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We are entering the Yule season, the darkest time of year here in the northern world.  Of course we have Christmas and Kwanza and Saturnalia to distract ourselves from the endless cold gloom, but it is still a bit early to write about those topics.  I need something colorful and splendid…perhaps from the other hemisphere where everything is beautiful late spring majesty.  Behold the stupendous color and masterful dance of the peacock…spider.  I feel this jaunty little spider is a perfect spirit animal for artists.

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volans) via Jurgen Otto / Flickr

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volans) via Jurgen Otto / Flickr

The peacock spider (Maratus Volans) is a small jumping spider which lives in parts of Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia and Tasmania. The spider lives like almost all spiders—by capturing and eating tiny invertebrates, while avoiding hungry predators long enough to mate.  However unlike most spiders, the male peacock spider is a mélange of exquisite hues and glistening iridescent color. In the manner of the eponymous peacock, he has a blue, orange, and gold abdominal flap, which he can raise and lower at will. He looks like he fell out of a particularly weird corner of paradise…and, on top of that, he is a great dancer.  The female is rather more drab in appearance, and, ominously, she is much larger….

Big bold color...in a small package

Big bold color…in a small package

Like the Irish elk, the male peacock spider has a sexual selection problem on his (many) hands. If one is a small animal living in the dust-colored scrubland of the outback it is not necessarily an advantage to look like Liberace’s underwear drawer (!).  Yet male spiders who are not sufficiently brilliant and nimble at dancing are liable not to mate…and !

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If the male spider is not colorful enough, or if he fails to dance with heart-stopping terpsichorean majesty, the female spider will become “perturbed” and she is likely to attack him and eat him.  Unsurprisingly, this dynamic seems to have produced a feedback loop wherein spiders are in a kind of arms race to be as colorful and flamboyant as possible.  If they are not vibrant and ridiculous enough, the female eats them.  If they are too brilliant and noticable, everyone else does.

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volns) illustration by KDS444

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volns) illustration by KDS444

This jaunty little spider should be the mascot of artists everywhere, for, like him (or like poor Marsyas), we are slaves to the fickle whims of an ever-more jaded audience.  At the same time there is stronger competition than ever from all other quarters to be more practical and more buttoned down. I don’t know what the solution is, but the peacock spider seems to have found it.  Look at him go! (Hint: he really starts dancing at 1:46)

A pair of Congo Peafowl (Afropavo congensis) at Antwerp Zoo

A pair of Congo Peafowl (Afropavo congensis) at Antwerp Zoo

Behold the majestic Congo peafowl Afropavo congensis! This attractive bird is the only member of its genus. It seems to share characteristics with both the famous Indian peafowl and the guinea fowl—so perhaps it is a link between the two respective families. Male Congo peacocks grow up to 64–70 cm (25–28 in) in length and are brilliantly colored. Females are smaller and have duller plumage.

 

Look at that crown!

Look at that crown!

Congo peafowl are omnivores: they feed on fruits, berries and seeds as well as hunting invertebrates such as insects and sundry other arthropods. Both males and females have lovely but chaotic feather crowns. The birds are found only in central lowland forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and they are the national bird of that country.

hun2473

Isola Bella (Lake Maggiore)

Isola Bella (Lake Maggiore)

The House of Borromeo was an influential family of Lombardi aristocrats who ruled Arona, a town on Lake Maggiore (a long prealpine lake which snakes through Lombardy and up into Switzerland).   Various members of the Borromeo family played important roles in the politics of Milan and of the Catholic reformation (particularly as Archbishops), and even today they control a business empire with considerable wealth and clout.

The Gardens of Isola Bella

The Gardens of Isola Bella

More importantly, however, the Borromeo family was responsible for one of the world’s most impressive residences—an immense palazzo and exquisite formal garden which take up the entirety of Isola Bella, a small island on Lake Maggiore.  Isola Bella was once a rocky crag with a small fishing village on it (the whole island is only 320 metres long by 400 metres wide), however, in 1632 Carlo III set out to build a grand palace and garden on the tiny spot of land.  The climate of Lake Maggiore is uncommonly mild, and the Count undoubtedly was looking forward to cool summers and warm winters on his isolated retreat.  Not even rapacious aristocrats get everything they want however, and the villa’s construction was interrupted by a plague which broke out in Milan in the middle of the 17th century.

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The palazzo is just another enormous beautiful Italian palace filled with sumptuous rooms, art masterpieces, and precious treasures but the tiered baroque gardens are truly remarkable.  Exquisite Mediterranean plants thrive beneath a background of snow-topped Alpine peaks.  Magnificent stairs and formal statuary add additional splendor to the garden.

The Shell Grotto at Isola Bella

The Shell Grotto at Isola Bella

Although aesthetes might find it difficult to pin down the most remarkable feature of this remarkable place, we here at Ferrebeekeeper have an easier task.  The gardens at Isola Bella feature one of the most striking mollusk-themed rooms on Earth.  The shell grotto room connects the ten-tiered garden on one side of the island with the huge mansion on the other—it is literally the linchpin of the island.  The grotto was designed to provide a cool retreat from summer.  The walls, ceilings, floors, and doorways are all covered with intricate murals made from shells and black pebbles.  So ornate is the shell-work that it took workmen and architects a century to complete the grotto…

A different room in the grotto

A different room in the grotto

In Greek mythology, Argus Panoptes was a giant with a hundred eyes.  He was a perfect guard because, even when some of his eyes drifted off to sleep, others would open up and continue his vigil.  According to the poems of Apollodorus, Argus slew Echidna, the fearsome half-woman, half-snake, who gave birth to most of the monsters in the Greek pantheon (although more eminent writers have described Echidna as an eternal being).  Whatever his status as a monster-slayer, Argus was singularly unfortunate in that he served Hera, whose henchmen always got bumped off horribly (like the villain’s dim-witted flunkies in a James Bond movie).

Argus’ end was singularly pathetic. Hera assigned him to guard a beautiful heifer.  This comely cow was in reality Io, once a lovely priestess to Hera.  Zeus had “fallen in love with” Io, but, just as the king of the gods had begun his courtship in earnest, the couple was accosted by Hera.  To disguise what he was up to, Zeus transformed Io into a heifer (and himself into a cloud).  Hera was not fooled and she tethered Io to a sacred olive tree in her grove and set Argus as a guard.

Hermes and Argus. Painting by Jan Both and Nikolaus Knüpfer (ca 1640s)

Guarding a cow was dull work for the giant.  After a while, the trickster Hermes came into the grove.  Hermes told long dull circular stories until Argus was completely enervated, then the messenger god pulled out his pipes and began to play a repetitive lullaby.  One by one, Argus’ eyes were lulled to sleep by the magically soporific music.  When Argus’ every eye was shut, Hermes murdered the sleeping shepherd with a rock and freed Io (from the tether, not from being a cow).  Hera sent a gadfly to pursue the bovine Io, whose desperate attempt to escape the cruel insect took her eventually to Egypt and to other adventures.

The Argus Pheasant or Great Argus (Argusianus argus)

Hera regretted losing Argus, however to make sure he was not forgotten, she set his eyes on the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock.  Thus ends the tale of a hapless lackey, casually crushed by the capricious affairs of his betters. Even his end was bad–he was essentially bored to death.  I can never help think of the poor giant on days at the office when there just isn’t enough coffee. Fortunately the peacocks and allied members of the pheasant family are spectacular.  Beyond the familiar Indian peafowl, there is even an Argus pheasant (or “great argus”), whose color is less spectacular, but whose feather “eyes” are even more beautiful.   Hopefully everyone out there, being lured to sleep (and crushed) by the stupid affairs of our superiors can take some comfort in this splendid fowl as well as in the peacock at the top of the post.  For additional visual interest here is a very splendid painting by Jacopo Amigoni which shows Hermes helping Hera to pull the eyes from Argus’ dead head in order to set them in the peacock’s tail.

Juno Receiving the Head of Argos by Jacopo Amigoni (painted 1730-32)

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