contributions are evoked in a eulogy (followed by a list of her publications) by her frequent collaborator, Chiara Crisciani. Aside from this fittingly concluding tribute, the articles succeed each other with little apparent thematic coherence, without chronological order, and without the organic links or cross-references for which there were many opportunities.

The editors presumably had practical reasons for not pulling the articles together in a concluding summation or in a comprehensive introduction--in contrast, for example, with Volume VII of the series, Il cadavere (1999), which was succinctly introduced by Andre Vauchez. As a result, with its rich but discrete information Il mondo animale will have less impact than it might have had on our understanding of medieval life and views. It also defies attempts at an interpretive synthesis in a review. Even a summary, let alone a critique, of every single article would be impractical here. Suffice it, then, to outline three different though overlapping orientations of the discourse, and to sample the contents in this framework. The discussions deal primarily with images and concepts of the animal world, a relatively small segment examines empirical reports and depictions, and the most interesting studies concentrate on the intersection of imagination and observation.

Images of the animal kingdom figured in speculation about the essence of humanity, on many levels. Philosophers pondered the distinctiveness of rationality; theologians wondered whether the afterlife was shared. The world of beasts was portrayed as mirroring human society at its worst, as a jungle, or at its best, as an idyllic utopia, according to Peter Dronke in a noteworthy comparative analysis of Metrum Leonis and Ruodlieb. Other authors show that, for preachers and poets, individual creatures exemplified not only vice and sin but also the redemptive actions of Christ and the virtues of the Christian. While certain animals were consistently 'good' in allegories (lamb, unicorn, pelican), and others 'bad' (fox, pig, wolf), several were morally ambivalent. The dog was faithful but also cowardly; the donkey's character varied from gentle humility to stubborn stupidity and lecherousness; the hawk symbolized the rapture of Saint Francis (according to Friar Juan Gil of Zamora) as well as rapacity. The ambivalence is most striking in the contrasting portrayals of Jews in bestiaries and biblical exegeses. Characterizations also underwent transitions, none more striking than the lion's ascendance and the bear's corresponding decline, described by the leading historian of heraldry, Michel Pastoureau. Apes sometimes frolicked in a moral void, as in the marginal satires whose sexual overtones and blasphemous parodies are linked with their scholastic settings by Jean Wirth--in an intriguing if stretched thesis about complex allegorization.

Allegory proved to be pervasive, but it coexisted with the 'realism' of observers, be they natural philosophers and encyclopedists, artists, or zoologists avant la lettre. Albert the Great, diligent student of nature, saw animal perfection culminating in humanity. William of Auvergne, collector of phenomena, showed a penchant for the magical and diabolical phenomena. The earliest realistic details were depicted in pharmacopoeia, but even here the illuminations were not immune to flights of fancy, as Vera Segre demonstrates in a sterling study--with striking reproductions. Leonardo da Vinci's gaze may have been photographic, but his eye was often focused on the degeneration of man, particularly in the "most beastly madness" of war. In the sixteenth century, the first true zoological illustrations remained dependent on texts and traditional assumptions.

The intersection of imagination and observation is at the heart of the first article, Maaike van der Lugt's stimulating explanation of the fusion of two observed creatures into the legendary barnacle goose. Allegory and actuality, as well as textual exegesis and modern ornithology, are elegantly interwoven in a model essay, by Baudouin van den Abeele, on the amazing migrations and many-sided symbolism of the crane. In case of the crayfish, symbolic characterizations drew upon perceived attributes, such as erratic motion and change of color. The universally beloved honeybee yielded no fewer than fifty-eight exemplary attributes, methodically examined by Nadia Pollini, to the careful observation, vast knowledge of sources, and ex-professo passion for preaching of Thomas of Cantimpre. Another Dominican, Johann es Nider, combined moralization with received and personal experience of the zoological properties of ants. Among their behavioral traits Nider noted that ants, drawn to sweet wine, became inebriated and walked as if they were staggering: "vidi per experienciam". Now, how likely are we to see such things at the zoo?


[1] The illustration in question, Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, is the centerpiece of a recent article by Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, "Weasels and pregnancy in Renaissance Italy," Renaissance Studies 15 (2001): 172- 187.

[2] In Fig. 1 of Vol. I, the standing dog clearly has hanging ears, contrary to Santi's description ("orecchi ritti", p. 42), and it is virtually impossible to discern the cat which is the supposed object of canine desire. The caption does not indicate that the illustration reproduces only a part of the panoramic "Wedding at Cana".