Lovable Beasts: The Wondrous and Truthful World of Bestiaries
What is it with in bestiaries that they are so attractive and terrible for our imagination?
What is it with bestiaries that they are so attractive and terrible for our imagination? They give back, perhaps, the answer to a problem we all –not without a certain enjoyment– have practiced throughout life: the act of transferring qualities from one thing to another to produce artifacts, new monsters.
A ship, for example, is a beast of synesthesia. Its sails imitate the wings of birds, its keel the fins of fish, its hull the body of seabirds. Airplanes are eagles and cetaceans, trains snakes and centipedes. Technologic evolution is in itself a living bestiary, and the most creative of men is he who can combine and metaphorize with the things that surround him. There is no better example of imagination’s diligence to conceive new life, extraordinary (and abominable) combinations, than the bestiaries of the Dark Ages and the “Century of Physics” (17th century).
Monstrosities of Evolution (Monstrorum Historia, 1624), by Ulisse Aldrovandi, is a bizarre testimony of its author’s imagination and vast education in Natural History, Science and diversity. Aldrovandi is considered the founder of modern Natural History; his book, Storia Naturale, is a thirteen-volume print, conceived as the most complete description of the three kingdoms of nature —mineral, plant and animal— that were known at the time.
His bestiary, brimming with ominous, unreal and vivid creatures stands out because each one of its beasts has its own reality. When it comes to conferring life and terror to his chimeras, Aldrovandi limits himself to the natural realms: his imagination does not cease to adhere to the real, and therefore it does not lose strength. Better yet, he uses that strange rule of the imagination which dictates that when it adheres to the unreal, the unknown, it ceases to hold us ––it loses our interest because it lacks elements we can identify. And man —think of constellations, ancient descriptions of plants or animals— needs to perceive known qualities in that which seems strange. We want everything to resemble things we’ve seen before. Therefore, a creature with a penis on his belly, a face on his thorax, its head swapped by that of a vulture, or a coral growing from a horse’s mane, are all energetic and “probable” visions.
Each one of the parts that comprise one of Aldrovandi’s monsters is a dislocated, familiar image. The scientist plays with the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms, as if they were pieces of an underworld puzzle where creatures –because they are combinations of things of this world– are at once terrible and vital.
Perhaps we only need to leaf through Monstrosities of Evolution to find the answer to our initial question. Bestiaries are fascinating because they acquaint us with harrowing beasts that reflect us on the backhand side of our own mirror ––They are sample-books of familiar beasts, lovable beasts.
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