On the benches that surround the tank of one of the gardens of Quinta dos Marqueses de Fronteira, there is one tile panel with a representation of singeries. It was already placed here in 1669, when Cosimo III de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, visited the villa, and is situated on the terrace reserved for women, with the Nymphaeum, the Venus’ fountain and a disappeared labyrinth of lemon trees.
On the tile panel, monkeys, known for imitating human behavior without really understanding what they do, subject some poor cats to the constraints of life in society. They are, obviously, a satirical image and, since the end of the 16th century, the use of the figure of monkeys in political and religious combat pamphlets was frequent, as a way to defame opponents on both sides of the Catholic and Protestant barricades.
On the tiles, in a fun tone, the teacher, accompanied by a group of musicians with a positive organ, practices singing exercises with his feline students. On the other side, the barber cuts the whiskers of a cat, while the surgeon treats the injured foot of another one. To underline the ironic intentions of the representation, the painter added two inscriptions in Portuguese: “I’m the teacher of solfeggio” and “Approved surgeon”.
Tile painters followed two engravings made after the work of David Teniers II (1610-1690), who, since the middle of the 17th century, disseminated this new genre of painting throughout erudite Europe.
In this case, the transformation of men into animals serves to make a mockery of the professional authority of the masters who exposed the social elite to unpleasant and uncomfortable situations. They do so, pointing out that, in the end, despite technical knowledge, they do not belong to the world of polite society. In this satirical way, they are also an invitation to laughter and a celebration of free hours, without social constraints, spent in the garden.
MONTEIRO, João Pedro (ed.). Um gosto português. O uso do azulejo no século XVII. Lisboa: Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Athena, 2012. ISBN 978-989-31-0030-1.