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Category: Garden & Landscape

Depicting ferns

by sarahkburke

A nature print by Henry Bradbury in Thomas Moore's The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

A nature print by Henry Bradbury in Thomas Moore’s The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

Ferns are relatively flat, making them particularly amenable to a variety of illustration techniques and decorative uses. Of course ferns have been depicted primarily using the standard illustration processes of a given period, specifically engravings and chromolithographs when we look at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But their format has led to a striking variety of documentary technologies. Ferns are (metaphorically, if not biologically) fruitful sites for experimentation with illustration techniques.

Anna Atkins, "Title page of British Ferns'" (1852)  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Anna Atkins, “Title page of British Ferns'” (1852) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Perhaps the best-known examples of fern illustration are the cyanotypes produced by Anna Atkins, who used this early photographic method to document seaweeds and ferns. The cyanotype process is familiar to us today from architectural blueprints—and is widely available for both children’s art projects and home crafters. The technique entails placing objects on sensitized paper, exposing it to light, and then washing the paper to fix the negative image on a dark blue background. The cyanotype process is a type of photogram, a general term for creating a negative image on light-sensitive paper, no camera required. Dumbarton Oaks holds three photograms of ferns, all nineteenth-century French, and therefore of the same period as Atkins and fern mania.

One of three French photograms at Dumbarton Oaks

One of three French photograms at Dumbarton Oaks

The Victorian fad for ferns also led to experiments with using ferns as stencils for paint or for smoke, using soot from candle smoke to produce negative images of ferns on blank paper. Ferns appeared in a wide variety of decorative arts, including ceramics and architectural details. For more on this trend, see a previous post on this blog.

Another experimental type of image often associated with ferns is the nature print. While photograms make a negative image of an item against a darker background, nature printing most often uses the physical specimen to make an impression on a printing plate.

The two most familiar names in the history of this technique are Alois Auer, of Vienna’s Imperial Printing Office, and Henry Bradbury, who produced the illustrations for Thomas Moore’s The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855). These illustrations make use of the softness of lead plates. Ferns were placed between a plate of lead and a plate of steel, exposed to pressure, and then removed; the lead would retain an impression of the specimen, and could be used to produce an electrotype plate for printing. It is obvious that Bradbury’s plates were created from specimens—one can see the flaws and characteristics of the specific plants. The plates do an excellent job of depicting fronds and stems, including veins and other minutiae. In many cases the roots are reduced to a blur. In some instances the locations of sporangia have been added by hand—a creative attempt to compensate for something left out in the process of creating the nature print.

Nature printing described in the preface to Thomas Moore's The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

Nature printing described in the preface to Thomas Moore’s The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)


Both Auer and Bradbury were active in the 1850s, and each developed methods that entailed using a plant to create a plate. Over the centuries, there have also been many examples of printing directly from a plant. One fifteenth-century example, which includes a fern, is now found in the Universitätsbibliothek Salzburg.

A new acquisition to the Dumbarton Oaks collection is Johann Hieronymus Kniphof’s 1733 “herbarium vivum.” He continued this effort in several subsequent publications, but this was his first, and it is a fascinating example of experiments in capturing the likeness of a plant. Scientifically, many of the illustrations lack important details; the more useful parts of many illustrations have been added after the fact, by hand. But there is something particularly compelling about the desire to document a specimen with such fidelity.

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof's book of nature prints (1733)

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof’s book of nature prints (1733)

For comparison, here is the same print without the hand coloring, from ULB Sachsen-Anhalt.

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof's book of nature prints (1733), without hand coloring

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof’s book of nature prints (1733), without hand coloring

Photograms and nature prints were for the most part superseded by advances in photographic reproduction in the late nineteenth century. Much has been written about the meaning of changing modes of botanical representation—a quick nod to Daston and Gallison’s Objectivity will have to suffice for now—but it should be said that although there may be a general trajectory by which one can track changing trends, there are always interesting experiments occurring around the periphery.

“Ferns will grow where flowering plants would perish”

by sarahkburke

From Francis George Heath's The Fern Paradise: A Plea for the Culture of Ferns.

From Francis George Heath’s The Fern Paradise: A Plea for the Culture of Ferns.

1850s London, as described by Charles Dickens in Bleak House: “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” The soot, the mud, the heavy London fog are used by Dickens to introduce the confusion and corruption of London’s High Court of Chancery, but the description also captures a very real environmental phenomenon in London. Fifty years later, Claude Monet’s paintings of Parliament documented the same heavy smog, the result of coal smoke and gas lamps.

There were early innovators, such as Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who developed “smoke-free” stoves to remove smoke from within the home. But this smoke could only go so far, and it became the key ingredient of the pea soupy miasma of industrial cities.

This smog killed people. It is also worth noting that the increased use of coal, beginning in the eighteenth century, was predicated on awful working conditions for miners and their families. In this context, it may not seem particularly tragic that the smog could make it difficult to maintain a tasteful garden! But it is fascinating to tease out how technologies (and people) adapt to changing circumstances. The introduction of the Wardian Case, invented by and named for Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868), is an excellent example.

From N. B. Ward's On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.

From N. B. Ward’s On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.

This case, akin to a terrarium, became popular very quickly because it could foster the growth of delicate plants in a sealed system. This protection was necessary because of the aforementioned air pollution, as well as the increasing interest in delicate plants such as ferns. It became so commonplace that in 1856 Shirley Hibberd asked, “Who would live contentedly, or consider a sitting-room furnished, without either a Ward’s Case or an Aquarium?”; the cases were popular among the middle class audience reached by authors like Hibberd and J. C. Loudoun. They were costly enough to be status symbols but less prohibitively expensive once English excise duties on glass were lifted in 1845. They created climates that suited the exotic plants imported and sold by nurseries such as that run by the Loddiges family. The cases compounded their own utility by being used onboard ships to transport fragile plants from overseas. And, as indicated by Hibberd, their design suited the Victorian taste for features like aviaries and aquariums.

From Shirley Hibberd's The Fern Garden.

From Shirley Hibberd’s The Fern Garden.

Wardian cases could support flowers, moss, and ivy. But Ward’s initial goal had been to develop a safe environment for his ferns. The Wardian case was one of the many manifestations of the Victorian fern craze, along with the cultivation of rockeries, the collection of pressed specimens, the creation of cyanotypes and nature prints (about which I will write further in an upcoming post), and other manifestations in decorative art. The cases, unlike some of these other technologies, could host living ferns and could remain on display as part of the furniture of a tasteful drawing room. Ferns were suited to the era’s fascination with the delicate, the intricate, and (to return to Hibberd) there are those who argued that it required excellent discernment to appreciate ferns, precisely because they were not gaudy with flowers.

What is coal? It is, ironically, the product of ferns. Over 300 million years ago, our earth was inhabited by giant insects and ferns the height of trees. When those ferns died, they sank into the swampy ground and compressed, first into peat and later into coal. This fossil fuel, when burnt, filled cities with smog and necessitated new technologies to protect fashionable plants.

From John Lindley's The Treasury of Botany.

Tree ferns in Java, from John Lindley’s The Treasury of Botany.

Allen, David Elliston. The Victorian Fern Craze: A History of Pteridomania. London: Hutchinson, 1969.

Heath, Francis George. The Fern Paradise: A Plea for the Culture of Ferns. Sixth edition. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1880.

Hibberd, Shirley. Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste: And Recreations for Town Folk, in the Study and Imitation of Nature. London: Groombridge and Sons, 1856.

Hibberd, Shirley. The Fern Garden, How to Make, Keep, and Enjoy It, Or, Fern Culture Made Easy. 2d. ed. London: Groombridge and Sons, 1869.

Lindley, John. The Treasury of Botany: A Popular Dictionary of the Vegetable Kingdom. New edition. London: Longmans, Green, and co, 1873.

Ward, N. B. On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. 2nd. ed. London: John Van Voorst, 1852.

Later flowers for the bees

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

The lady ginkgoes are dropping their weird, squashy fruit all over the sidewalks and the glossy, dark-fruited chokeberries have sprouted and died, which means it’s finally full fall here in Georgetown. It’s a sunny day at Dumbarton Oaks, and the signs of autumn fill the gardens. Between the pinks and oranges rapidly appearing among the green of the summer leaves and the fall flowers blooming with every shade of the rainbow, the gardens are brimming over with color.

Flowers in the Dumbarton Oaks gardens, October 17

Flowers in the Dumbarton Oaks gardens, October 17

As great as the gardens look today, a wild palette of fall color can also be found inside the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Room. In the eighteenth century, gardeners could buy seeds from beautifully illustrated seed catalogs, showing fruit, flowers, or both. One of the first of these, and so beautiful that its illustrations were reproduced in new editions long after they stopped serving as a catalog, was Twelve Months of Flowers, circulated by Robert Furber. (He was the subject of a previous blog post here.) Below, to match the season, is the image for October. Although they’re faint in this image, each flower is numbered and labeled below. The large yellow flower at the very center of the image, for instance, is a yellow poppy, a perennial. Each of these flowers would have been available for purchase from Furber’s business, as was the print itself separate from the catalog.

Twelve Months of Flowers: October

Twelve Months of Flowers: October

The Twelve Months of Flowers, published in 1730, was very popular, and followed two years later by Twelve Months of Fruit. The image for October is below, full of cherries and apples and pears. None of these varieties seem to be common today, at least under the names they have here, but I think they look delicious.

Twelve Years of Fruit: October

Twelve Years of Fruit: October

Furber, Robert. Twelve Months of Flowers: From the Collection of Robt. Furber, Gardiner at Kensington. London: s.n, 1730. [HOLLIS]

Furber, Robert. Twelve Plates of Fruit: From the Collection of Robt. Furber, Gardiner at Kensington. London: s.n, 1732.  [HOLLIS]

Space for Procession

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

Dumbarton Oaks seems kind of sleepy in August. The summer population of students and interns has departed and next year’s fellows have not yet arrived, so the number of people around the place is diminished. Despite some remarkably nice weather for a Washington summer, things are still a little subdued.

Even in the quiet that comes from the building being less full than usual, however, the staff are as hard at work as ever: planning for the October symposium is proceeding apace! Our fall symposium in Pre-Columbian Studies, this year, is titled “Processions in the Ancient Americas: Approaches and Perspectives.” My job is to assist with special exhibits in the library, so I’ve been helping our librarian for Pre-Columbian Studies, Bridget Gazzo, prepare the book exhibit that will tie into the theme of ‘processions.’

Books for the exhibit are piling up - and this is only a few of them!

Books for the exhibit are piling up – and this is only a few of them!

Much of the exhibit will emphasize the importance of the space through which people proceeded. Just as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade has to be held in Manhattan (I find it nearly impossible to imagine it in the suburbs), so too did the space for Pre-Columbian processions matter, and matter a lot. One type of space the exhibit emphasizes is the plaza, which in Mesoamerica was often paired with the pyramids we associate with Aztec or Maya sites. 

This emphasis on space, both in our exhibit and in the symposium itself, helps offer a corrective to archaeology’s tendency, sometimes, to treat buildings as though they were intended to stand separate from their environments. One rare book we can’t use in the exhibit shows some good examples of this tendency. I liked this book, even though we can’t put it on display, so I’m going to show you some pages from it now.

Title page

Title page

This book is the archaeological report from an excavation done in 1935 at the pyramid of Tenayuca, a Chichimec site in the Basin of Mexico, near the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan. The Chichimecs were a warlike tribe from the region of northwest Mexico, whom the Aztecs claimed as an important part of their heritage. (The Aztecs saw themselves as the rightful heirs to both the Toltecs, a legendary civilization known for their culture and arts, and the Chichimecs, consummate warriors whose myths involved more skinning of people than do most. Thus the Aztecs could claim to be cultured and fierce at the same time.)

The pyramid in the different stages of its construction

“the Pyramid in the different stages of its construction”

Among other things, the report contains plans of the pyramid in each stage of its construction, although I can’t immediately verify their accuracy. The image above shows the page on which the plans of each phase of the temple could be compared with each other, so readers could understand how the site changed over time, getting bigger with every iteration. The authors’ hypothetical illustration of what the final phase looked like when it was new is below.

Artist's depiction

Artist’s depiction

This page also shows what I mean about taking buildings out of context—although you can see a bit of the pyramid’s surroundings in this image, most of them are cut off. And that’s the most we see of the pyramid’s context in the entire book! Most of the images look more like the line drawings above, even though in most of Mesoamerica, the pyramid wasn’t meant to be understood alone. We can’t understand this site without understanding the pyramid, so this book represents a necessary part of that effort. In our exhibit, however, I hope that our emphasis on the plaza and the processions that took place in it will help viewers focus on how the complex of pyramid and plaza worked together when they both were built.

As for why we can’t display the book right now, I’m afraid it needed a visit to the hospital of injured books, which I’ll profile in an upcoming blog post.

Poor book

An injured book


When I was browsing some old entries in this blog for fun (a leisure activity I highly recommend), I came across this post from way back when, called “Steps & Stairs.” That post is about steps, movement, and the rhythm of walking throughout the Dumbarton Oaks gardens, so if you’re interested in processions in a very different context, that’s one place to start!

Highlights of the Music Exhibit, Pt. 2

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

Having covered the musical material from the main three sections of the Library—Pre-Columbian, Garden and Landscape, and Byzantine—a few days ago, it’s time to turn to the music that the Blisses collected from their contemporaries. Dumbarton Oaks has been associated with music ever since the Blisses’ day (I doubt I will ever again work in a place after which Stravinsky named a concerto!), a tradition that carries on through our annual concert series and in which this exhibit takes part.

The association between music and Dumbarton Oaks originated with Mildred Bliss, a lifelong lover of music. Because Mildred Bliss was well-connected with the French music scene, Dumbarton Oaks possesses some interesting scores from the early twentieth century, which are housed both in the Rare Book Collection and in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives. These include a handwritten fanfare by Francis Poulenc, as well as several pieces dedicated to Mildred Bliss herself.

The piece we displayed from Francis Poulenc, often listed among the greatest French composers of the twentieth century, was a playful one, a birthday present. Written in 1957 for the seventieth birthday of Nadia Boulanger, it runs “Vive Nadia, la chère Nadia Boulanger, la très chère Nadia. Alleluia.”

Nadia Boulanger then gave it to the Blisses, adding the inscription on the bottom that runs, “ma chèrie Mildred, à mon chèr Robert mes amis incomparables que j’aime de tout mon coeur, Nadia, 16 septembre 1957.”

This sheet of paper involves some interesting characters from early twentieth century musical history. Poulenc wrote it late in his life, in the same decade that he wrote some of the religious choral compositions that continue to be among his most-performed works. Nadia Boulanger, for whom he wrote it, was a noteworthy figure in her own right—as a piano teacher, she influenced a number of famous musicians and composers, and she was one of the first prominent female conductors. This birthday present, given twice, reflects the long friendships between Boulanger and Poulenc and between Boulanger and the Blisses. The latter relationship is significant, among other reasons, because it was Nadia Boulanger through whom the Blisses commissioned the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto from Stravinsky, and it was she who conducted the premiere at Dumbarton Oaks when Stravinsky proved too ill to travel.

The other piece of music I will highlight today, given to Mildred Bliss by the composer and conductor Ernest Schelling, comes from much earlier in her life. This piece of music, for which we still have the original envelope, is engaging because of the significance it holds to the Blisses’ personal lives.

Envelope for Intermezzo

Envelope for Intermezzo

Intermezzo for the Organ

Intermezzo for the Organ

Intermezzo for the Organ, Interior

Intermezzo for the Organ, Interior

The first page of the music is inscribed “Intermezzo for the organ, by Ernest Schelling,” and “For Miss Mildred Barnes, 4/14/1908.” The envelope is addressed to “Mr. Helstein [?], Organist of Grace Church, Broadway + 9th St, New York,” and is marked “Please deliver at once, Important.” This is significant because that very day, on April 14, 1908, Mildred and Robert Bliss were married  in Grace Church, New York. I do not know whether this piece of music made it to the church in time to be performed—if Schelling mailed it on April 14, it seems unlikely, but perhaps he dated the interior with her wedding date and not the date he sent it. With this, however, we can see Mildred’s association with music when she was still in her twenties, and one of her (perhaps belated) wedding gifts.

Highlights of the Music Exhibit, Pt. 1

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

Dumbarton Oaks has been humming with activity this year, much of it about sound and the senses. There is a temporary sound sculpture in the gardens right now, surprising and delighting those who pass by the Lover’s Lane Pool, and the Byzantine and the Garden and Landscape Studies symposia this spring both took the senses as their theme. To harmonize with these events, the spring 2014 library exhibit centered on music, including the Exultet rolls we featured earlier this year.

When the exhibit came down last week, we wanted to memorialize some of its highlights here in cyberspace, so that they would live on even after all of our gathered books had been re-shelved.

One of the cases of the exhibit

One of the exhibit cases

The exhibit featured materials from all three sections of Dumbarton Oaks’ Library—Byzantine, Garden and Landscape, and Pre-Columbian—as well as material from the Dumbarton Oaks Archives and the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives. The exhibit emphasized Byzantium to complement the Byzantine symposium and to provide material for the Byzantine Greek summer school here, but there were items to appeal to scholars in all three programs as well as to those interested in the history of music. The archival material will be featured in its own post on Friday, so check the blog again soon!

In the absence of pre-conquest American musical notation, representing Pre-Columbian cultures was perhaps the biggest challenge. The exhibit showcased ethnographic studies of traditional music as well as depictions of people playing music in facsimiles of early codices. Two examples involved the conch shell, which appeared as an instrument both in photographs of Moche pottery and in our facsimile of the Aztec Codex Borbonicus. Below is my picture of the Codex Borbonicus, and you can go here for Guaman Poma’s depiction of the Inca messenger, or chasqui, who played the conch shell. A fact I enjoy about the conch shell is that it is sometimes known in Quechua as the ‘pututu,’ which is a wonderful onomatopoeia.

Facsimile of the Codex Borbonicus, including a man playing a shell

Facsimile of the Codex Borbonicus, including a man playing a shell

I had two favorites from the items we displayed from the Garden Rare Book Collection. One was a French comic opera from 1761 called Le Jardinier et Son Seigneur, or “The Gardener and his Master.” While that book fit our theme precisely, the contents of my other favorite had nothing to do with music at all: this one was a book printed in the early seventeenth century, titled Cognoscite lilia agri quomodo crescant, or “Learn how the lilies of the field grow.” It is an early, pre-Linnaean, book of engravings of flowers and plants, so it provides valuable material for the study of early modern botany. So why did we choose this book for our music exhibit? Flower engravings, although interesting, seem to have nothing to do with music. We chose it, however, not for its contents, but for its binding—when it was printed in the 1610s, it was bound in a sheet of medieval music, specifically the Latin Office for the Dead, as we can see below.



Interior engraving

Interior engraving

The facsimiles of Byzantine and medieval music are not so photogenic as the other items, but they lay at the heart of the exhibit. Juxtaposed with transcriptions by modern scholars providing modern musical notation when possible, images of musical manuscripts were displayed for study both of the texts and of musical notation in the last centuries of Byzantium. Although our understanding of Byzantine music is imperfect, these manuscripts provide insight into the history of liturgy and polyphonic music that still form part of modern Orthodox services. We also displayed facsimiles of western medieval and medieval Slavic musical manuscripts, the latter influenced by the Byzantine tradition, so that viewers could compare and contrast how early written music worked and changed in Europe.

Image sources, in order of appearance:

Codex Borbonicus, Bibliothèque de l’Assemblée nationale, Paris (Y 120) : vollständige Faksimile-Ausg. des Codex im Originalformat (Graz: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1974). [HOLLIS]

Crispijn van de Passe, Cognoscite lilia agri quomodo crescant (Cologne?, ca. 1614). [HOLLIS]


Healing Plants from Brazil

by sarahkburke

This post is provided by Bridget Gazzo, Librarian for Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks.

plate 22, Davilla rugosa

plate 22, Davilla rugosa

Saint-Hilaire, Auguste Francois César Prouvencal de, 1799-1853. Plantes Usuelles des Brasiliens. Paris, Grimbert (printed by Casimir), 1824-1828. [HOLLIS]

From the beginning of Brazil’s colonization by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, Europeans were keenly interested in its biodiversity. Jesuit priests, the first foreigners to make direct contact with native Brazilians, integrated Brazilian botanical remedies into European medicine. The French botanist Auguste de Saint-Hilaire was one of the first scientists to freely travel throughout Brazil, from 1816 to 1822. Saint-Hilaire, born in Orleans in 1799, had the opportunity to accompany the Duke of Luxembourg on his journey to Brazil to assume his post as French Ambassador in Rio de Janeiro in 1816. Saint-Hilaire spent the next six years traveling ten thousand kilometers to explore the southern provinces of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul, Espiritu-Santo, Mato Grosso, Cisplatina (currently Uruguay), and the old missions in Paraguay. He returned to France carrying 7000 plant species, 4500 of which were unknown to science at the time. These collections are deposited in Paris’ Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, along with Saint-Hilaire’s six volumes of field books. In his field books, Saint-Hilaire registered the vernacular names of the plants and, very importantly, also provided descriptions of the traditional uses.

While data from many species recorded in the field books has been published, as many as 75 species from these manuscripts have not been published by Saint-Hilaire or by later scientists. These field books continue to be a trove of unstudied raw material. The most common traditional uses recorded for the plants identified were as purgatives and febrifuges. Next in frequency were treatments for venereal disease, snake bites, and diuretics. Many of these efficacies have been, and continue to be, confirmed by laboratory studies.

Plantes Usuelles des Brasiliens (1824-[1828]) is one of Saint-Hilaire’s major publications on native Brazilian plants and their beneficial uses. Dumbarton Oaks has recently acquired a copy of this work, which will supplement research in Pre-Columbian Studies and the exciting, interdisciplinary work being done on the history of science in the New World. The first plant described and illustrated is none other than Strychnos faux-quinquina, with nom vulgaire quina do campo, highlighting the intense nineteenth-century interest in quinine and quinine substitutes. Another quinine substitute included in the book is Solanum pseudoquina. (Cinchona, the traditional source of quinine, was often over-collected, leading to the search for substitutes.) The author dedicates the book to the Emperor of Brazil, Pedro I, with gratitude for the constant protection of his Majesty’s government during six years of traveling through Brazil. Our newly acquired copy is an especially interesting object because of its hand-colored images and its retention of the publisher’s original boards and wrappers.

plate 21, Solanum pseudoquina

plate 21, Solanum pseudoquina

Anda gomesii

Anda gomesii


by sarahkburke

It has been noted—with good humor—that several of this summer’s World Cup matches have pitted the geographic areas of the Pre-Columbian world against those of the Byzantine. Colombia trounced Greece. Argentina defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mexico finished Croatia. But it was in neither the Byzantine nor the Pre-Columbian collection, but rather in a book from the Garden rare book collection that we come across Guiseppe Zocchi’s eighteenth-century engraving of Florentine calcio.

Zocchi's plate, "Veduta della Chiesa e Piazza di S. Croce con la festa del Calcio fatta l'anno 1738 alla Real presenza de Regnanti Sovrani"

Zocchi’s plate, “Veduta della Chiesa e Piazza di S. Croce con la festa del Calcio fatta l’anno 1738 alla Real presenza de Regnanti Sovrani”

Zocchi worked under the patronage of Marchese Andrea Gerini, who oversaw his training and commissioned the Scelta di XXIV vedute delle principali contrade, piazze, chiese e palazzi della città di Firenze (first published in 1744, reissued in 1754). As with earlier works by Giovanni Battista Falda and Dominicus Barrière, such prints were purchased by visitors to Italy as a memento of their journey. Zocchi’s prints are noteworthy for the charming and human details that occur within the neighborhoods and piazzas of his title: dogs greet each other, men and women flirt. In the case of the illustrated game, individuals in the foreground climb over one another in an attempt to view the match.

costumesAnd what of that match? “Calcio fiorentino,” or “calcio storico,” is one of the many predecessors of the game now known as football or—since Dumbarton Oaks is located in the United States—soccer. Calcio (also the modern Italian word for the game currently being played in Brazil) may trace its roots back to Roman harpastum and earlier Greek games, although these classical games seem to share few elements with the modern iteration besides the vying of teams for control of a ball. The Renaissance Italian version was documented by Giovanni de’ Bardi in 1580. Bardi’s handbook to the game was reprinted throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and it outlines the basics of the game: twenty-seven players per team, played between January and March, and the basic roles of different positions on the field (rushers, ball-keepers, interferers, strikers, and so on). It was typically a game for nobility and early editions of Bardi—as we see repeated in Zocchi—show the game being played in Florence’s Piazza di Santa Croce. Bardi defines the game as follows:

“Calcio is a public game, of two teams of young men, on foot and unarmed, who, in an affable manner and for the sake of honor, contend to pass an inflated ball from the posta (on one end of the middle-line) forward to the opposite goal. The field where it takes place should be a main square of a city so that the noble ladies and the people can better stand and see the game.”

field 1The game might be played to celebrate a significant civic event, such as a coronation or the marriage of royalty. Players would don costumes of silk and gold. The conclusion of a match was marked with a feast. By the seventeenth century, commoners occasionally played as well, although not always successfully: a game on Carnival Sunday, 1679, had to be halted due to out-of-control crowds in the Piazza Santa Maria Novella. The “carnivalesque” aspect of the festival is on clear display in Zocchi’s engraving, where we see individuals in animal costumes, dwarves, and a decorated carriage pulled by two oxen (perhaps an example of the scoppio del carro). On the field of play we can see not only the teams but also their respective drummers, trumpeters, and standard-bearers. This eighteenth-century print documents “calcio fiorentino” at a period of waning interest, however, which coincided with the waning power of the Medici family in Florence.

scoppioD. Medina Lasansky documents a revival of interest in the sport in Fascist Italy. The regime used the Renaissance past to define a shared Italian culture, reinstating such festivals as calcio in Florence and the palio in Siena. Lando Ferretti, who oversaw propaganda under Mussolini, believed that such festivals hailed “the spiritual rebirth of a new era in which such initiatives have brought hidden treasures, traditions, and histories back to life.” These civic events taught people about history and united them in a shared Italian culture. This revival of the Renaissance version of “calcio fiorentino” survived the Fascists; games are still played annually in Florence. But interest in the modern version of calcio (a.k.a. football, a.k.a. soccer) far outstrips interest in the historical game!

Italy is no longer in contention for this summer’s World Cup, but some traditions are alive and well. They may not wear silk and gold livery, but the Italian team was surely among the best-dressed of the tournament.


Lasansky, D. Medina. The Renaissance perfected: architecture, spectacle, and tourism in fascist Italy. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004.

Magoun, Francis P. “Il Gioco del Calcio Fiorentino.” Italica 19, no. 1 (1942): 1-21.

Magoun, Francis P. “The Long-Lost Instruzione del Modo del Giuocare il Calcio a I Giovani Nobili Fiorentini of 1739.” Italica 22, no. 1 (1945): 14-20.

Mommsen, Theodor E. “Football in Renaissance Florence.” The Yale University Library Gazette 16, no. 1 (1941): 14-19.

Guillaume-Antoine Olivier

by sarahkburke

This text was generously prepared by Deniz Turker Cerda, Dumbarton Oaks Tyler Fellow, 2013–2015.  It is included in the online exhibit, “The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century.”

"Bosphore de Thrace"

“Bosphore de Thrace”

Only two short years before Napoleon brought one hundred of his savants to study all that could be known about Egypt and draw up the monumental imperial opus, Description de l’Égypte, two French physicians were sent over to the region to undertake a naturalist’s version of scientific information gathering. Guillaume-Antoine Olivier, a dedicated entomologist, and Jean Guillaume Bruguière, a renowned specialist of mollusks, were dispatched by members of the Directoire in the tumultuous post-Revolution years to study the natural history of the Ottoman lands, including its provinces, Egypt and Syria. Before their trip, Olivier and Bruguière had already collaborated on numerous zoological projects, especially regarding early-evolutionary theories with their colleague Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.  The duo’s scientific partnership came to a hiatus when Bruguière died in Corfu on their return journey. “No one had gone deeper than Bruguière into the class so difficult, so numerous, and so diversified of worms, mollusca, and conchylia,” Olivier would eulogize. The work they prepared, Voyage dans l’empire Othoman, l’Egypte et la Perse, was published in the early years of the nineteenth century.

"Coquilles Terrestres"

“Coquilles Terrestres”

It was ‘citizen’ Olivier, who then penned a multi-volume memoir of their six-year journey, dating each day, month and year in the French Republican calendar.  During the trip, Olivier’s guidebook was the relatively recent publication titled Travels through Egypt and Syria in the years 1783, 1784, and 1785, which was penned by the erstwhile Egyptologist, and self-made figure of the enlightenment Comte de Volney (born Constantin François de Chassebœuf). The ‘citizen-physician’ Olivier narrates his travels with an empiricist’s drive while willfully suppressing the period’s romantic impulse towards the sublime: “The sight of a deserted field, covered with myrtles, or a garden confusedly planted with date and orange trees could never inflame my imagination; and I have frequently surveyed, without astonishment, truncated capitals and scattered columns.” He made his botanical observations with an eye for trade such as the cup of a velani oak (used in tanning and dyeing), the hairy-cupped oak (sourced for ship and home-building), and the Aleppo gall (from Quercus infectoria for medicinal purposes).

"Quercus infectoria"

“Quercus infectoria,” an image of interest for historians of the book as well–iron gall ink is extracted from oak galls.

Jacques Martin Cels, who had survived the guillotine as a duty collector and recreated himself as the proprietor of a botanical garden in Paris, was the sole-recipient of Olivier’s plant specimens, while the shell collection is still in the National Museum of Natural History, Paris.

Twice along their arduous journey, when their safety was jeopardized and they needed transportation aid first from a local ruler and later from a janissary, their skills as physicians came in handy in curing the former’s presumed terminal illness and the latter’s venereal disease. Their journey also coincided with the overhaul of the French imperial consul in the Ottoman territories. Therefore, half-way through their trip, the naturalists found themselves having to play the part of diplomats, and were rerouted to Tehran to revitalize the Franco-Persian trade against Russia’s budding imperial ambitions in the region. The numerous maps attached to these memoirs are topographic feats that signal the impending French plans over the region.

"Carte de la Syrie, de la Mésopotamie, et d'une Partie de la Perse."

“Carte de la Syrie, de la Mésopotamie, et d’une Partie de la Perse.”


Ribbit!… croak!… and some frog prints.

by sarahkburke

Frog in the Ellipse, courtesy of Elena Velkovska

Frog in the Ellipse, courtesy of Elena Velkovska

Spring is a terrific time to spot wildlife in the Ellipse fountain pool at Dumbarton Oaks. The aquatic habitat includes native water plants which, at this early point in the year, are still sparse—affording excellent views of turtles, fish, and frogs. Ducks are routinely spotted, and heron have ended the lives of several unfortunate amphibians.

As the days get warmer and flowers finally bloom (following a very long winter), enthusiasm for spring is taking over among the Staff and Fellows at Dumbarton Oaks. Many of us have been spotted acting like paparazzi, sneaking as stealthily as possible towards known frog habitats in an attempt to get a good glimpse (even a photograph) before being noticed. Soon we will be able to see tadpoles in the fountain pool. For now, the confident survivors of last summer dominate the space: large bullfrogs unfazed by approaching spectators.

15th-16th c. golden frog ornaments (Mixtec/Aztec), from "Gold of the Americas" by Julie Jones and Heidi King (2002)

15th-16th c. golden frog ornaments (Mixtec/Aztec), from “Gold of the Americas” by Julie Jones and Heidi King (2002)

All of this has led to a certain amount of frog frenzy, and some of us in the Library have started looking for frogs in our own habitat. Bridget Gazzo, Librarian for Pre-Columbian Studies, recently staged an exhibit on gold of the Circum-Caribbean world; the exhibit included a number of images of frogs, which were frequently rendered in gold in this region.

Chiriqui frog, from "Ancient Art of the Province of Chiriqui, Colombia," by William H. Holmes (1888)

Chiriqui frog, from “Ancient Art of the Province of Chiriqui, Colombia,” by William H. Holmes (1888)

We checked the Vienna Dioscorides for Byzantine frogs but, while it includes a number of salamanders and snakes, there were no frogs to be found. There is no shortage of late medieval frogs, however, if one consults the 1491 Hortus sanitatis. In one case, a man removes a bufonite (a variant of a bezoar stone) from the head of a toad, a practice we cannot condone. (Did you know there is no taxonomic distinction between frogs and toads?)

Bufonite, from the "Hortus sanitatis"

Bufonite, from the “Hortus sanitatis”

Rana marina, from "Hortus sanitatis." The same woodblock is used in both the section on animals and the section on fish.

Rana marina, from “Hortus sanitatis.” The same woodblock is used in both the section on animals and the section on fish.

Mark Catesby observed several frogs in The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Some of them may be ancestors of the stream- and pond-dwellers of today’s Southeastern United States. Given the recent conclusion of Passover, we hope this blog post does not feel like a plague of frogs, but rather a celebration of their welcome presence as a sign of spring.

Catesby's Bull Frog

Catesby’s Bull Frog

Catesby's Water Frog

Catesby’s Water Frog