October 19, 2018
Love mermaids, Krampus, or dragons? This exhibit is for you
by Susan Rella
If you want to see an image of a 16th-century Roman anti-Papal donkey/lizard hybrid monster with human tits, Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has got you covered.
As Brigit Katz reported this week for Smithsonian.com, “The Papal Ass” and other olden horrors are on view now at the library’s exhibit De Monstris. The exhibit, running now through December 21, covers lore texts from antiquity through the early 20th century, including writing by Pliny the Elder and Marco Polo and Mary Shelley, to name a few (coincidentally, this is the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein). And while the focus of the exhibit is on rare books, many of the best pieces are the totally insane illustrations contained within the texts – which are rarer than the books themselves.
Katz spoke with the exhibition’s curator, Fisher librarian David Fernandez, who told her that society’s fascination with monsters spans all cultures, and even all fields of study – providing an example from Aristotle, who claimed that a pregnant woman could “impress monstrous features onto her unborn child just by looking at an image of a monster” (a sort of BCE-era version of if-you-keep-making-that-face-it’ll-stay-that-way). “Monsters are an integral part of our shared cultural heritage,” Fernandez said, adding that many of the monster tropes have been recycled throughout the ages.
The exhibit not only presents fascinating texts; it also provides some enlightening takeaways, too. One interesting tidbit is that, while writing on monsters seems to have existed just about as long as writing itself has existed, there’s no real evidence that the writers believed in the phantasms they wrote about. Also, writers had to present “monsters” in their scholarly works in order to be taken seriously. A book about serpents simply must include a section on the serpent-adjacent genus dragon; how else could the public believe the author knew his subject matter?
But perhaps the most fascinating – and relevant – part of the exhibit is in the middle, documenting the Age of Exploration, where monsters were used in letters, journals, and maps discussing the newly “discovered” New World. Often beautiful, frequently prejudicial, these texts appear to be more of an effort to maintain Europeans’ views of cultural dominance than to factually introduce readers to these foreign locations. As Fernandez put it, “the history of every civilization is the history of encounters.”
For the literary among us, the final portion of the exhibit is the real treat: here are the early editions of Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Grey, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And to make the visit even better, Fernandez is leading free tours the first Thursday of each month. Sadly, the exhibit ends just after the fin de siecle, so those hoping to view the originally penned lyrics to “Monster Mash“ are ghoulishly out of luck.
Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.