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Self-Portrait of Theodor de Bry (1597) engraving

Uh, happy Columbus Day…maybe? Some holidays don’t age well, and the Italian-American festival of the European rediscovery (and colonial conquest) of the New World certainly seems to be under exceedingly stern re-evaluation.  While other people are working on that project, let’s run away and check out some amazing and also quite problematic exploration-era art of the New World.  The Flemish illustrator and engraver Theodor de Bry was born is Spanish controlled Netherlands in 1528.  Both his father and his grandfather were engraver/illustrator/jewelers and they taught him the family trade (which he in turn passed down to his own son).  Although born a Catholic, the religious controversies and reforms of his time moved de Bry to convert to Protestantism, which caused enormous trouble with the Spanish Inquisition (which was all-powerful in the Netherlands, since the low countries were then a part of Spain).  Thus, in 1570, at the tender age of 42, De Bry and his family were permanently exiled from Spanish-controlled Liege, and all of his possessions were confiscated by the state/church.

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A refugee, De Bry moved first to moved to Strasbourg. Then in 1577, he moved to Antwerp (which was then part of the Duchy of Brabant).  Between 1585 and 1588 he lived in London, and then in 1588, De Bry and his family moved permanently to Frankfurt.  To make ends meet, he illustrated books concerning the exploration and geography of the New World.  If you reread the history of De Bry’s desperate scramble around Northern Europe, you may note that American destinations are notably lacking.  His famous engravings of the New World, which influenced a generation of rulers, thinkers, explorers, and artists were made by someone who never set eyes upon the New World.

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The Coast of Virginia (Theodor de Bry, ca. 1585-1586) engraving

All of this sounds pretty unpromising from a photojournalism perspective, and, indeed, De Bry’s works were criticized even in his time for inaccuracies.  The indigenous people all look a bit like naked Walloon peasants (except perhaps for the most exotic tribes–who look perhaps slightly Mediterranean with some Native American bangles and props).  The new world forts and seedling colonies are portrayed as though they were erected in a Baroque nobleman’s parterre garden.  Also there are more frolicksome naiads, random Greek gods, and mysterious mythological beasts like sea serpents, dragons, and capricorns than was perhaps literally accurate.

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Engraving of Columbus, the discoverer of the New World (Theodor de Bry, 1594)

Yet, despite, this (or maybe because of this) De Bry’s illustrations strike me as exquisite works of art.  They pack enormous amounts of complicated yet comprehensible visual information into tiny narrative/didactic frames.  De Bry did carefully read the primary source accounts of adventurers, natural historians, and other New World-involved folk.  He collected artworks and studied curios and ethnological objects. Additionally, if you look closely at De Bry’s personal history, you may find reasons for him to dislike the Spanish masters of the Americas.  I suspect if you look at the seething anti-European anti-Western diatribes of the internet today, you would be hard-pressed to find descriptions more lurid and anti-Spanish then some of De Bry’s works. The Spanish may frequently be the protagonists, but the cruel lords clad in velvet and armor are not exactly heroes, even as they travel through exoticized realms of peculiar cruelty and mayhem designed…to sell books.

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For, as much as he was a pioneer of imagery of the Americas, De Bry was a pioneer of new media.  Just as the internet has unleashed a torrent of exciting new ideas, robust philosophies, incomprehensible imagery, lies, half-truths, and heartfelt personal convictions upon an unexpecting world, the first great blossoming of the printing press in the 16th century saw a similar boom (upon societies even less equipped to handle this information than we are equipped to make sense of the info overload of today).  I can’t tell you what to make of De Bry.  Much of his work is more disturbing and more problematic than what I have included here.  But I feel like it is all visual treasure which you should seek out (if you have a strong stomach).  Of all the artworks about the mad crash of civilizations when America and Europe came together, his work burns brightest in my mind’s eye.

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Their danses vvhich they vse att their hyghe feastes (De Bry, 1590) Engraving

Neo-Assyrian Shock Troops

Neo-Assyrian Shock Troops

The Assyrians were one of the great palace civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia. As one of the first known civilizations, their culture came of age along the upper Tigris River in tandem with Sumer, Ur, and Babylon (Semitic kingdom states which blossomed along the pattern of ancient Eridu).  The old Assyrian empire was an early Bronze Age empire which lasted from 2025 BC-1393 BC.  The Middle Assyrians were united under a series of politically powerful king priests and flourished until the great Bronze Age Collapse—a century of chaos and horror which lasted from 1055–936 BC.  After this cataclysm, the shattered remnants of Assyrian society rebuilt along the same lines—but now they had a technological breakthrough—iron.  With strong political leadership they were well-positioned to utilize this innovation, and the Iron Age Neo-Assyrians were charioteers and conquerors.  Their armies set about building the greatest empire the world had ever known based around iron, axels, horses, and ruthless political hegemony.

Neo-Assyrian Gypsum wall panel relief showing Ashurnasirpal II hunting lions, 865BC – 860 BC.

Neo-Assyrian Gypsum wall panel relief showing Ashurnasirpal II hunting lions, 865BC – 860 BC.

Into this picture came Ashurnasirpal II, who ascended the Assyrian throne in 883 BC. Ashurnasirpal II was a great builder, thinker, and a reformer.  He moved the capital of the empire from Assur to Nimrud and erected a series of new walled cities.  He collected zoological and botanical specimens from all around the known world in hopes of furthering agriculture and fostering a deeper understanding of living things (presumably).  Alas, he was also a political theorist and he realized he could utilize horrifying violence as a political tool.  He reasoned that if he tortured and killed the entire population of one rebel city, other cities would not rebel (a theory which pretty much worked after the first vivid demonstration). History remembers him as a ghastly butcher, but he was also famed in his day as a mighty conqueror and an innovator.

Bas relief from the palace of King Sennacherib: Assyrian soldiers flay the captives of the conquered city of Lachish in 701 BC.

Bas relief from the palace of King Sennacherib: Assyrian soldiers flay the captives of the conquered city of Lachish in 701 BC.

Anyway, the Neo Assyrians in general, and Ashurnasirpal II in particular feature in this week’s blog because they wanted their violence to be as gruesome as possible.  Threats and executions worked best if people were truly & utterly terrified.  Far beyond merely killing their enemies, the Neo-Assyrians needed to kill them slowly, painfully, and with real flair.  Their favorite methods for accomplishing this were spitting and burning (which is how they are remembered in the Bible). However their most hated enemies were flayed alive—which we know because we have pictorial evidence in the form of horrible bas reliefs.  Not only that, we have a direct quote from Ashurnasirpal II, who ponderously (but chillingly) said:

I have made a pillar facing the city gate, and have flayed all the rebel leaders; I have clad the pillar in the flayed skins. I let the leaders of the conquered cities be flayed, and clad the city walls with their skins. The captives I have killed by the sword and flung on the dung heap, the little boys and girls were burnt.

It is not exactly an idealistic political statement, but it has a real visceral power. And it did have real power: the Neo-Assyrians conquered the rest of Mesopotamia, and then the Near-East, and then Egypt itself.  They kept on moving using fast chariots to sweep away armies and terror to keep control. However, like so many conquerors they were trapped by their lifestyle.  The Assyrian kingpriest’s power came from building great temples to the Assyrian gods, he accomplished this with booty from conquest. When the conquest stopped the whole nightmarish system came tumbling down, and the enemies of Neo-Assyria quickly learned ways to defeat chariot armies. By the 7th century the victories began to dry up, and the empire collapsed in 627 BC. Today the Neo-Assyrians are remembered, not as cutting edge innovators, but as monsters—the first masters of the blitzkrieg and of mass terror sponsored by the state.

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Vanilla is easily the most popular flavoring on the market.  Not only does vanilla outsell all other ice cream flavors, it is the principle flavor in innumerable cakes, cookies, candies, fillings, icings, and drinks. It is also the dominant scent in many perfumes, cosmetics, and scent-based products. Vanilla (and fake vanilla) is so popular that the word has acquired a second definition as an adjective meaning “commonplace, boring, or lacking any special features.”  The second definition seems tremendously incongruous with vanilla’s fundamental nature.  True vanilla extract is derived from a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid.  For a long time it was one of the rarest and most precious ingredients available.  The plant’s cultivation history involves subjugation, genocide, stingless bees, slaves, and the fate of nations.  Many many things in this life are dull and unexciting but certainly not vanilla.

Vanilla planifolia, the Flat-leaved Vanilla Orchid

Vanilla is derived from tropical orchids of the genus Vanilla.  These plants are epiphytic vines which climb trees or other similar structures. Vanilla vines produce white, yellow and green flowers which look like narrow cattleyas.   Although the Vanilla genus consists of more than 110 species of plant, almost all vanilla extract comes from one Mexican species, Vanilla  planifolia–the flat leafed vanilla–or from cultivars derived from V. planifolia.  According to Orchid Flower HQ, “The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive form of the word vaina which means sheath. The word vaina is in turn derived from the Latin word vagina, which means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’.”  As you might imagine from such an etymology, the long narrow annealed lips of a vanilla flower do indeed resemble a sheath.

Hmm...

Once they are fertilized, vanilla flowers produce fruits in the form of long black pods.  Totonac people—pre-Colombian Mesoamericans who were indigenous to mountainous regions along the eastern coast of Mexico—were the first people to realize the food potential of these pods.  Although initially inedible, the pods produce the sweet heady smell and taste of vanilla when sun-ripened for several weeks.   The Totonacs had a myth that the vanilla flower originated when Xanat, a princess and priestess to the goddess of the crops, eloped into the jungle with a handsome lover whom she was forbidden to marry. When the pair were discovered hiding in the forest, they were beheaded.  Where the lovers’ blood mingled on the jungle floor, the first vanilla vine first sprouted.

Vanilla Pods

The Totonac people did not get to enjoy their vanilla unmolested for very long.  From the mid 15th century up until the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs and forced them to pay stiff tributes–which included vanilla pods. Not only did the Aztecs use vanilla for medicine and as an aphrodisiac, they added it to their sacred drink xocolatl—a bitter beverage made of cacao which they had learned about from the Mayans.  When Cortés marched to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he met the Totonacs along the way and they joined the conquistador as allies. Totonac support was instrumental to Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was Cortés himself who introduced vanilla to the courts of Europe.

Hernán Cortés, food adventurer

Vanilla was initially used only as a chocolate additive in Europe, but it soon became popular as a pricey stand-alone ingredient.  Like the Aztecs, jaded European aristocrats regarded it as an aphrodisiac and a sensual aid.  It was also found to be perfect for baking and producing confections. Colonial powers rushed to plant the vine in Africa, Polynesia, Madagascar, and other suitable climates, but there was a problem: although the vines flourished, there were no pods.   It was not until 1836, that Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist unlocked vanilla’s secret.  The vanilla flower (Vanilla  planifolia) can not be pollinated by any insect other than the stingless Melipone bee.

Melipona subnitida--the Stingless Melipone Bee, the only natural pollinator of flat leafed vanilla flowers

Unfortunately the method of artificial pollination devised by Morren proved too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable. It was only when Edmond Albius, an orphaned slave sent to serve a horticulturist on the island of Reunion,  discovered a quick easy method to pollinate vanilla by hand that vanilla plantations became viable beyond Mexico. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Albius was freed, but he did not see any recompense for his discovery.  He ended up imprisoned for jewelry theft and died in poverty.

Portrait of Edmond Albius, circa 1863 (Antoine Roussin / Publisher )

Fortunately Albius’ discovery made plentiful inexpensive vanilla internationally available.  The flavoring rose to dominance because it is almost universally pleasing to humans (although vanillin acts as a trigger for a small minority of migraine sufferers). During the twentieth century, organic chemists discovered how to synthesize vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde predominant in vanilla extract) from wood pulp bi-products.  Compared to natural vanilla extract (a mixture of several hundred different compounds) it tastest quite vile:  anyone who has compared real vanilla extract with synthetic vanillin could easily expound on the superiority of the former.  Real vanilla has a taste of orchids, Central-American jungles, and divinely transfigured princess  which synthetic compounds can never capture.

And that is why home-made cookies are so much better.

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