Friday, November 27, 2009

Francis I and the lure of Italy

The fur trade is a part of our heritage to the same degree that the calculated destruction of native Americans is a part of our heritage. Historians commonly lump the fur trade of the 16th century with the fisheries, as if the relatively meagre shipments of fur from North America were as important economically to Europeans as the tons of fish caught off the coasts and in the bays of North America and shipped back to Spain, France and Britain. Even as a luxury trade, fur amounted to very little in the 16th century simply because fur was not that important to the culture of the 16th century.

European history and American history are generally taught separately and seldom are the timelines in each analyzed together. Yet when it finally dawned on me that 1492 is more or less in the middle of the most glittering period on the European timeline, the Renaissance, the boredom with which the French and British greeted the discovery of the Western Hemisphere became understandable. The Renaissance was a rediscovery of the Classical culture, and how much discovery could a culture bear?

Francis was born in 1494, two years after the discovery of the New World. But the ongoing tales from the New World played no part in his education. By the time he succeeded his second cousin Louis XII, marrying Louis's hunchbacked daughter Claude, the Duchess of Brittany, to smooth the way, he was devoted to bringing the ferment of the Italian Renaissance to France. His mother Louise of Savoy admired Italian artists. Soon after gaining the throne Francis invited Leonardo Da Vinci to his court though Titian is the most notable artist to leave us his portrait.

Yes, the outfit Francis is wearing makes it look like he is indeed a man who appreciates fur. But Titian never saw Francis in person. One source says he based his portrait on a medallion made by Cellini, who lived with Francis for a few years, and another source speculates that Francis had one of his outfits shipped to him. As I'll explore in other posts, artists who could pull it off depicted fur to show off their skill. Unconstrained by the man in the flesh, how could Titian resist giving Francis's coat a generous fur collar? Didn't Francis live in the chilly north? There is one portrait of Francis done from life, and Clouet has the King looking like an Italian dandy.

Francis's importation of Italian and Classical art won him his spurs as a Renaissance Man, and it meshed nicely, in his own mind, with the on-going obsession of French monarchs with the conquest of Italy. Italy was the portal through which the wonders of the Classical world were rediscovered. Francis did patronize the voyage of the Italian sea captain Verrazzano to the New World, but when that worthy made his landfall in America, Francis was the prisoner of Charles Fifth of Spain as a result of his attempt to conquor Milan. According to a papal nuncio who saw him during his imprisonment, Francis always wore a beige coat trimmed in inexpensive fur, which is to say, fur was not really his style.

To be sure historian and biographers, anticipating what was to come, try to plant the seeds of European fascination with the New World as early as possible. That's a hard sell with Francis. His best recent biographer, R. J. Knecht, writes: "Unfortunately for Verrazzano, his return coincided with Bourbon's invasion of Provence. Francis had already left Blois to take charge of his army in the south. He may not have found time to read Verrazzano's report or to meet him in Lyons in August, yet the explorer was commissioned by him about this time to undertake another voyage to the Indies. He was given four ships, but just as they were about to sail, they were requisitioned to help defend the French Channel coasts." The Bourbon invasion was a ramification of the Italian wars, which inevitably touched off fighting with the ancient enemy across the Channel.

Verrazzano, I think, understood his patron. He mentions the native animals of the New World but not to fuel trade in fur and skins. He assured the king that there would be good sport hunting animals: "There is an abundance of animals, stags, deer, hares; and also of lakes and pools of running water with various types of birds, perfect for all the delights and pleasures of the hunt.” Francis had a passion not just for the chase, but for the gore. In 1520 Richard Wingfield sent an account of one of Francis's hunts to Henry VIII, adding "then the king himself, after their fashion, cut off the right foot of said boar..." In 1539 the Bishop of Saluzzo wrote of Francis's court, "Here one thinks only of hunting... One hunts stags twice a day, sometimes more often; and with nets once, then one moves onto another lodging." The court of France was peripatetic, not the least to avoid being in Paris too long which only invited challenges to royal authority. So a huge retinue followed the King, Francis made it huger still by raising the number of huntsmen attached to his court. He also increased the size of what amounted to his harem. When he was riddled with syphlis, he had his lackies carry him on a litter so he could shoot stags.

Francis's interest in animals didn't seem to extend beyond blood sport and into the world of fashion. The sense of animals that Francis and other nobles had was closer to Medieval Bestiaries than to Venus in Furs. Wealth required the explication of one's background and standing, which required symbolism both in heraldry and display. Francis chose the salamander, something he never "chased", and emblazoned it on his ceremonial talismans with the motto Nutrisco et extinguo, so to say, nourish the good and extinguish the bad. The salamanders in stone are all over his castle at Chambord, built originally as a hunting lodge.

Of course, he never wore a salamander. But Queen Claude had the ermine as her emblem. In France, the ermine was probably most common in Brittany, of which Claude was duchess. So in the castle's bedrooms, the salamander of Francis was paired with the ermine of Claude.

In depicting Francis artists found that salamanders seldom served. So in one mantle piece, Francis wears blue robes decorated with gold fleur-de-lys and an ermine collar. While England had the Knights of the Garter, France had the Order of the Ermine with the motto "potius mori, quam faedari" so much to say "better dead than sullied." This motto had its roots in the Classical belief that the ermine "would prefer death over the possibility dirtying its coat by crossing a marsh." Not surprisingly with that motto, the ermine became the emblem of many noble women, and women were allowed in the Order of the Ermine. The legend of the ermine has also been linked to the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary and belief in the Immaculate Conception. (Today the Order of the Ermine is a medal given to those defending Breton culture from Parisian bureaucrats. My sister-in-love, who founded the American branch of the International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language, was awarded one several years ago.)

Leonardo da Vinci painted a young Italian not wearing an ermine but holding a live one.

This was not, I think, an effort on his part to correct myth by depicting nature. Leonardo loved Bestiaries. In his own he wrote: "MODERATION The ermine our of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity." Here is a thought likely to placate any beauty squeamish about having an animal sacrificed for her wardrobe.

Francis seemed to have no interest in Beastiaries, and if he was in the Order of the Ermine, there's no evidence that it meant anything to him. He certainly didn't hunt ermine as easy as Leonardo made that enterprise out to be. Because of the interest of the nobility, the ermine was highly prized, much more valuable than beaver pelts. It rivalled the Russian sable and indeed ermines imported into France came from the northeast, not the New World.

Ten years ago, from the day I am writing this, I took advantage of an early winter thaw to see if beavers would be out in what I called Beaver Point Pond to take advatage of the warmth. As I walked up to the dam of Otter Hole Pond which spread out above Beaver Point Pond, I saw an ermine only because it was so conspicuous since all the snow had melted. In the video I took at the 15th and 30th second there are two brief glimpses of the white dashing ermine running through the tumble of logs and sticks below the dam.

How stange those Medieval and Renaissance conceits about the ermine seem. How easy to see in that video that in its own habitat the ermine would never be sullied. It might not be so lucky when its pelt adorned the ladies of Francis's courts.

By virtue of being King, Francis sponsored all the sporadic efforts to explore the New World undertaken during his reign. Verrazzano disappeared on subsequent voyages, supposed eaten by cannibals. Jacques Cartier, a Breton sailor, inspired by the reports of fishermen, organized voyages to explore the land mass just west of those fertile fishing grounds.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

My Mother's Mink Jacket

I asked my brother who is seven years older than me, if he recalled when our mother got her mink, and when she first began talking about wanting a mink coat. "I didn't know she had one," was all I got out of my effort to corroborate memories. So what does my remembering mean? Killing animals, skinning them and wrapping their fur around your body is not a primal urge. If it were, my brother would have remembered. Wanting a mink coat is a desire constructed by civilization and everyone involved in the fur trade then and now consciously confronted the necessity of killing animals in order to attain the comforts or benefits of fur. Everyone had a mother or mothering influence in their early life. But it seems seeing ones mother wrap the remains of a dead animal around her body makes an impression only on some children.

Granted, I am thinking about my first impression of fur a bit too much of late. Indeed, for years I didn't associate the song I sang to my mother, My Skin Your Skin, just those words repeated in sweet falsetto until told to stop, with her desire for a mink. I thought it expressed my desire for her skin. But if words mean anything, the song clearly expresses a separation between her skin and mine. But why do I think now that, when I was four or five years old, my drawing a distinction between her skin and my skin had anything to do with her desire for a mink?

My mother‘s four year career as a professional night club and radio singer in Washington, DC, which included glossy publicity photos,

ended in 1934 after she didn’t make it in New York City. She married a handsome federal government bureaucrat and their third son, me, was born in 1947. She tried to keep her old showbiz dreams alive with song writing, and sending her songs to old show biz contacts. Julius LaRosa sang my mother’s song, “Spring Again,” on the Arthur Godfrey television show. In the 30's she sang frequently on Godfrey's radio show when it came out of Washington. A New York music publisher offered her $10,000 for "Spring Again." (Here's a link to her singing the song from a record she produced, and paid for, at a local recording studio Spring Again)

Much depended on Spring Again. I think it was then that she expressed her pent up desires to have a house, a Cadillac, and a mink coat. I easily grasped her first yearning. There was a steady progression of tenants from the Falkland Apartments to new houses in suburbs farther away from the city. (Falkland was right on the "District Line," the boundary between the District of Columbia and Maryland.) I lost friends because of that progression. Frankly, given all the Fords, Chevies and Plymouths I counted, I thought a Cadillac impossible, and hoped at most for a Buick.

But why did I take her desire for a mink coat so personally? There was no pleasure in it for me. I'm sure my two older brothers told me how mink coats were made. Did I become jealous of a mink coat, or fascinated by it? It was clear to us all that she wanted the mink for the glamour. Thanks to her nightclub career she was no stranger to glamour, and judging from the movies of the period, fur was a mainstay of female showing off in the 30's and remained so in the 50's. However, she always told me she wanted it for the warmth.

My mother did not sell her song. Another recently published song used the phrase "Spring again." But my father's career went well. We moved to a new house in late 1954 and we got a used 1954 Cadillac (rounded fins) in the summer of 1957. Between those two dreams-come-true, my mother got her mink, not a coat, but a mink jacket, which she always called a "stoll."

The photo below shows that she had her jacket prior to January 1957 and it is most likely that she got it for Christmas 1956.

She was flanked by her sons. I am the smallest, 9 years old, my brothers 16 and 12. I recall seeing a series of photos of her posing with her mink alone, but another photo is more suggestive. Below my mother in her mink posed with her second son, then 17 years old and me, 14.

Much happened to me in that 5 years, can't you see it in my face? More or less the same that happens to every boy between the ages of 9 to 15, though my rite of passage was far different than my brother's. He had girlfriends throughout puberty and more pursuing him. I had none and suffered through every date I had, though not as much as the poor girl stuck with me. As the photos show, my brother gravitated to that mink and mother wanted him next to her in her moments of glamour. Easy to see why. I haven't asked that brother about his memories of the mink jacket (he may still have it in storage,) but I remember that one Halloween he dressed up as a woman. He must have been about 13, and was stunning. There was a family discussion about whether he should wear the mink. I don't think my mother was amused, and, as I recall, he didn't. Perhaps I do not make much of an impression in the photo above, but by that time I had worn the mink, several times.

Thanks to my disinclination to go out on dates, it was not uncommon for me to be alone in the house on Saturday night. On dark winter nights I would go into our backyard naked except for my mother's mink jacket. I told myself that I was testing to see if my mother's claims about its warmth were true. I fancied myself a scientist. Well, not warm enough to keep me from soon going back inside.

I've thought about this a great deal, and I don't think that my suburban romps foreshadowed the warmth I felt on those rare days some 40 years later, when I saw a mink go about its business on the snow and ice of Wellesley Island swamps. Warmth comes from motion, not posing, at least if you follow the mink. Tracking an animal in the snow, the last thing you want is to be burdened by fur.

And I'm not sure the mink jacket warmed my mother. Winters were always cold to her but the mink was banished even before my parents moved to Florida. I'm not sure exactly why but while she continued to love her house, and Cadillacs, she stopped wearing the mink jacket. My father was from Minnesota, the son of a Scandinavian family which, if old photos can be believed, had an entirely different sense of fur. To them it was an accessory, well, more than that, a punctuation to fashion, not an attempt at enveloping glamour.

The photo is of one of my grandmother's cousins. I never saw my grandmother with such a wrap. My father's parents were never rich and even had to ship him, the youngest of three, off to live with an aunt in Oklahoma City during the Depression. When that aunt died in the 1980's she bequeathed all her belongings to her favorite nephew, my father. Among the items were two small furs, weasels, heads and tails. (I found them in our house on Wellesley Island, and sent them to my two brothers as a joke.)

I have no reason to believe that my father had anything against my mother's mink jacket. But even a hint from him could crush her. Did he mention his aunt's furs? Did my mother finally see the heads of the animals she was wearing? All I know is that she stopped wearing her mink.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Introduction part two

In his 1832 book Astoria, about John Jacob Astor’s 1811 attempt to extend his fur trading activities to the Oregon coast, Washington Irving described the reaction of Indians along the Columbia River to the arrival of white fur traders: “The Indians were overjoyed when they found this band of white men intended to return and trade with them. They promised to use all diligence in collecting quantities of beaver skins, and no doubt proceeded to make deadly war upon that sagacious, but ill-fated animal, who, in general, lived in peaceful insignificance among his Indian neighbors, before the intrusion of the white trader."

I like Irving’s observation not only because I think it is accurate but because that’s exactly what I want to show. How the beaver’s sagacity enables it to live in peaceful insignificance, and that what most historians, ecologists and anthropologists think beavers signify is wrong. Beavers don’t mean what those experts say, in part because of the way beavers actually are, which I will try to describe, and in part because ecology, anthropology and history focus on exploit, and the significance of those things that are exploited is too often blown out of proportion in an effort to justify the exploitation. Humans always want to save face, and too often legitimize past slaughter by making its continuance a part of hallowed tradition. I want to free the beaver from its reputation as being a measure of wealth and a reason for war. Millions of beavers were killed for no legitimate reason.

Rather than describe the march of civilization across the continent endlessly repeating that the land was “rich with furs,” and implying that killing the animals bearing those furs was inevitable and necessary for progress, and that the men responsible were larger than life, I will highlight dissonant voices. In his April 8, 1859, journal entry Thoreau summoned up the sorry record of the trade: “What a pitiful business is the fur trade, which has been pursued now for so many ages, for so many years by famous companies which enjoy a profitable monopoly and control a large portion of the earth’s surface, unweariedly pursuing and ferreting out small animals by the aid of all the loafing class tempted by rum and money….” What prompted Thoreau’s observation was a newspaper report on the sudden demand for skunk furs in Russia, engineered by the Hudson’s Bay Company when there was a drop in demand for beavers. The Journal of Commerce reported a “’mania for capturing these animals [which] seems to have equaled the Western Pike’s Peak gold excitement, men, women, and children turning out en masse for that purpose.’”

American historians do not like to be presented with evidence suggesting that Americans were maniacs. Surely beavers must have regarded them as such.
There is a tradition of debunking in American history, though it seems to be currently out of fashion, but maybe my take on the fur trade will pass muster as history.

I’m not so sure anthropologists will appreciate a re-examination of their take on the Indians’ relationship to beavers, because the Indians were surely as maniacal as the Europeans. Having spent too much time in beaver swamps, I find myself getting strange feelings sometimes. When I look at the early pottery of Indians found not far from where I live, pottery made 500 years before the fur trade started, I see decoration around the pot rims that looks like the marks beaver incisors often leave on the wood of trees after they stripped the bark away. Anthropologists call such decoration “dentition.” And when I first saw the Indian mounds in Newark, Ohio, I felt like I had found the land of Giant Beavers. But no one else seems to get this sense of Indians living in peaceful significance with beavers.

In my opinion, thanks to the popularization of the work of anthropologists, we too often impose a world view on all Indians that is a composite of the most exploitive traits of many disparate tribes. Yes, some tribes sent teenage boys out to fast until they had visions of their totem animal who they would then go out a kill and then keep the skin for luck in all subsequent hunts and wars. But the Iroquois and Huron didn’t have that tradition. Yet the argument is still made and widely accepted by non-Indians that they have some mystical right to kill beavers and other animals at their whim.

Keen to categorize Indian exploits, anthropologists seem loath to let any animal live “in peaceful insignificance with their Indian neighbor,“ but 150 years ago they had a different take. The “father of American anthropology“, Henry Lewis Morgan, who died in 1881, wrote the first, and in many ways still the best, book on beavers in 1868. In 1851 he had written the first “scientific” account of Indian culture, a still well respected book on the Iroquois. A lawyer in Rochester, New York, Morgan was a champion for Indian rights and was made a member of the Seneca tribe. Then the Ojibwa shared their lore about beavers with Morgan when he was doing legal work for a railroad in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But all that he learned from the Indians did not prompt him to find much significance in the ancient relationship between Indians and beavers. In his beaver book he wrote: “During the aboriginal period, this animal was of no use except for his flesh, which was not of much request; and the Indians had no method of taking him except by the bow and arrow.” Today, thanks, I think, in large measure to the reconstruction and elaboration of Indian mythology by white anthropologists, a bite of beaver, killed by one of Sewell Newhouse’s steel traps, is a must at many an Indian powwow.

So I propose oppose the sagacity of the resourceful beavers to the maniacal human lust to kill, which will not bring millions of beavers and the world they created back to life, but I at least hope to persuade you that we should not let myth making and pandering to manufactured heroes obscure the true relationship of humans with beavers in North America. But who am to slap my tail so? What right do I have to defend beavers, what qualifications to even describe them? I have no credentials in any academic discipline, and having never killed a beaver nor any other wild animal, how dare I evaluate the actions and motives of the men, both European and Indian, who did? Yes, for many years, I found their ponds, sat still and tried to learn from the beavers, but why not relegate the musings of those loafing hours to a few poems?

I’m not sure when it struck me. My life had worked itself into a pattern of walking down wooded ridges and seeing the continuity and surprises in and around the yawning womb that is a beaver pond. I’d read the white of twigs stripped of their bark, try to catch echoes of the crash of tall trees around the pond, and freeze in anticipation watching the mounded lodge, womb within a womb, and wait for the brown wedge head of the beaver to cut the still pond surface into resounding ripples, if not crescendo slap tails. It struck me, I’m not sure when, that those who made their business off the beaver came to its fur or the beavers’ world within a world of their own wound within their own skin. How different were those worlds from mine and the sense the beavers have of their own world?