A lively account of how exotic animals have helped further the political ends of princes and potentates, from the Ptolemys to Chairman Mao.
“In our world of easy travel and global media,” writes Belozerskaya (Luxury Arts of the Renaissance, not reviewed), “we tend to take [exotic animals] for granted.” It was not always thus. Alexandria’s Ptolemy Philadelphus sponsored arduous and costly expeditions to capture war elephants, camels, bears, giraffes, even a two-horned white rhinoceros, to demonstrate his resourcefulness and intimidate rivals. Pompey the Great personally financed stupendous death matches in the Roman arena featuring leopards, baboons and rhinos, seeking to wow the crowd. (Politically tone deaf, he approved the slaughter of a group of terrified, howling elephants that had unexpectedly won the spectators’ sympathy.) Lorenzo the Magnificent brought honor to his Florentine family by arranging a trade agreement with Egypt, from whose sultan he received a giraffe that inspired a sensation throughout Renaissance Italy and further enhanced Medici prestige. Almost contemporaneously, Montezuma demonstrated his power by maintaining a menagerie comprising creatures drawn from the far reaches of the vast Aztec empire. Later, Cortés would use these same jaguars, ocelots, monkeys, parrots and armadillos to dazzle the Spanish court and shore up his tottering position as governor of New Spain. With his aviaries, menagerie and cabinet of natural-history specimens, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II turned 16th-century Prague into an intellectual capital. The Empress Josephine achieved the same for Paris under Napoleon, filling the grounds of her chateau in Malmaison with plants, birds and animals from all over the world. Media mogul William Randolph Hearst channeled his emotional neediness, political disappointment and genuine love of animals into his San Simeon estate, creating the most extensive private zoo of the 20th century. Belozerskaya acknowledges that her perspective on long-ago events could be viewed as overly precious, but these intriguing and little-known stories easily justify themselves.
Animal lore and history have rarely been treated so delightfully.