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208 × 156 mm
272 pages
140 illustrations
15 Jun 2009
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Before Disenchantment Images of Exotic Animals and Plants in the Early Modern World Peter Mason

When explorers and artists travelled to new lands in the early modern period, the exotic plants and animals that they encountered often seemed strange and outlandish. Before Disenchantment examines how these artists grappled with the problems of representing unfamiliar flora and fauna, in particular anomalous cases that seemed to defy straightforward classification as either plant or animal.

One solution was to describe and portray these alien animals and plants as strange hybrids of both, and the images they made took many forms: from the Lamb of Tartary, which grew inside a large gourd-like fruit; to 'camel-sheep'; to races of monopods and red-haired human dwarves. Peter Mason looks at these and the figures who made these curious images, who ranged widely in expertise: from the amateur sketches of the German adventurer Caspar Schmalkalden to the consummate artistry of Peter Paul Rubens; and from the painstaking antiquarian interests of Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc to the homely observations of the natural world by the Dutch beachcomber Adriaen Coenen.

In taking the world-view of the early modern period seriously, the book breaks with orthodox histories of scientific illustration that imagine a linear evolution towards an ever more enlightened science. Before Disenchantment does not just present the ideas and images of a particular age; the book champions a sense of wonder that we can still feel today.

‘liberally illustrated with black-and-white images from paintings, prints, and sculpture. Rather than explaining how knowledge of the world expanded, Mason seeks to convey the sense of awe and enchantment felt by those who created or viewed these images . . . a labor of love and the result of a great deal of well-documented, scholarly research. Recommended.’ – Choice

‘Faithful to the empirical approach he is used to adopting in his research, Mason collected the widest variety of documents in which to root his conclusions, combining a meticulous study of visual sources with a direct knowledge of places and specimens, which allow him personally to pursue the sense of enchantment he describes . . . An extremely pleasant prose and a rich iconographic apparatus complete the frame of this learned and thought-provoking volume.’ – Journal of the History of Collections

‘This book fills a void in literature dealing with New World discoveries. The questions of animal depictions, and particularly those of mythical creatures, have rarely been addressed. This is a welcome and important contribution for scholars of early modern cultural history . . . In addition to the wealth of knowledge it so beautifully presents, Mason's book is an invaluable source for those who will question the motivations, whether psychological, political, social, or otherwise, that are deeply rooted in early modern perceptions of exotic worlds.’ – Renaissance Quarterly

‘Mason's work in this volume is original and shows tremendous erudition and attention to detail . . . The book's lavish illustrations keep the images Mason discusses before the reader's eye.’ – Clio

‘An impressive aspect of the book is its author's extensive scholarly detective work to reconstruct how images were repeatedly copied and embellished over time and space. Apart from the obvious art historical insights, his research provides a much broader picture of the international intellectual networks of the era, as well as insights into the routes and means by which ideas and images circulated around the countries of Europe and Asia between late mediaeval times and the Enlightenment.’ – Anthrozoös

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Peter Mason is the author of many books, including The Lives of Images (Reaktion, 2001). He lives in Rome and works as a consultant in art and anthropology for the Fundacion America, Santiago de Chile.