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07 April 2009 @ 08:36 am
When crocodiles fly upside-down  


I was in Montbard's tiny Buffon museum recently. It's housed in what used to be Buffon's orangery. The main museum was intended to be in his large family house and was to open in 2007 to coincide with the tercentenary of Buffon's birth, but before its completion a new maire was voted in and funding for the project was stopped (despite my indignant letters written to the Mairie explaining how taxidermic dioramas are of greater benefit to the community than schools, health centres and civic infra-structure).

 But the orangery museum (above) has been well designed and shows a glimpse of Buffon's life along with surgical instruments and mounted specimens from his era. The lady that works there has read extensively about Buffon and imparts her knowledge with enthusiasm despite the fact that her job hangs by a thread as now even the orangery is under threat of closure. To me (ever keen to bring to bear the cold eye of objectivity) it seems clear that if the museum complex were to be expanded as some kind of scientific conference centre (it's well served by road and rail) it could bring jobs to this town that is dying an economic death. 

Speaking of death;

 It's almost a cliché for Cabinets of Curiosities to have a crocodile or alligator suspended upside- down, as is this one in Buffon's orangery.

 I've been reflecting on this recently as last summer I bought a stuffed crocodile down south, in a Béziers market, and am looking forward to displaying it. Unfortunately it's still down south as I was travelling with friends and it was too big to get into their car; I suggested that their child travel by train but you known how people are.

 Star-cross'd lovers and taxidermy;

When Romeo learns of Juliet's supposed death he races to the nearest apothecary to buy himself some poison - in the apothecary's “needy shop a tortoise hung, an alligator stuffed and other skins of ill-shaped fishes”.

 This is regarded as the first definitive written use of 'alligator' in the English language. Before that this reptile was known as an 'aligarto' or 'lagarto' or other variants to that effect, all ultimately from 'lacerta' (Latin for 'lizard) via the Spanish for lizard, 'el lagarto'.

 In the good old days stuffed crocodiles were often suspended from the vaults of churches, especially in Italy, to drive away demons.

Il coccodrillo delle grazie

 It was perhaps as an extension this apotropaic use that, using their powers of dissuasion to ward off ignorance, they came to signify the “place of a learned man”.

 Drug suppliers would present gifts to apothecaries who sold their goods (plus ça change) and a favourite offering was an alligator or crocodile due to their associations with learning and as a symbolic defence against disease. They were also relatively easy to preserve; indeed, the oldest surviving example of taxidermy is said to be a crocodile mounted in 1623 and exhibited at St. Gallen's Museum of Natural History in Switzerland.

 I suppose constraints of space resulted in their being hung from rafters, their ridged backs lowermost to show to advantage the glassy eyes

 This method of displaying crocodilia became enshrined in the melange of artistic conceits once shared by apothecaries, barber-surgeons and creators of Wunderkammern.

 Above is the first known illustration (1599) of a Cabinet of Curiosities, that of Ferrante Imperato of Naples.

 Trausnitz Castle in Bavaria opened its refurbished Wunderkammer in 2004 retaining aspects of traditional presentation.


 All of which means I'm going to have to nail my crocodile to the ceiling – at least it will drive off all ignorance, disease and demonic presence.

 I won't recognise the place.

markturpin on April 7th, 2009 07:55 am (UTC)
my my
you are really running ahead of yourself, I was just starting to reflect on Dodos and you start going on about crocodiles and alligators.
The Orangery looks really cool, I think you should help them to survive and become a conference centre - of course keeping the alligator as a symbol of learning. Of course, you may have compromised your standing with the impertinent letters to the mayor...
i didn't know of the learning symbolism attached to the crocodile creature - how can i find out more?
and slow down a bit - at your age...
pomposapomposa on April 7th, 2009 01:27 pm (UTC)
Re: my my
I can't think of a good lead regarding learning symbolism offhand, I will have a look around.

I suspect that as Wunderkammern contained man-made artefacts such as geometric devices as well as natural wonders these collections came to stand for learning in general – the crocodile being the most dramatic symbol of this process (possibly due to the implication of cold, calculating logic).

Having said that, opinions were divided; for instance, Galileo and Descartes thought cabinets of curiosity a load of tosh whereas Pascal saw no problem with having his adding machine exhibited amongst the shrivelled mermaids and two-headed lambs!
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pomposapomposa on April 8th, 2009 07:48 am (UTC)
Re: my my
True. I mean Sobek, not your mind.
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pomposapomposa on April 8th, 2009 07:48 am (UTC)
The final merging of dreams and reality...
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pomposapomposa on April 8th, 2009 08:12 pm (UTC)
If it is wearing glasses it's probably a Spectacled Caiman.

markturpin on April 7th, 2009 09:05 pm (UTC)
forgive my ignorance
but what perchance is the animal that once possessed the skull so judiciously placed on table under tail of hanging croc creature in above photo? it looks like a fearsome beastie indeed!
pomposapomposa on April 8th, 2009 07:52 am (UTC)
Re: forgive my ignorance
It looks to be a hippo (Imvubu?).
I saw a skull like that in Paris recently - 5,000 euros. Cheaper down your way I imagine!
markturpin on April 8th, 2009 08:36 am (UTC)
Re: forgive my ignorance
i thought it could be a hippo... do they have tusks like that? I am sure that downtown Joburg in the muti market i could probably get one for about 3,000 Rands (maybe 250 Euros...)