April 10, 2012 § Leave a comment


“…ti allego due foto che ho scattato in un circo alcuni anni fa (non mi piacciono gli spettacoli con gli animali ma volevo fare fotografie). Sono sgattaiolata dietro il tendone, fra le gabbie degli animali e ho incontrato l’elefantessa, bellissima, sacrale come una antica scultura rituale… il suo sguardo mi ha fatto imbarazzare, improvvisamente ho avuto la sensazione di non sapere nulla. Come se dentro quella mole di carne e quella corteccia di pelle ci fosse nascosto qualcosa di agile e profondamente consapevole.. non so spiegarlo.. più tardi, vedendo l’elefantessa agghindata e mortificata dallo spettacolo, mi sono sentita parte di una specie immatura e pericolosamente inconsapevole…”


foto e testo  C. Giampaoli

Trained Elephant : Liminal Animal

April 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Romans learned about elephants in battle first from Phyrrus of Epirus, later from Hannibal and Hasdrubal, who brought the beasts onto the Italian penninsula as weapons of war. When frightened, confused or wounded, elephants would often turn away from the enemy to crash through their own ranks, crushing men and creating chaos, in a complete “rejection of human conventions of alliance.”  (1)

By injuring and killing their own soldiers,  “they threw into confusion the boundaries which humans had constructed to differentiate between friend and foe and between culture and nature,” and earned themselves a reputation for treachery. Elephants that trampled their own troops in spite of the care and training they had been given were perceived as not only  “useless, in the sense that lions or bears are useless to humans, but to have betrayed the humans who offered them the alliance.” (2)

CHUNEE was a male Indian elephant imported from Bengal to London in 1809. He appeared on stage in several theatrical productions, including the pantomime Harlequin and Padmanaba, or the Golden Fish, before ownership passed to Edward Cross in 1817 and he was displayed in a menagerie at Exeter Exchange on the Strand. On November 1, 1825, Chunee gored and killed his keeper. Despite being deemed an accident, the elephant was fined one shilling for the offense. In February, 1826, following a period of “madness that made him totally untractable,” probably during his musth, but attributed at the time to an “annual paroxysm” aggravated by a rotten tusk, his behavior became increasingly violent. For days and nights Chunee battered his oak and iron cage until it threatened to explode. He failed to respond to a “calming” dose of powerful purgatives- 6 ounces of calomel and fifty-five pounds of Epsom salts- mixed with molasses. Crowds that gathered to hear the noise had to be restrained by patrolmen. Finally it was determined that Chunee should be killed. On March 1st his keeper tried to feed him “corrosive sublimate” (mercuric chloride) mixed with his hay, which Chunee refused. Soldiers were eventually called in to shoot Chunee with their muskets; he was hit 152 times, but did not die. His keeper finished the job with a harpoon.

George Cruikshank, 1826

Chunee, all 10,000 pounds of him, was skinned, dissected and cut up by a team of surgeons, medical students and butchers before a large paying audience. The story and controversy surrounding his death inspired prose, poetry and a successful play at Sadler’s Wells, entitled Chuneelah; or, The Death of the Elephant at Exeter ‘Change. One pamphlet promised  Every Particular Respecting the Madness of the Tremendous Elephant of Exeter Change, and the Manner Adopted to Destroy That Living Mountain, by Firing nearly 150 Balls, with Particulars Relating to His Disesction. His mounted skeleton remained on display in London until 1941 when it was destroyed by a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb. (3)

TOPSY (c.1875-1903), a female elephant belonging to the Forepaugh Circus, lived at Coney Island’s Luna Park. In 1903, after killing three men in three years, it was decided that Topsy herself should be put to death. When hanging as a means of execution was rejected, Thomas Edison offered the option of electrocution. Edison was keen to establish the superiority of his DC current over the “dangerous” AC current promoted by his rival, Nicola Tesla. (AC current had been used to execute humans since 1890.)

On January 4, 1903, Topsy was fed a last meal of carrots laced with 460 grams of cyanide. With Edison’s camera rolling to record the event in front of an audience of 1500, Topsy was fitted with a conducting harness, led forward to stand on metal plates, and 6,600 volts AC was sent through her body. Edison’s film, Electrocuting an Elephant, was shown to audiences throughout the United States.

G.B. Piranesi (1720-1780), Reconstruction of Circus Maximus. Etching. Kupferstickcabinett, Berlin

It was a “slow, difficult process to train elephants for use in battle. And they remained scarcely trained, even after many years of discipline and prolonged practice.” They could not be “counted on to be either always savage, like lions, or always docile, like donkeys.” Elephants captured in battle by the Romans were sent back to the capital for triumphs and spectacles before being slaughtered in front of huge audiences in the Circus. (4)

(1) Shelton, Jo-ann, Dancing and Dying:The Display of Elephants in Ancient Roman Arenas. Daimonopylai, (Winnepeg, 2004)
(2) Ibid.
(3)Altick, Richard, The Shows of London. (London, 1978)
(4) Shelton

The Elephant Rock

April 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

“An enormous mass of granite or sienite situated to the north of the town of Madura, altogether isolated from the neighbouring Hills, and when viewed from the S. E. or S. W. bearing a strong resemblance to a couchant Elephant, with its trunk extended in front. The origin of the rock according to Hindu legends is as follows. In the reign of Vikrama Pandyan the (Soran) king of Kanchipuram (called by the English Conjeveram) invaded Madura at the head of 8000 Bauddhas or Samanal, bringing with him an enormous Elephant, which had risen supernaturally from the flames of a huge sacrificial pit dug by the King. This Elephant was however destroyed by Shiva, whose aid was invoked by the Pandyan King with a rocket called Narashimha Astram; and the carcase, transformed to a mountain, remains to this day.”

Tripe, Linnaeus, 1822-1902
Albumen print from waxed paper (calotype) negative
Victoria and Albert Museum

The Circus Girl

April 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Marvelously Trained Elephants in New Novel Acts

April 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

c.1899 Granger

Circus Maximus

April 2, 2012 § 1 Comment

“In ancient Roman arenas, elephants appeared in a variety of spectacles. In some they were made to perform stunts, in others they were mutilated and killed. The common element in these spectacles is that the audience found pleasure in the humiliation of these enormous beasts.”(1)

Twenty elephants accompanied Pyrrhus II, King of Epirus, and his army when they invaded southern Italy in 280 BC. Initially successful in terrifying the Roman soldiers, the elephants eventually contributed to Pyrrhus’ defeat when they were turned back against his own troops, causing chaos and destruction. Four of the beasts were captured and taken to Rome. Thirty years later, 140 elephants were captured from the Carthaginians in Sicily, and sent to Rome where they were paraded before the people, prodded with blunt spears or killed with javelins. Thus began a long tradition of humiliation, abuse and slaughter of elephants in the Circus Maximus, a celebration of Rome’s superior military power and domination over its enemies, and over nature itself.

“Aelian describes an exhibition in which elephants, wearing flowered dancers’ dresses, entered the arena in two groups of six, their bodies swaying. They formed a line, wheeled in circles and performed various movements at the trainer’s order keeping time by rhythmic stamping as if dancing, and sprinkling flowers delicately on the floor.” (2)

“Another stunt described by Aelian drove the spectators wild with delight. Six male elephants and six female elephants in pairs, suitably costumed, took their places at a banquet. They used their long trunks as hands to take food with great delicacy and drank from bowls placed in front of them.” (3)


(1) Jo-ann Shelton, Dancing and Dying:The Display of Elephants in Ancient Roman Arenas. Daimonopylai, (Winnepeg, 2004)
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.

The Only Elephant in the World You Can Go Through and Come out Alive

April 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

“In the late nineteenth century, “elephant hotels” became a fad, and three were built along the New Jersey/New York Coast.

Lucy, the first, built in 1881 in Atlantic City, was used as a real estate gimmick to market land in the southern section of the resort, which later became Margate. The next was Elephantine Colossus, which was constructed in 1884 in Coney Island, New York, and boasted thirty-four guest rooms. The Light of Asia was built the same year in Cape May. The former was lost in a fire in 1896, and the later was razed in 1900. As Coney Island became associated with disreputable behavior, its elephant hotel was used for a time as a brothel. “Seeing the elephant” became synonymous with an adventure that you would not discuss with your wife or children.”  Emil R. Salvini, Jersey Shore: Vintage Images of Bygone Days. 2008 (Connecticut)

The Lives of Images

April 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

In The lives of Images, Peter Mason traces the migration of images (drawings, etchings and photographs), from one cultural context to another across media, time and space. A lineage of use can be direct and explicit, or filled with leaps and gaps. Mason cites the various and numerous depictions of Annone as a prime example of how “[images] are caught up in a movement of ebb and flood, of flux and reflux, now surfacing, now disappearing below the surface again before reappearing somewhere else in the same watery mass.” (1)  From a handful of direct sketches by Raffaello and drawings by his contemporary Giulio Romano, which may themselves be copies, flowed a life-size fresco, etchings, tapestries, stucco, intarsia and a fountain, stretching over many decades after Annone’s brief appearance in Rome. “The travels of the elephant himself- from Cochin to Portugal, from Portugal to Rome- are mirrored, if not surpassed, by the travels of posthumous representations of him.” (2)

Mason traces the migration of the lives and images of native Tierra del Fuegans, a story of gross exploitation, miserable treatment and continual recontextualization. The earliest European representation of a native of Tierra del Fuego, “an engraving of the scene of  Magellan’s discovery of the straits that bear his name, also includes a travelling Indian elephant being carried  through the air in the talons of a huge bird, the mythological roc, like the great birds or Rukhs, also mentioned by Marco Polo, that carried Sinbad into the mountains by his turban and dropped stones on his ship”. (3) In a strange example of  contextual reflux, the elephant resembles representations of Annone, and inspired  art historian Rudolph Wittkower “[to connect] this image with Sanskrit representations of the struggle between the eagle and the snake (in Sanskrit epics, the word naga means both snake and elephant)”. (4) Magellan was Portuguese, though he later made the voyage through Tierra del Fuego for the King of Spain. He spent many years in India, including in Cochin serving Governor Alfonso de Albuquerque, and participated in the conquest of Malacca in 1511. Rich with plunder, he sailed home to Portugal in 1512, the same year that Annone made his voyage to Lisbon.

Americae Retectio, c.1585, copper engraving after Jan van der Straet

(1) Peter Mason, The Lives of Images. 2001, London

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.


March 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Affumicatura is a process by which smoke and heat are applied to a plate after a hard ground has been put down and allowed to dry. Carbon particles from the smoke mix with the temporarily softened ground, making it darker and, when cool, harder.


Il Mago

The plate is usually suspended from a wire frame, ground facing down, while a burning paraffin wick or alcohol soaked cotton is waved underneath it. It is not necessary to also smoke a cigarette while smoking the plate.

Elefante Bianco

“Elephas Indus culices non timet”

March 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Above the door to the aula of the Biblioteca Malatestiniana in Cesena is the emblem of the Malatesta family, a large-eared elephant with a banner bearing the Latin motto “Elephas Indus culices non timet”,  (The Indian elephant is not afraid of gnats.) Possibly a reference to the Malatesta’s traditional enemy, the Da Polenta family of Ravenna, a city infested with annoying insects, the emblem also appears today on the ATMs of the Banca di Cesena.
(In Aesop’s fable of the lion and the elephant, the lion confesses to a deathly fear of roosters. As they are speaking, a gnat came whizzing by and the elephant says, “Do you see this little thing, this little buzzing thing? If it gets inside my ear, I’m doomed.” “Well then,” the lion concluded, “why should I die of shame? I am an excellent creature indeed, and in much better shape than this elephant: roosters are more formidable than gnats, after all!” 
You see what strength a gnat must have, given that he provokes such fear in the elephant.)

Renaissance portrait medal celebrating Isotta deli Atti, the famously beautiful mistress of Sigismondo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini. The elephant depicted on the reverse is a symbol of the Malatesta, proclaiming fortitude.  Cast 1453-1455, Matteo de’ Pasti, Verona. Victoria and Albert Museum.

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