April 25, 2011

The World's Tallest Statues

As to boldness of design, the examples are innumerable; for we see designed, statues of enormous bulk, known as colossal statues and equal to towers in size.
- Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), Natural History, Book 34, Chapter 9.

Wikipedia has its critics (some justified, some not), but I personally love the odd ways that it organizes information -- especially the list-making tendencies of its members (I'm a longstanding fan of the List of Unusual Deaths). These lists are somewhat silly, to be sure, but not much more silly than the methods of famous figures such as Pliny the Elder. Pliny's encyclopedic Natural History, written circa 71 AD, is essentially a running tally of natural phenomena which often deviates from 'rational' methods of organization:  Book XIII, for example, tabulates "trees, papyrus and other aquatic plants," but, in the words of James Eason, actually devolves into a "tirade on luxury, masquerading as a description of fancy tables."

All of this is meant to introduce an interesting Wikipedia list I recently came across that orders the world's statues by height. What I love about this list is that virtually every statue on it was unknown to me: the vast majority are from the non-Western world, and nine out of the top ten turn out to be depictions of the Buddha. Many of these statues were created by authoritarian regimes in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, but not all: one 88 foot tall Buddha in a Chinese monastery dates from 430 CE! Below are some of my favorite images of statues from the list, accompanied by the country they inhabit and the date of their creation.

The Spring Temple Buddha in Lushan, China -- the world's largest statue at 420 feet. Constructed in 2002.

The Ushiku Daibutsu in Ushiku, Japan -- significantly shorter at 361 feet, but in my view more imposing.

Rodina-Mat' Zovyot! (Mother Motherland Calls), the tallest non-religious and non-Buddha statue on the list. Created in 1967 in Volgograd, Russia, the statue is a paragon of the socialist realist style and the most monumental work of nationalist propoganda ever created. At 279 feet, it is almost five times taller than the figures on Mount Rushmore. Changes to the ground water surrounding the base of this concrete colossus means that it may not survive the century - the statue has begun to tilt. 

This 233 foot tall giant Buddha in Leshan, China, is far older than the others: construction initially began in 713 and was completed in 803, making it a contemporary of Charlemagne and the so-called 'Dark Ages' in Europe (for a refutation of the concept of the Dark Ages, by the way, see Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity). I like this one quite a bit because it seems more integrated into the natural landscape than other colossal statues. It belongs to the style of sculpture that involves excavating soft stone outcrops to create figures -- the 6th century CE Afghan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 strike me as very similar in construction and style to this one.

The 332 foot tall Mother Motherland statue created in Kiev, Ukraine in 1981 -- a counterpoint to the larger  Volgograd statue above. It is made entirely of steel. This one scares me.

Statue of Lord Shiva, Kathamandu, Nepal. At 143 feet, it is the world's largest depiction of a Hindu deity. It is also the newest statue on the list, having reached completion in 2010.

Another steel one - the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue in Tuv Province, Mongolia. It stands 132 feet tall and was completed in 2007. This is surely the most remote colossal statue on the list, and probably in the world.

The ancient Colossus of Rhodes, remarkably, was probably around the same size as these last two giants, standing around 107 feet high. According to classical accounts, including that of Pliny, it was partially cast from the bronze and iron weapons left behind by a Hellenistic king who attempted to lay siege to the port city circa 300 BCE. The Rhodians were said to have used a vast siege engine left behind by the king's retreating forces as scaffolding for the statue.

April 20, 2011

"For they are very expert and skillful in Diabolical Conjurations": Lionel Wafer in Central America, 1681

"I sat awhile, cringing upon my Hams among the Indians, after their Fashion, painted as they were, and all naked but only about the Waist, and with my Nose-piece… hanging over my mouth. … 'Twas the better part of an Hour before one of the Crew, looking more narrowly upon me, cried out, Here's our Doctor; and immediately they all congratulated my Arrival among them. I did what I could presently to wash off my Paint, but 'twas near a Month before I could get tolerably rid of it." - Lionel Wafer on his 'rescue' by fellow buccaneers off the coast of Panama, 1681

Title page of Wafer's New Voyage.
The pirate-surgeon Lionel Wafer (1640-1705?) has won some modest attention from historians and those interested in pirate lore owing to his participation in the South Seas voyages of more famous buccaneers such as William Dampier and Bartholomew Sharp and his later role as an advisor to the disastrous Darién settlement scheme (I've also posted about him previously here). But the most interesting aspects of his story -- which hinges on a period of four months during which Wafer lived with the Kuna people of Panama while recuperating from a leg wound -- have gone without much notice. With that in mind, the remainder of this post is adapted from a conference paper on Wafer that I presented in Seattle last week. The theme is Wafer and his relation to science, demonology and indigenous spirituality. All images are from the Archive of Early American Images database of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, a wonderful online image resource.

When Lionel Wafer published his New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America, he was working as a surgeon in London, and he probably remained in England until his death. But if we go back to the fall of 1681, we find Wafer living not as an Englishman, but as a Kuna Indian of the Panamanian coast. In the four months he spent in the Darién, Wafer had been adopted into a Kuna community under the leadership of a king named Lacenta. He had seen a gruesome leg wound sustained during his travles cured by means of indigenous herbal knowledge. He had learned the Kuna language, traveled in a royal hunting party, and gained knowledge of local plants and medicines. He had used his surgical skills – specifically, his practice of phlebotomy, or blood-letting – to “save the life” of one of Lacenta’s wives.

And he had witnessed the work of shamans who had predicted the circumstances of his own return to the Christian world with uncanny accuracy. They had done so, Wafer claimed, by summoning the devil.

Lacenta, family and attendants. From Lionel Wafer, A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America
(London, 1699), 140.
Illustration of the Kuna method of blood-letting, performed on one of Lacenta's wives.
Wafer, A New Voyage and Description, 28.
“The Indians in their Robes in Councel, and Smoaking tobacco after their way.”
Wafer, New Voyage and Description, 102.
Pedro de Cieza de León, La chronica de Peru (Seville, 1553), xxii
Wafer’s account of the devil in the New World was hardly new – on the contrary, Spanish and Portuguese chronicles of American conquest described indigenous Americans who wielded the power of Satan to make prognostications, place curses or effect cures. Yet Wafer’s account raised unsettling questions about the potentially supernatural (and Satanic) origin of traveler’s knowledge in a specific time and place – Britain in the Scientific Revolution – when such knowledge had never been more valuable, or more fraught with controversy. As David Livingstone, Simon Schaffer and Harold Cook have shown, traveler’s accounts provided the first-hand reporting of phenomena that fueled the development of the natural sciences. But who was an acceptable source for this data? 
Tupi Indians in Brazil tormented by devils (detail). Theodor de Bry, Americae tertia pars (Frankfurt, 1592), 223.
By the close of the seventeenth century, what Anna Neil has called ‘buccaneer ethnographers’ such as Lionel Wafer’s travel partner William Dampier had demonstrated that even criminals and pirates could collect empirical data about the world’s ethnography and geography. Yet the personal histories of such individuals, who frequently resided among non-Christian indigenous peoples for extended periods, put them in the complex position of serving as mediators between the practices of scientific travel and indigenous spirituality. 

Wafer stood squarely in between these two worlds. As Britain’s preeminent firsthand witness of the Panama region, he was a key figure in early attempts to understand the American tropics -- and in efforts to make use of its resources. Indeed, in July of 1687 Wafer had been interviewed regarding the Darién’s colonization potential by none other than John Locke. Wafer’s account had also been printed and bound together with an account of Darien written by an unspecified “member of the Royal Society,” suggesting close links between Wafer and that institution.

How did this new generation of hybrid, cosmopolitan traveler navigate the boundaries between the scientific and the supernatural -- and what can these negotiations tell us about the transformations of both the natural sciences and the British Empire at the dawn of the eighteenth century?

Wafer’s connection to the geographic and cultural space of the American tropics put him in a unique position to complicate understandings of Satan, science and the supernatural. He served as a courier of knowledge about a tropical world that was still largely unknown to European science. But Wafer’s time in this space had bestowed on him a form of indigeneity that, while offering insights into the workings of nature in the New World, perhaps also rendered his testimony unreliable and epistemologically suspect. Wafer’s adoption of Kuna dress and ceremonial body paint, in particular, raised concerns about his trustworthiness that were tied to larger debates about the role of the devil in both European and non-European societies. John Bulwer’s 1656 frontispiece to Anthropometamorphosis, or the Artificial Changeling, for instance, shows a European woman, a hair-covered man and a South American Indian with full body paint standing side by side. They are being judged by Nature, Adam and Eve and a body of disapproving magistrates (including the ghost of Galen) for transforming their bodies, while the devil flies above them laughing and saying, “In the image of God created he them! But I have new-molded them to my likeness.”

Details showing Europeans and indigenous Americans being judged by Nature for modifying their bodies.
John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis (London, 1656), frontispiece.
Wafer had written that his Kuna body paint eventually rubbed off, often with the “peeling away of flesh and all,” to reveal a European underneath– but did his time in the world of the Kuna leave traces of the indigenous that took longer to disappear? In the preface to the second edition to the New Voyage and Description, printed in 1694, Wafer attempted to reaffirm his status as a credible Christian observer, writing that he wished to “vindicat[e] my self to the World” regarding his previous account of “the Indian way of Conjuring,” which, he explained vaguely, had “very much startled… several of the most eminent Men of the Nation.” In this preface Wafer continued to maintain that the Kuna shamans practiced Satanism, and he buttressed his authority by citing parallel accounts produced by Scottish settlers in the Darién. He pointedly refrained, however, from defending his earlier claims about the accurate predictions this method produced.

As the geographer David N. Livingstone notes in his book Putting Science in its Place, “To ask what role specific locations have in the making of scientific knowledge and to try to figure out how local experience is transformed into shared generalization is, I believe, to ask fundamentally geographical questions.” Wafer’s account affirms the truth of this claim. Yet it also opens up new questions about the entwined geographies of scientific and supernatural knowledge-- for religion is, after all, the other pre-eminent tool by which “local experience is transformed into shared generalization.” Would Wafer have requested and affirmed the truth of "Satanic conjurations" if he were in Europe and not Panama? Or did these powers exist in relation to the spaces that harbored them, and did long-distance travel and the exigencies of print and place transform perception of them in some fundamental way? Wafer’s account leaves the question open.

You can read Wafer's New Voyage and Description free of charge on Google books here. Ignacio Gallup-Diaz's The Door to the Sea and the Key to the Universe: Indian Politics and Imperial Rivalry in the Darién, 1640-1750 is the best account of the region's colonial history that I have found - it comes highly recommended, and is available free as a Gutenberg e-book via Columbia University Press. The University of Ohio library has a great blog post on its copy of Bulwer's Anthropometamorphosis with accompanying scans here. Finally, for those interested in the larger questions surrounding exploration, indigenous-European interaction and science, I highly recommend William Hasty's recent essay "Piracy and the Production of Knowledge in the Travels of William Dampier" and the works of Schaffer, Livingstone, Cook and Safier, which are hyperlinked above.

April 5, 2011

History on the Web Roundup, Mk. 1

One of the things I've enjoyed about starting this site is that its made me aware of many other blogs devoted to history and visual culture. Popular sites like BibliOdyssey and 50 Watts (née A Journey Round My Skull) will probably be familiar to many of my readers, but others are less well known. With that in mind, here's the first entry in what I hope will be a semi-regular compendium of recent history-related content posted to the web (with a marked slant toward my interests in the 1500-1800 period, global history and visual and print culture). All posts are from circa March 2011.

Joris Hoefnagel (artist), Mira calligraphiae monumenta,
Flemish, illumination 1591-1596, script 1561-1562.
Getty, MS 20, fol. 37v. Image here.
1. From Duke Ph.D. student Whitney Trettien's Diapsalmata blog, a post on manuscript trompe l'oeil illustrations entitled "Dragonfly Wings & Other Bookish Things":  
Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Rudolf II commissioned Hoefnagel to illustrate the Mira calligraphiae monumenta, produced by the calligrapher Georg Bocskay twenty years earlier. Because Bocskay's calligraphic flourish crossed the entire page, Hoefnagel nestled the flower stem into a "slit" in the parchment. The shadows on both the flower and the mussel preserve the illusion... There's a thin, sometimes obscure line between the page as a medium bearing representations -- images and text that draw you away from its materiality -- and the page as an archival platform in itself.

Lavinia Fontana, Self-Portrait at the Spinet, oil, 1577
2. At Three Pipe Problem, a fantastic blog devoted to art history, guest-blogger Monica Bowen offers an interesting piece on the female self-portrait in the Renaissance:  
Catherine King points out that in terms of self-portraiture, “the act of showing oneself to another was very different for a young woman than it was for a young man.” Hence, female artists needed to be careful in how they presented themselves in portraits. Fontana visually manifests this care by not only stressing her virginity, but by appearing in modest red dress that suggests marriage (red was the traditional color for wedding dresses in Bologna).
At the same site, also check out this fascinating discussion of Titian and mirrors and a post on the deep history of the virgo lactans motif in Western art.

A New Zealend native drawn by Jean Pirone, 1790s.
3. From peacay, the proprietor of BibliOdyssey, another typically well-crafted post on the Count de Lapérouse (1741-1788?), a French mariner whose ship disappeared in the Pacific in 1788. The writings and drawings of the ethnography and ecology of the Pacific Islands that his expedition produced largely survived, however, and were published in the following years along with related sketches produced by search and rescue missions:   
In 1785 Louis XVI appointed La Pérouse to lead an expedition to the Pacific to complete Cook's unfinished work. His ships were the Astrolabe and the Boussole, both 500 tons. They were store-ships, reclassified as frigates for the occasion and his 114-person crew included ten scientists from different disciplines.  

4. At Got Medieval, a nicely-illustrated post on fools in the Middle Ages:
The late-medieval/early-Renaissance fool hat is kind of a combination of two previous types of hats. The first, usually without bells, had a single curly-pointed peak... The other hat had two peaks and bells, but was flat across the top.
And see this sample chapter from Beatrice K. Otto's book Fools are Everywhere: the Court Jester around the World for more on the true history of this cliched stock figure. Courtesy of the University of Chicago Press, one of the best academic presses when it comes to making content available online.

Ben Jonson's copy of Martial's Epigrams, with marginal
annotations in Latin.
5. Sarah Werner at Wynken de Worde takes a look at an example of Ben Jonson's marginalia. The playwright appears to have been even more devoted to marking up his work than most early moderns, whose pointy hands, underlines, asterisks and doodles put today's undergraduates to shame.
I've been looking at another book that a student was working on. It's unprepossessing on the outside, just a small, worn brown leather binding, with the remains of ties that have long since disappeared. But the book is much more interesting on the inside... 

The Old Library of Ilha de Moçambique.
6. [Update] I almost forgot to mention a promising very new blog: Macuti. This blog "on slums, museums and popular architecture in Ilha de Moçambique" was started in February by Silje, a Ph.D. candidate at Cophenhagen's Royal Academy School of Architecture. The posts offer a highly observant and nuanced look at the Island of Mozambique, a world heritage site thanks to its 16th century Portuguese structures (the island's chapel is the oldest still standing European-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere).
The library actually is in perfect order with book rows on heavy wooden shelves filled with information about modern agricultural production in Mozambique in the 1950s, French classics and a whole shelf of Hindi books...

For more history blog postings, see the Early Modern Carnivalesque for March 2011 on the Contemporary Jacobean Society blog and the links at right. [Update] While researching this post I came some other blogs of note: the newly-launched Big Map Blog, which features an excellent intuitive design and a huge array of digitized maps arranged by category, and Academitron, a blog on digital humanities. Finally, those with an interest in drug policy and history should check out Points: the Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.

Also, please leave your own suggestions in the comments!