Early Modern Times – ave Agave!

Early Modern Times - ave Agave!

Dear readers,

One of the few positive outcomes of the ongoing heat wave in Canada is that it has provided a comfortable environment for a tall, striking ‘Come From Away’ in Halifax. This week’s post celebrates, from an early modern point of view, the Agave americana, a rare desert plant currently blossoming in the Public Gardens amongst its cactus peers (and depicted in the painting above on the centre-right). The Agave americana is not to be confused with the blue agave, source of a strong distilled liquor (and celebrated in the classic novel by Harper Lee about drunken Mexican songbirds, Tequila Mockingbird). These articles and video explain that the plant, dubbed by locals the ‘Agave Maria’ (because it is an immaculate conception, to be worshipped in an Agavestibule? And pregnant with the Agave-saviour Jesus?) and also known as a century plant, blooms only once every 25 years and then dies. It had been kept in a greenhouse in the winter months, but it had grown too long: there may have been in-house complaints about a wild ‘stalker’ on the loose. Horticulturalists (in this case, Agaveterinarians) worried that it might not survive the cold spring weather this year, but its yellow flowers began to appear in July. The Agave was a plant that a-gave and just keeps giving! Haligonians are Agavery excited indeed.

Although the Agave is native to the warmer climes of the Americas, particularly in Mexico and Peru, Agaves were brought to Europe by Spanish and Portuguese explorers and colonists beginning in the sixteenth century. According to Georg Sydow’s article on ‘The First Agave in Europe’ in the juicily- if sappily-titled British Cactus and Succulent Journal, Christopher Columbus may have encountered the Agave in his very first voyage across the ocean blue in 1492. If so, the explorer was greeted by an ‘American Aloe’ (as the Agave americana is also known) even though he continued to believe he had reached Asia. In the 1980s, American pop icon Lionel Richie commemorated this encounter with his sentimental song ‘Aloe! Is it me you’re looking for?’ Agaves in sixteenth-century Europe are then mentioned by botanically-minded observers such as Clusius in 1520 (accompanied by members of the Wunderkammer Fugger family, the great early modern collectors) and J.A. Cortosus in 1561 describing its blooming in his work on succulents. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the flowering Agave was celebrated in European medals by German and Swedish nobility, among others. Our research team in the Department of Horticultural STDs have, however, uncovered evidence that links this plant to the theory that Europeans also brought syphilis from the ‘New World’. We may call this association the ‘Agavenereal Disease Hypothesis’, and if true, would give rise to much Agavexation over its Agaveiled threat to one’s health.

Disease aside, the Agave has played a singular role in early modern European art, particularly by the German painter Jacob Philipp Hackert (1737-1807), known for his Italian landscape paintings such as the 1803 View from the Solfatara onto the Gulf of Pozzuoli, pictured above. As this article by Wolfgang Krönig notes, many of his pieces feature solitary Agaves, indicating the transplantation of this American plant to southern Europe as well as Enlightenment tastes for artwork which reflected the scientific discoveries of the age. Krönig writes that ‘the burgeoning interest in natural sciences during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to a new awareness of the beauty of landscapes and their specific geological and botanical phenomenon’. In other words, the accurate–albeit slightly exaggerated–depiction of the Agave and other natural features of the landscape displayed an attempt to bring together the aesthetic and the natural in an ideal unity. Hackert wrote to the great German polymath J.W. Goethe in 1806 that ‘I have chosen in my portfolio landscapes which in truth already bear the stamp of a great style. If I were to improve on such a landscape in order to turn it into an ideal one, I hope that my works would retain their originality and that in them one will find true nature even more beautiful.’ This remark might be summed up by the term ‘Agaverisimilitude’; or if it’s an aesthetic that sticks with the viewer, ‘Agavelcro’.

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Agavenn-Diagram Studies Program

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