The bear fires back

According to the supplement of El Jueves sued for high treason, they gave vodka to bear Mitrofan before hunting so he would compete on equal conditions with King Juan Carlos. One glimpse at the face of the king on the title page of the supplement is enough to understand what were the conditions required of the bear. However, if they really wanted to set it on equal conditions, then they should have given to it something more: a gun into the hand.

This 16th-century bear with a gun in the hand was found by Bad Guide in Julius von Schlosser’s Die Kunst- und Wunderkammern der Spätrenaissance (1908), the first and still essential monograph on Renaissance cabinets of curiosities. The mysterious term “Pisam” in the caption, as Language Hat has pointed out, is an archaic form of modern German “Bisam” meaning “musk”. The word, ultimately of Arabic origin – bašām, البشام, balm shrub, Commiphora gileadensis – is also the root of “balm” in several languages. However, the relation of the bear to musk is not reassuringly explained by Schlosser. He uses this word three times, each time in this archaic form and in quotation marks, indicating that he quotes it from a source contemporary with the bear. But he also seems to be uncertain in how they are related to each other. Next to the image he calls the bear a box for keeping musk:

Dagegen werden zahlreiche Parfums, Moschus, Ambra, Räuchenpulver erwähnt, die man in Gefäßen aufzubewahren liebte, denen die Gestalt von Vögeln … aber auch von Bären, Schafen oder der Königslilie gegeben war.

On the other hand, lots of perfumes, musk, amber and incense are mentioned which people liked to keep in vessels of the form of birds or even bears, sheep or lily.

However, in note 35 linked to the word “bear” he already ambiguously writes:

Solche Tierfiguren, mit wohlriechenden Pasten belegt, finden sich noch, von der alten Ambraser Sammlung her, im Wiener Hofmuseum: Bär mit Flinte aus dem XVI. Jahrhundert (s. die Figur im Texte).

Such animal figurines, covered/loaded with fragrant pastes, can be still found from the old Ambras collection in the Imperial Museums of Vienna: a bear with a musket from the 16th century (see the picture in the text).

And for the third time he says explicitly the contrary of what he told the first time:

Auch der Bär als Flintenschütze, „aus lauter Pisam, inwendig ganz golden, mit Diamant, Rubin und Perl verziert”, ist noch vorhanden, er gehört zu jenen Nippes, die mit wohlriechender Masse überzogen, schon im Mittelalter an den Höfen beliebt waren (s. o. Fig. 14).

The bear as a rifleman “from pure musk, all golden inside, decorated with diamond, ruby and pearls” is still available: it belongs to those trinkets which, coated with some sweet-smelling mass, were popular in the courts since the Middle Ages (see the above Fig. 14).

However, it is difficult to imagine that a box made of gold and decorated with precious stones was coated from outside with an essential balm as expensive as gold and, moreover, so thick that it could be considered to be made out of it. If this was possible at all – for example with some solid mixture, which, however, contradicts the term “pure musk” – then what was the use of the gold and precious stones which thus lost their visibility? And what is that small door between the legs of the bear for if not to extract or evaporate the perfume in the box?

Our suspicion increases further if we check the source quoted by Schlosser. The catalog of Alois Primisser, Die kaiserlich-königliche Ambraser-Sammlung (Vienna 1819) describes our bear on page 232, in article 8 of chapter “Gefäße und Kleinode aus Gold und Edelsteinen. Im II. Schranke” (Vessels and valuables of gold and precious stones in cabinet II), starting with a citation from the inventory of 1596 of the collection of Ambras:

»Ain Per von lauter Pisam, inwendig gannz gulden, mit Diemant, Robin vnd Perlen versezt, mit ain gulden schüzenröckhl, so in den Dazen ain Pischsen (Gewehr), auf dem khopf ain guldins hüetl – an der seüten Pulferflaschen vnd spanner hangenndt, vorn an der Prust ain geheng unten ain Pretspül, vor den Füessen heer ain Aff, in aim Pergl versperrt, daneben ain guldiner hundt.« – Dieses niedliche, reich mit Gold und Edelsteinen verzierte Figürchen ist, wie es scheint, als Spottbild auf irgend eine vornehme Person verfertiget worden, worüber ich aber bisher nichts Näheres auffinden konnte.

“A bear of/for pure musk, all golden inside, decorated with diamond, ruby and pearls, with a golden rifleman’s outfit, a golden musket in the paw and a small golden hat on the head; a powder bottle and a musket-winder hanging on its side, a pendant on its chest, a Pretspül [Brettspiel, grid?] below; at its feet, a monkey closed in a cage and a golden dog.” – This charming figurine, richly decorated with precious stones, seems to be a mock portrait of some notable person, but I could not find anything closer about this.

Instead of “aus Pisam”, quoted by Schlosser, the source has “von Pisam” which allows for the more probable interpretation that the box was made for preserving musk. We hope to be able soon to to ascertain the truth in the catalogs of the imperial collections in Vienna, and hopefully even in the collections themselves.

One thing is sure: that the little bear comes from the Ambras collection of Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol, one of the most illustrious Renaissance cabinets of curiosities. Thus, as an ancient Hapsburg rifleman, he will rightly oppose the Bourbon king to take revenge for the Spanish war of succession.

Two details of the Ambras cabinet of curiosity, from the gallery of Svetlana and Olaf Lange.
Is it not a crocodile’s tail hanging from the ceiling into the picture?

We do not know when and where the bear of Ambras was made. Its relatives, however, are well known. Not far from Ambras and about the time of the foundation of the collection, between 1542 and 1546 Hans Gieng and his workshop erected their famous eleven fountains on the Marktgasse in Bern. And the city, famous for its mercenaries – predecessors of the Swiss Guard –, whose name means “bear” in Berndütsch, ordered the fountains to be decorated with musket-bearing bears.

Schützenbrunnen, from here

Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen, from here

Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen, from here

Among the several fountains of Bern, however, there is one that does not represent the bear in the form of an armed Swiss mercenary. True, even here it is standing at the foot of a soldier and is busy with his helmet. But it does not look like it wanted to put it on: but rather as if searching for something in it.

This bear is a lover of peace and of a humanist education. It obviously knows well the Emblemata of Andrea Alciato published just ten years before. How else would it know where to look for what bears before and since Winnie the Pooh have kept looking for: honey.


En galea, intrepidus quam miles gesserat, & quae
Saepius hostili sparsa cruore fuit:
Parta pace apibus tenuis concessit in usum
Alveoli, atque favos, grataque mella gerit.
Arma procul iaceant, fas sit tunc sumere bellum,
Quando aliter pacis non potes arte frui.

See this helmet, once worn by a fearless soldier
and often spattered with enemy blood.
After peace was born, it was given up to bees
for narrow hive, to hold honey-combs and honey.
Let weapons lie far off; it is right to embark on war
only when you cannot otherwise enjoy peace.

11 comentarios:

MMcM dijo...

first and still essential monograph on Renaissance cabinets of curiosities

We subscribed to the Journal of the History of Collections when it first came out in the '80s. But then OUP jacked up the individual price one too many times and it became impossible to justify as amateurs. I might be able to get into Littauer to read it; I've never tried.

But I have now been able to read Schlosser and Murray's (maybe also still essential?) Museums online in Google Books. Even Museum Museorum is online these days. Thanks, internets.

Stuart dijo...

I think Pretspül is Brettspiel. There is an 8x8 game board for chess or checkers between the bear's feet. Even today the Bavarian pronunciation of Spiel resembles Spül.

Studiolum dijo...

Yes, it must be that. I was sure in Brett, but uncertain whether to identify “Spül” as “Spiel” (the shift ie>ü being unusual in 16th-century Austrian sources). Now I hypothetically included it in the text.

maybe also still essential?

I don’t know. It does not have the same reputation among art historians as his Wunderkammer. Perhaps because while it was followed by an abundant literature on museums, the cabinets of curiosities have remained a neglected topic until recently.

Museum Museorum is in fact great. Every chapter of it is worth a separate study.

Stuart dijo...

Why is your translation "grid", instead of "board game" ? If the word Pretspül is hypothetically the word Brettspiel, then "board game" is what it should be called in English. If Pretspül is something else that we can't figure out, why do you use the rather abstract term "grid" ? If "grid" is intended to describe what one sees in the picture, I think "object with an 8x8 checkered pattern" would be more precise. Of course "8x8 checkered pattern" suggests that "board game" is most probably what is meant after all by Pretspül.

Stuart dijo...

In this Bayrisches Wörterbuch, Spiel is given as Spei or Spëi. I guess the "ëi" is supposed to indicate the pronunciation "spoy". Which is actually what I have heard. So much for my careless remark that the Bavarian Spiel sounds "even today" like Spül.

Still, when we have a picture showing a board game, and a Southern German/Tirolian/Austrian text calling it a Pretspül, need we hesitate to identify Pretspül as Brettspiel ? In such a situation, "the shift ie>ü being unusual in 16th-century Austrian sources" sounds to me like a fabulously recherché scruple.

Stuart dijo...

What I mean by "scruple" is this. I have the impression that historical linguists, in studying Western European languages at least, implicitly assume that the writers whose texts they study are themselves linguists avant la lettre, merely disadvantaged by not having an IPA. That is, there is a working assumption that each writer has a systematic way of identifying his own phonetic practice, and of representing it in his spelling.

Surely one could adduce only rather general evidence that such an assumption is justifed - by showing internal consistency in a writer's productions, for instance. But such consistency is fully compatible with an idiosyncratic spelling of phonemes that are otherwise rendered differently by other writers - the further assumption being, of course, that they are all trying to reproduce a pronunciation used by them all. But we have no way of validating that assumption.

So the conclusions that a historical linguist can draw from inspection of 16th century Austrian texts, say, have only a general plausibility. They allow only tentative predictions about what kind of spelling can or should appear in a given text - texts that have been analyzed to reach such predictions, and those that have not yet been so analyzed.

Linguistic findings do not have the status of physical laws, which allow no exceptions (except for those explained away as being "within tolerance limits"). In the present case, where we apparently have a picture of what is described by the text, it seems to me to be more resonable to identify Pretspül as Brettspiel, no matter whether an "unusual sound shift" is in the vicinity.

Julia dijo...

¡¡Me encantó tu conexión con el emblema de Alciato!! ¡Es un cierre perfecto y una imagen encantadora!

(estoy tomando conciencia de cómo abuso de los signos de exclamación,espero no sonar muy tonta. Debería ejercitar la mesura, aunque nuestra presidenta, Cristina Kirchner, ha dicho esta semana que "mesura" le sonaba a "censura"!!! Últimamente está hecha una lingüista...)

Anónimo dijo...

Have a look at this!


Language dijo...

Wonderful! But then I'm predisposed to like anything that includes the word kaiserlich-königliche.

Megkoronáz A.J.P. dijo...

Thank you so much for this, Studiolum! Yes, of course that's a crocodile! Like ghosts, they're easier to spot when you are predisposed to see them. I came across the Ambras collection when I was researching the bear (unlike you I wasn't able to find the bear), but not the Alois Primisser catalogue. I didn't think of the bears of Bern, either, although I've known about the Bärengraben since I was read Mary Plain as a child. I'm really looking forward to your trip to Vienna after Easter.

Hayden dijo...

Fascinating, thank you!