1th Semester - 2016
Spin the globe and then stop it with your finger on Africa. The names of the cities that you touch all tell of old African stories concerning ethnic groups, languages, or rulers from the past who forged the various African nations. One city, however, is named after an Italian from a noble Friulian family: Pietro Savorgnan di Brazzà. The city is Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo, the only African capital that still bears the name of a European explorer. Not surprisingly, because Pietro Savorgnan di Brazzà made a very significant contribution to the mapping and the history of the Congo and Gabon. Siding with the Africans, he described previously unknown geographies and cultures to a Europe dominated by a colonial vision and still full of fears and prejudices about Africa. His writings, or drawings made by his companions on expeditions, preserve a great deal of information about a now vanished world. But he also brought many objects back to Europe, such as statues of great artistic value, enabling us to understand the cultural depth of the peoples he had encountered. They include some Kota statues now on display in the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, the subject of an article in this issue by Louis Perrois, a great expert on African art and culture (especially metal or leather artworks) who has travelled far and wide in Africa for over half a century. Representing forefathers, these kinds of statues are worshipped by many ethnic groups. They often attain such a sophisticated level of abstraction that for over a century they have caught the attention of many museum curators and generations of collectors.
For example, one of these statues has pride of place in what used to be Peggy Guggenheim's dining room in the Palazzo dei Leoni in Venice. What is particularly striking is that all this interest generated by Kota figures is actually a “spinoff” from Pietro di Savorgnan di Brazzà’s insatiable thirst for exploring new lands. Today in the house of his descendants, not far from Udine, you can still admire an old map of Africa with a blank in the middle. At that time a good deal of the continent was still waiting to be discovered by the Western world. In fact alongside the blank area with no rivers, mountains or villages, you can still read what Pietro had written before setting out on his great explorations: “Area that would be interesting to visit”. Have you ever wondered where the word cannibal came from? It sounds like a modern term but it has come down a long way through time and from across the Atlantic. There are actually many theories about the origin of the word but most experts agree that it was first used in the Caribbean. Or more precisely the Lesser Antilles, after the Spanish described the inhabitants of the Antilles, from Trinidad to Guadeloupe, as “man-eating”. The indigenous people in question were called “Island Caribs”, thus giving rise to the word cannibal. But were they really such fierce man-eaters? André Delpuech, Chief Curator of Heritage and Director of the Americas Collections at the Musée du quai Branly, gives us a more complete picture. Compared to the peace-loving Tainos, who lived on the Greater Antilles, the Island Caribs were a much more aggressive and bellicose people who had expanded as far as Puerto Rico. But new archaeological discoveries reveal an unexpected aspect of their culture in the form of ceramics and surprising objects, as you will discover by reading Delpuech’s article. Can we talk about “the anthropology… of robots”? This question might be seen as a bit of a joke. A robot is a mechanical copy of a human being, so how can it have its own cultural evolution? Or how can we speak of ethnic groups and cultures as we do for humans? An affirmative answer is possible but would obviously have to rule out all those machines in industry (or on planes, like automatic pilots), invented to do jobs for humans. In fact what we have in mind is the “history” of robots in literature, such as those invented by Asimov, or in cinema. Indeed the evolution of robots can be described by considering their role in historic blockbusters, such as Blade Runner, Terminator and Star Wars. Starting from films of 1915, Carlo Montanaro, a Venetian lecturer and film historian, as well as a great collector of antique movies, accompanies us like a 19th-century explorer in a land inhabited by automatons, robots and androids (even the terms evolve…). What happens when, on disembarking from ships or planes from other continents, humans bring with them live animals, such as dogs, cats, rats or mongooses? Some fairly drastic changes may ensue. The various species adapt to a new world but their adaptation can cause catastrophic results, especially on islands. A previously modest predator can wipe almost entire populations of other animals, if it has no natural enemies. This is a rather neglected aspect of the natural world. Cats, for example, as Alessandro Minelli, an expert on animal evolution, points out, caused the disappearance of thirty-three species of birds who lived on a few islands scattered in the ocean. Whereas the dodo - a large flightless bird related to the doves, once found on the Mauritius islands and something of an icon in our contemporary age - was apparently eliminated by feral pigs. Similarly, it only took a short trip to Hawaii to introduce dozens of new species and dramatically eliminate others: some birds sighted until 2004 have disappeared without trace. Minelli describes these misdeeds and their repercussions for humans and the environment in some fascinating but rather grim stories. Take a step forward, anyone who has heard of Saddo Drisdi. This obscure 19th-century Venetian “Turk” deserves a prize for the longest resistance to an eviction order. Arguably the first modern “squatter”, Drisdi had the unusual destiny of living alone in a huge palace on the Grand Canal in Venice, the Fondaco dei Turchi, which we now all know as the Museum of Natural History. But where had this man come from? Who was he and why did hold out so long in a place he claimed (rightfully?) to be in the territory of his homeland, Turkey? Fabio Isman, a writer and journalist, tells us the whole story, or almost, because the mystery of Drisdi lingers on. To the background of the centuries- old Turkish presence in Venice, the tale of the last of the “Fondaco Turks” is the most unusual and curious episode in a cultural and commercial relationship that permeated the history of the Serenissima Republic of Venice and, in some ways, can still be felt today.
|A corner of the Levant on the Grand Canal - The Fondaco dei Turchi was a residence, warehouse and trading centre for the Turks in Venice|
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|Automatons, robots, androids… - The modern quest for immortality in legends, toys, films and new monsters|
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|Custodians of dreamed images - Kota reliquary figures in the Congo and Gabon, a visionary world in Equatorial Africa|
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|Dangerous journeys - The devastating impact of some animal species unwittingly or deliberately spread by humans|
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|Eating your foes or heroes - The little-known, complex story of cannibalism in the peoples of the Lesser Antilles|
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