The Athenaeum Salon Series for late winter/spring 2014 begins on Friday, February 7th with part one of our new series, ‘What use is the giraffe?’ — The Evolution of Science, Society, and Spectacle in the Cosmopolitan 19th Century. Read more about the background for the series here, including a description of the February 7th Salon:
In the summer of 1827 a very young giraffe arrived in Paris, a gift for King Charles X from Muhammad Ali, the Pasha of Egypt, who had reason to curry political favor from the ruler of France. The giraffe’s first stop in France had been Marseilles, where she had arrived by ship from Alexandria in the fall of 1826, and where she and the two men who had attended her on the voyage – one a Beduoin and one of Sudanese origin – had spent the winter. In late May, with a retinue that included her handlers, along with three cows to provide her with milk, the giraffe set off to walk to the 560 miles to Paris. This precarious undertaking was overseen by one of the most important French naturalists of the day, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who had made his name 30 years earlier as a member of Napoleon’s scientific expedition to Egypt. Geoffroy had also contributed scholarship to the Description de l’Egypte, a multi-volume report of the expedition’s findings on natural history and science in ancient and modern Egypt; its publication and dissemination between 1809 and 1829 had ignited a blaze of “Egyptomania” – a craze for all things Egyptian – in France and around the world.
The giraffe’s journey took 41 days, paced in part to accommodate the increasing and frenzied crowds of thousands, even tens of thousands, of eager spectators that she attracted in towns along the way. Shortly after arriving in Paris she was presented to the King, and thereafter made her home in the Jardin des Plantes, where for over a year she created an unprecedented sensation, sending Parisians into a state of delirious “giraffomania.” In her extreme, unknowable otherness and mysterious self-possession, she became the means by which all manner of ideas and desires – cultural, political, and sociological – could be given expression, and she appeared as a character, mouthpiece, and/or image in everything from novels, plays, and philosophical essays to political cartoons to designs for hats, wallpaper, and souvenir sweets. Her celebrity waned after 1830, and during her remaining 15 years she was sought out only, as Balzac noted in an essay on the vagaries of fame, by “nannies with young children, simpletons, and backward provincials.” But in a fittingly quiet way, her allure endures, and she is still visited today – albeit in taxidermied form – at the Museum of Natural History in La Rochelle.
Yet, as when she was alive, it is her mystery more than her manifestation that makes her noteworthy today, and a host of scholars and artists are now interpreting her significance across a range of disciplines, including science, history, and the arts. We invite you to meet several of them and learn about their work this spring when we feature a new Salon series, ‘What use is the giraffe?’ – The Evolution of Science, Society, and Spectacle in the Cosmopolitan 19th Century, and an accompanying exhibit, Zarafa: Spectacle of the Giraffe, 1826-1839.
The question “What use is the giraffe?” in our series title comes from a pamphlet written by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. We chose it because in the story of the 19th century’s elusive giraffe we will trace the intertwined chronologies of the study of natural history and science, including evolving ideas about the origin of life, racial differentiation, the role of order in the natural and man-made worlds, and the development of sociological theories; the effect of new, applied technologies on travel, communications, international relations, economics, and the craze for crazes, including the craze for ever more dazzling public spectacles that called into question a person’s ability to rely on direct experience to distinguish what was “real” from what was not; as well as the political responses that all these developments brought about.
Perhaps best of all is that in preparing for this series and exhibit we have stumbled upon traces of the mysterious giraffe in the very collections of the Athenaeum itself. One of our most beautiful and important holdings is our copy of the Description de l’Egypte. It is treasured not only for the significance of the work itself, but for what its purchase, made in 1837 as our Benefit Street building was under construction, tells us about the aspirations of the Athenaeum’s founders for both the library and the community it would serve. The fact that the giraffe’s protector, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, was a contributor to the Description thrilled us, but we were especially gratified to discover a more direct connection to the giraffe. Bard Graduate Center Assistant Professor Michele Majer, one of the Salon speakers we will feature this spring, wrote a article describing an essay by Balzac, in which he used the giraffe’s waning popularity to warn the ultra-royalist Prime Minister, Prince Jules de Polignac, that his power, too, would be fleeting. Balzac was prescient; the essay was written on the eve of the 1830 revolution that would see the government overthrown and the Prince forced into exile in England. His belongings were eventually sold, including his copy of the Description. It was the Prince de Polignac’s very copy that the Athenaeum was able to purchase when it came up for auction several years later.
The purchase was arranged by founding member and bibliophile John Russell Bartlett, who then designed and commissioned the Egyptian cabinet that housed the volumes of the Description until the library’s addition in the 1970s, when they were moved to the new climate-controlled Philbrick Rare Book Room, where they reside today. We still cherish the cabinet, and it is fitting that just as the giraffe exhibit and programming get underway, it will be moved into the Philbrick Rare Book Room, where it will be better protected and can be seen to full advantage. Come view it anew, along with the exhibit on the giraffe; join us for the Salon series, too – and don’t miss the host of giraffical activities in the Children’s Library this spring, see the full list on our website! We thank Dr. Joseph Chazan for his munificent sponsorship of the series, which was also made possible by the generous support of Susan Jaffe Tane and several friends of the Athenaeum who wish to remain anonymous.
Join us on Friday, February 7th for the first Salon in the series as well as the opening of the exhibit Zarafa: Spectacle of the Giraffe, 1826-1839:
Salon: University of Pennsylvania History & Sociology of Science Associate Professor John Tresch on “Transformative Milieu: The Paris of Geoffroy’s Giraffe,” part 1 of ‘What use is the giraffe?’ – The Evolution of Science, Society, and Spectacle in the Cosmopolitan 19th Century, a series on the giraffe who went to Paris in 1827.
The giraffe who accompanied Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire from Egypt to Paris arrived at a city in the throes of rapid change. The most exciting cultural developments of the 1820s and 30s embraced that change. Napoleon’s empire had fallen, and the Restoration was under threat by republicans, liberals, and socialists. Romanticism laid waste to classicism and rationalism; new technically-enhanced spectacles created dizzying and sublime effects. Physicists and engineers abandoned the clockwork universe to explore the conversions and interactions between electricity, magnetism, heat and light, immersing them all within ambient, vibrating ethers. Steam engines and other novel technologies– batteries, photography, printing presses– rose up as “romantic machines,” merging with nature and transforming the social order. The giraffe itself was evidence for Geoffroy’s argument– inspired by Lamarck– that species changed in response to their environment or milieu. Geoffroy’s ideas had a transformative impact on his own milieu, with its shape-shifting technologies, machines, and laws: for George Sand, Balzac, Hugo and others, he was a philosopher of pantheism at war with crushing materialism, a prophet of unity in an age of fracture. The giraffe was in very good hands.
Our Salon sponsor is Dr. Joseph A. Chazan; also made possible in part by Susan Jaffe Tane and several friends of the Athenaeum who wish to remain anonymous. Free and open to the public, the event takes place at the Providence Athenaeum, 251 Benefit Street, Providence; more info: 421-6970.
Ravenous would like to thank guest blogger, Christina Bevilacqua, Director of Programs and Public Engagement for this post.
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