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Workshop: Knowledge and Confusion about Exotic Animals in the European Renaissance

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Due to increasing trade, conquest, and colonization during the Renaissance, Europeans came into contact with many animals. Many non-human beings were brought to Europe as curiosities. Lions and giraffes entered the menageries of important rulers as precious gifts. Elephants and civet cats were used because of materials they produced—such as ivory and musk. Parrots and apes were studied because of their human-like qualities. Exotic animals were described in letters, maps, illustrations, travelogues, and treatises on natural history and ethnography. Furthermore, accounts from contemporary travelers, helped to construe knowledge about these non-human beings with the help of sources from classical antiquity. Classic tropes on mythological beings mediated the knowledge of distant places and animals. In the case of Africa information of classical sources merged with notions and tropes that reached Europe as a consequence of contemporary voyages. Although the relationship with the Americas was different, because the continent was not known in European Antiquity, also here classical knowledge, such as that in Aristotle and Pliny the Elder was used to understand American culture and nature, including animals, through comparisons.

This dynamic created a conundrum of knowledge and mythology on exotic animals. In addition, the way Europeans approached exotic animals, especially in the case of non-human primates, reinforced racist stereotypes and the idea of a European hegemony. This workshop aims to reflect on these two themes – the conundrum and the creation of racist views – and on the methodological problems they pose.


Carlo Taviani (Università degli Studi di Teramo and KNIR), Introduction
Cecilia Veracini (Centre for Public Administration & Public Policies, Universidade de Lisboa), Non-Human Primates in the Age of Exploration: Perception, Myth, and Science  
Kate Lowe (The Warburg Institute, University of London), Understanding and Exploiting Portugal’s Place in the Market for Exotic Animals in Renaissance Italy


Matthijs Jonker (Universiteit Utrecht) and Leendert van der Miesen (Bibliotheca Hertziana), ‘Even an Inhabitant of Upper Germany Can Understand Him Easily’: a Polyglot Parrot in 17th-Century Rome
Christine Kleiter (Deutsches Studienzentrum in Venedig, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – MPI), Can They really Talk? Confusion about Exotic Birds in Early Modern Italy

17:15-18:30 Round Table
Samir Boumediene (I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies)
Cheikh Sene (I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies)