Ars Simia naturae - art is the ape of nature
Among the realistic images of animals contained in the Album of Plants and Animals, we can see the representation of a monkey-painter with a brush and a palette. This involves a modern understanding of the purpose of art as the imitation of nature. Imitation, in other words, aping. The verb “to ape” is a calque from Latin. The Latin simulo, simulare [imitate, to imitate] comes from the noun simia: i.e. “ape”. The Latin verb meaning imitation has been transferred to many European languages: to all Romance languages, English, Swedish and Polish as “simulate” (mainly in the sense of pretending illness).
The association of apes with imitation has an ancient genesis. The Greeks and Romans were convinced that primates mimic human behaviour. The Greek geographer and historian Strabon, who lived in the first century BC, mentioned that the hunters use this property of monkeys when hunting for them: they show the animals how they wash their eyes with water and then hand them a bowl with birdlime (glue made from mistletoe); the unfortunate monkeys glue their eyes shut and cannot escape; similarly, the hunters show them how to wear shoes, and then give them heavy, lead ones. Pliny the Elder (23–79) alluded to these rather peculiar accounts of Strabon in his Natural history [Naturalis historia]: “[...] imitating hunters, they rub themselves down with birdlime and put their feet into traps“ (Plinius, Naturalis historia, Vol. 3, book 8, Ch. 80). In addition, Pliny mentioned the account of Mucianus (1st century AD) in relation to monkeys playing checkers.
As a consequence of the authority of ancient writers, the belief in the imitative tendencies of apes has become a topos of medieval literature. In the modern period, especially in the 18th century, performances of monkeys engaged in various, typically human activities were popular. Among them, there were depictions of monkeys using painting accessories. It was not only a reference to the mimetic nature of painting skills. Monkeys, by imitating people, ridiculed their stupidity and vanity. Perhaps, the image from The Book of plants and animals of a monkey holding a pearl shown next to the monkey-painter is also a reference to human vanity. Whoever the author of the collection was, he had – it seems – a healthy perspective of humanity and his own profession.
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