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The Artful Amoeba

The Artful Amoeba


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Mysterious Tiles from a Time When Art and Science Were Friends

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Forces in society of late have lots of us longing for the days of the Enlightenment, smallpox, powdered wigs, ridiculously uncomfortable clothing and all. It must have been nice to live in an era when science and scientists were respected, admired, and generously funded (though often by self-funded aristocrats or by royal grants gleaned from barbarous taxation of the poor).

In any case, there’s no question science had it good back then, and science and art got along much better than is generally the case today. I was thinking about this lately recalling some tiles I saw last June when in Portugal. Portuguese buildings have traditionally been decorated with tiles inside and out, and I was visiting the National Tile Museum (yes, I know I am a nerd) in Lisbon when I stumbled on a display case in a dark corner containing these:

They appear to be figures from a book (F. 2, P. 5) that for some reason have here been reproduced in tile form. The label describing these tiles merely describes them as “Didactic Plaques” (perhaps a better translation would be “educational” or “instructional plaques”?) from the second half of the 18th century. These two are labeled “Geometrical Schema of a Pentagon” and “Geometrical Schema of a Pyramid”. What could they have been used for? Were these placed in a school? Did someone have them in their house? It’s fun to imagine but hard to know.

Here is another of a geographic tile from the same display case.

It’s described as “Section of a North Pole Map”. The island labeled “Cumberlandia” intrigued me. I looked it up and Cumberland was a county in northwest England on the border with Scotland. It wasn’t an island near the pole. So I’m not sure what the name means in the context of this tile. Perhaps it is an imaginary place as used here? Was this part of a much larger tile panel that showed the entire globe? If so, where was this globe displayed? Was it in someone’s living room? Again, fun to imagine.

Of course, the 18th Century wasn’t the only time when science and nature were friendly with art. If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know of the big place in my heart for Art Nouveau, the fin de siècle style heavily influenced by the works of naturalists like Ernst Haeckel. Here is a gorgeous grasshopper and wheat Art Nouveau textured tile panel I discovered at the Tile Museum.

Here is a close-up:

Here’s another Art Nouveau painted panel. I believe the plants in the round discs at the top are meant to be hops leaves and flowers.

Finally, because it’s Friday and why not, here’s a much older tile nature-themed(?) panel that tickled my funny bone. The label called it “The Chicken’s Wedding” and gave the date as ca. 1660/1667. The label also used the word “Singerie”, which I initially thought was the artist.

Note that the chicken’s carriage is preceded by a pair of elephants, and the whole scene is populated by what appear to be carousing green monkeys. A singerie, apparently, is a “monkey trick”, a fanciful scene in which well-dressed people are replaced by mischievious monkeys. What a chicken is doing in the midst of this — and whether she’s meant as a joking reference to someone who really existed — I have no idea.

Here’s a close-up of the clucking bride and her simian coachman:

And here’s an oddly headdressed half-monkey/half-rabbit wedding guest who appears to be relieving himself.

Happy Friday, y’all.

Jennifer Frazer About the Author: Jennifer Frazer is a AAAS Science Journalism Award-winning science writer. She has degrees in biology, plant pathology/mycology, and science writing, and has spent many happy hours studying life in situ. Follow on Twitter @JenniferFrazer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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