The Cats of Praia Vermelha

For the past week, I’ve been at the International Congress for the History of Science and Technology, held at the Praia Vermelha (“red beach”) campus of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  There are a lot of cats on the campus.  I don’t know their background; they seem to be strays, but are well fed and cared for.  I’ve been taking pictures of them for days; here’s a selection.

sleeping under cars

The cats liked to sleep around parked cars.  They followed the sun.

They seemed completely uninterested in people. more cats with cars

clean catsBut people were interested in them.

shelterThere was a shelter set up, with food and water.

boxesAnd newspaper-lined boxes because cats like boxes.  They were under the care of an organization for stray animals.




another sign
Attention! Cats in the Road!










The university did not seem particularly happy about their presence.

“Federal Area.  Prohibited to abandon animals on campus.”

But this one-eyed ginger boy seemed supremely unconcerned.

sleeping pirate

Discovering Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 2017

I am sitting in the sun on the roof of my hotel in Rio, looking at the heavily forested hills to the east, the high rise hotels lining the Copacabana to the south, the elaborate rooftop garden across the Avenida de Princesa Isabel, and beyond, the rickety tin shacks of a favela creeping up a hill. It is winter in the tropics, and the temperature is 22 C (about 72 F) at 10 AM.

About 400 years ago, in 1637 or so (the sources differ on the dates), a young Dutch artist named Frans Post (1612-1680) travelled to South America at the invitation of the new Dutch governor of what was then a Dutch colony at Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, which the Dutch held from 1630 until 1654.

Frans Post, Landscape of Pernambuco, 1637-44, Museu nacional de Belas Artes, Rio. Wikimedia

The Dutch governor, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679), ruled over the sugar-rich territory between 1636 and 1644.

Map of Brazil from 17th century
Map of Dutch Brazil, ca 1639

According to art historians, Post completed eighteen landscapes while in Brazil, documenting Dutch possessions, including the port of Recife.  Post painted many more Brazilian landscapes from memory after his return to the Netherlands.  Another artist accompanying the governor, Albert Eckhout (1610-1666), painted people, including the slaves who worked on the sugar plantations, as well as plants and animals.

I saw a couple of Post’s later paintings last week at the art museum in São Paulo.  I had never heard of Frans Post, and knew only vaguely of the Dutch presence in Brazil.  I was intrigued by these large, lush landscapes laden with tropical plants, Dutch planters, and slaves.

Post View of Olinda 1662
Frans Post, View of Olinda, Brazil, 1662. Rijksmuseum

Some of his earlier works are at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio; oddly, most of them are in Paris at the Louvre, presented as a gift to Louis XIV in 1679.  Some of Eckhout’s paintings, part of the same gift, became the basis of Gobelins tapestries. In 1645, Post made several engravings of his earlier paintings to illustrate a book by Caspar Barlaeus (1584-1648) on Johan Maurits’s tenure as governor, Rerum per octennium in Brasilia et alibi nuper gestarum (Recent achievements in Brazil over the past eight years), published in 1647.

Recently, a curator in the Netherlands discovered thirty-four previously unknown drawings of Brazilian animals made by Post during his stay.  Here is one, of a jaguar.   The caption calls it a “tiger,” and notes that some he has seen are black.

Post cat
Frans Post, Jaguar, ca. 1637-1644. Noord-Hollands Archief, Haarlem

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam exhibited these drawings last winter, accompanied by taxidermied animals from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden.  Sorry I missed it!

Johan Maurits appointed not only artists but also naturalists, to document the incredible richness and strangeness of Brazil. Among them was the German naturalist, astronomer, and explorer Georg Marcgraf (1610-1644), who arrived in Brazil early in 1638 and stayed until Johan Maurits’s departure; Marcgraf died shortly thereafter in Angola.  With Marcgraf was a Dutch physician, Willem Piso (1611-1678).  Together Marcgraf and Piso documented Brazilian flora and fauna.  Piso held a particular interest in indigenous remedies, following in the footsteps of Spanish physician Francisco Hernández (1514-1587), who had recorded Mexican plants and animals and the Aztec pharmacopoeia in the 1570s.  Hernández’s work finally appeared, much truncated, as Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (1651).

L0001205 F. Hernandez, 1517-1587, Rerum Medicarum..., 1649
Hernandez, Thesaurus, 1651

Johannes de Laet (1581-1649) edited the work of Piso and Marcgraf into the beautiful volume Historiae naturalis Brasiliae, published in 1648, a landmark in the natural history of the new world.

Marcgraf and Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae, 1648

Many of the illustrations came from the work of Post and Eckhout.

Several historians, including Hal Cook, Britt Dams, and Neil Safier, have written about Marcgraf and Piso.  I have seen less about their relationship with Post and Eckhout (which does not mean that that work does not exist).  I like to think of these young men, all still in their twenties in the late 1630s, walking through the magical landscape of Brazil and recording its treasures, far from home in northern Europe.


Animal Paris, part 1: Fagotin and his kin

This is the first post in a occasional series on animals in (mostly) early modern Paris.

29 April 2015

Last week, a US judge apparently ruled that two research chimpanzees are “legal persons” and have standing to pursue a court case against their captivity.  As the work of historian Alan Ross is revealing, non-human primates have long been human companions.  In early modern Europe, monkeys were popular pets among royalty and the aristocracy.  The French king Charles VI in the late fifteenth century kept a pet monkey, and over a century later Queen Marie de’Medici, mother of Louis XIV, kept a “sapajou” or capuchin monkey (a South American species) and a “guenon,” one of the many species of cercopithecus, an Old World monkey.  This seems to have been a popular pairing, immortalized in 1676 in this Sapajous et guenonsillustration from the Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux. The setting is the terrace of a chateau, with a formal, geometrical parterre in the background. If this was not the actual palace of Versailles, the image was certainly meant to evoke it, and one historian has identified Charles Perrault’s labyrinth in the background.  Among all of the animals depicted in this volume, the monkeys are the only ones shown under restraint, with a ball and chains. The chains are delicate, and the monkeys appear to be playing with the single small ball, its form echoed in the fruit another monkey holds.

Apart from serving as pets – the royal minister Mazarin also had a pet monkey, who sported the Cardinal’s specially made perfume – performing monkeys and apes were frequently seen at fairs and other spectacles.   This image from 1630 shows monkeys clowning around a sleeping man — the phrase in French is “faire des singeries,” to monkey around.

Le songe de Guillot,  1630
Le songe de Guillot, 1630

The ape Fagotin, who may have been a chimpanzee, had a large following in midcentury Paris. There were at least two of that name. The first flourished in the 1640s in the marionette show of a certain Brioché. According to one source, Brioché was the stage name of father and son puppeteers Pierre and François Datelin; according to another, it was a Gallified version of an Italian name, Briocci.  The nineteenth-century chronicler of marionettes, Charles Magnin, even claims that Briocci had some connection to his countryman Mazarin (born Mazzarino).  The sources agree that there was a father and a son, and that they gave their performances at the base of the Pont Neuf near the statue of Henri IV and also at the popular fairs of Saint-Laurent and Saint-Germain. Foire_saint-laurent

Fagotin, who is described as “fat as a pâté of Amiens and big as a small man,” wore an old hat with a large plume and was fully dressed.   The description comes from a little 1655 pamphlet that describes how the playwright and duelist Cyrano de Bergerac (1619–55), mistaking Fagotin for a man, ran him through with his sword, much to the dismay of Brioché.  This event may have taken place in 1654.

Later in the 1650s, a second Fagotin was known as a rope-dancer or tight-rope walker. “Fagotin” became a standard name for a performing monkey; a poet in 1664 described “Les fagotins et les guenons” at the Foire Saint-Germain.  Fagotin also made appearances in works by Molière and La Fontaine.  In La Fontaine’s fable “Le cour du lion,” Fagotin and his marionettes even entertain the king.



Hold that Tiger?

19 November 2014, Berlin


When I was in France last weekend the big news was the sighting of a tiger outside Paris.  A blurry picture of the beast itself  circulated widely, and pictures of its footprints seemed to indicate, at the least, some kind of big wild feline.  Some 200 police and a helicopter were mobilized to search for it.


Joggers were warned to keep away from a local forest. However, by Friday night, the tiger was beginning to shrink; a vet declared on national TV that the cat was not big enough to be a tiger, or even a lynx.  “It might be a very large house cat,” she said, although she estimated it weighed 50 kilos, which would be a very large house cat indeed.  By the end of the weekend, the search was called off, and the “superstar of social media” was revealed to be “nothing but a big cat.”