Friday, September 9, 2011

The Royal Menagerie

Culture and Stuff writes of the Versailles zoo and what became of the animals during the Revolution.
The popularity of the menagerie was also boosted by great vogue for the study of nature that flowered during Louis XVI’s reign. Naturalists had grown tired of studying the dusty tombs of Cabinets of Curiosity, where brown pickled fish bobbed in vinegar and faded birds stood stuffed in a peculiar imitation of life that seemed to startle the thought of death into everyone who looked at them. There was now, prompted by the bestselling work of Buffon, a desire to observe living animals. Now then, the animals of the menagerie had a new torment, as fashionable men and women toured the menagerie, staring deep into the eyes of monkeys and, with a pained expression, wondered aloud “What is it to be human?”. Nobody ever seemed to wonder what it is to be monkey. (Read entire article.)
Unfortunately, the people of Paris turned on the lion:
In the middle of all this comes the tale of an old grey lion, once the pride of the menagerie at Versailles, and now caged in the Jardin des Plantes. This was a beautiful botanical garden, marred only, Hesdin tells us, by the presence of strolling flower girls paid by the government to keep a spying eye and keen ear trained on visitors. In this small zoo (which, along with the park, still exists today) lived the Lion, ‘covered with sores and infested with vermin’, a pitiful sight – more mange than mane. For a small fee visitors would be allowed in to see him, and consequently, says Hesdin, he was ‘tormented by the Parisian sans-cullotes because he was king’. This sad image seems to encapsulate both the deep fears and growing frustrations of the people of Paris at this time. The King and Queen were both dead and the revolution had brought immense change, but as people screamed at the lion and tugged his hair, it is tempting to believe they were expressing a powerful sense that the revolution was not yet complete, that it had not done what it was meant to. Its leaders had sought to stoke an ever-burning fear of enemies both within and without, and even the idea of royalty was something that had still to be not only ridiculed but also actively and continuously attacked.

It’s best not to get too romantic about the case of one old Lion, but I’m always searching for moments like this in history, where in one seemingly trivial anecdote everything seems to crystalise, and petty actions have the capacity to reveal what otherwise goes unspoken; ideas and emotions so powerful and complicated that perhaps only unconscious action can express them. (More here.)


Violet said...

I learn something each time is read this blog! I can`t live without it!

Poor lion. It is such a sad image i can se in front of me. A animals which is plagued and abused just because he is a symbol of royalty!
Humans disgust me sometimes...

Anna Gibson said...

Very interesting! It's nice to read about more ignored aspects of Versailles and the fate of certain (animal) inhabitants after the revolution.