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Hunting in the New World

In villas and palaces, it was common to have rooms decorated with hunting scenes, one of the most recurrent themes depicted in the 1600s and 1700s.

In Portugal, it was common to decorate villas and palaces rooms with hunting scenes, probably one of the most recurrent themes in the 1600s and 1700s.

Appreciated as a noble recreation, capturing wild animals enjoyed great esteem as an exercise for the formation of the knight, both for the development of moral virtues and the improvement of physical agility. In his essay on the education of the nobility, published in 1734, at a time of renewal of ideas about pedagogy in Portugal, D. Martinho de Mendonça de Pina e Proença, a multifaceted intellectual from the court of D. João V, insisted on the defence of hunting as part of the military training of true patriots:

Hunting, although not so much an imitation of war as in the first centuries, when the provinces were poorly populated and the forests impenetrable, offered heroic tasks to Hercules for the safety of the peoples to whom the wild beasts infested. Nevertheless, it strengthens the body so much, getting it used to work, to calm, and to the cold, which in peace is the most proper exercise for those who have inherited the obligation to wear the harness. It is not a good citizen who does not try to become skillful in defending his country…

Leopard hunting with mirrors. Olarias de Lisboa, c. 1660-1670. Museu Nacional do Azulejo nº 137
Leopard hunting with mirrors. Olarias de Lisboa, c. 1660-1670. © Museu Nacional do Azulejo nº 137.

At the same time, there was some discomfort with the violent death of animals at the hands of men, a practice considered since Antiquity to be responsible for the evil and merciless formation of individuals prone to antisocial behavior. Among the opposing arguments, hunters would be particularly inclined to overlook home economics, with the waste of time for more worthwhile purposes and excessive expenditure in the preparation and maintenance of horses and hunting dogs.

Manuel Severim de Faria, the Cathedral of Évora’s precentor and notable writer, recognized for the biography of the poet Luís de Camões and the Historical News of Portugal, dedicated an excellent essay to the subject, in which he recalled, among the unfavorable reasons, that hunters in their isolation could become unfit for political tasks and that, following the opinion of Saint Augustine, clerics were not only forbidden to hunt but should lose their right to the priesthood if they did.

Leopard hunting with mirrors. Venationes Ferarum, avium, piscium pugnae Bestiariorum. Jan Collaert II after Jan van der Straet, 1594-1598. Rijksmuseum: RP-P-BI-6118
Leopard hunting with mirrors. Venationes Ferarum, avium, piscium pugnae Bestiariorum. Jan Collaert II after Jan van der Straet, 1594-1598. © Rijksmuseum: RP-P-BI-6118.

Pushing to a moderate position, which could reconcile hunting with military exercise, the precentor resumed the arguments of the Greek philosopher Aristotle in which, following a primaeval natural order, men fairly hunted wild animals to provide security, food, and clothing:

Nature was almost the inventor because men saw in their beginnings the damage they received from wild animals and found themselves both lacking food and resources. To support themselves and defend their body from the injuries of time, they persecuted animals for their protection, sustenance, and clothing, as most of the inhabitants of the New World do today.

As we can see in a tiles panel from Quinta da Cadriceira, in Turcifal, now on display at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, leopard hunting was conducted with traps and mirrors, in an artifice that evokes the heroic sense of primitive hunting. Based on a series of engravings made from drawings by Jan van der Straet, the primitive men of the New World, dressed in feather petticoats, and armed with bows and sticks, were copied from a second print depicting men fishing with the aid of pelicans, a traditional technique among Chinese fishermen.

Catching fish with pelicans. Venationes Ferarum, avium, piscium pugnae Bestiariorum. Jan Collaert (II) after Jan van der Straet, 1634. Rijksmuseum: RP-P-2000-161
Catching fish with pelicans. Venationes Ferarum, avium, piscium pugnae Bestiariorum. Jan Collaert (II) after Jan van der Straet, 1634. © Rijksmuseum: RP-P-2000-161.

At a time when hunting was artificially organized in enclosed lands, and when wild animals no longer constituted a threat, the representation of hunting in a primitive state of the art, even if in a whimsical way, comes close to the idea of just war, as an exercise to the noble defence of the homeland against the danger of subjugation and loss of liberty.

ESSENTIAL BIBLIOGRAPHY

FARIA, Manuel Severim de. Discursos varios politicos. Évora: Manoel Carvalho, impressor da Universidade, 1624.
PROENÇA, Martinho de Mendonça de Pina e. Apontamentos para a educação de hum menino nobre. Lisboa: Officina de Joseph Antonio da Sylva, 1734.

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