Clara’s Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, by Glynis Ridley

I first experienced my colleague Glynis Ridley’s flair for historical research and exposition at our Faculty Research Forum, which is the best kept secret on campus (an open but intimate lecture, with often fascinating subjects and alcoholic refreshment. This Friday: Covert anti-Zoroastrianism in the Talmud!). Fairly recently Dr. Ridley spoke about Jean(ne) Baret, a fascinating figure who deserves her own full entry after I read that book.

Anyways, I was favorably impressed with both Dr. Ridley’s exposition and her skill in selecting interesting topics, and I was not let down by her first work of general-audience nonfiction, Clara’s Grand Tour, which is about a delightful adventure that merged zoology, fashion, philosophy, art, theology, and plain old-fashioned show-business, in a tale which, nowadays, is relegated to the status of a footnote.

The story begins with a daring Dutch entrepreneur, Douwemout van der Meer, who undertook the extremely risky business proposition of importing a young, tame rhinoceros from India named Clara and exhibiting it for money. Van der Meer was either very lucky or very clever, because the European track record on importing and sustaining rhinoceros was pretty dismal, but he kept her alive during a fairly strenuous tour schedule for 17 years.

Historical references to the spectacle abound, but chronologies detailing the journey between cities and nonpublic events are rare. Ridley’s work is an engagingly well-written stitching together of a tremendous number of references, many of them explicitly cited. She presents a moderate amount of conjecture (particularly as to routes taken between cities) in the form of fact, but the suppositions which are particularly daring extrapolations (such as the contention that rumors of Clara’s death were deliberately spread by van der Meer to drum up publicity) are presented as plausible but hypothetical; no academic dishonesty here!

I was impressed by the stitching together of what was a fairly discursive and threadbare set of primary sources into an engaging narrative. Certain aspects, such as Clara’s state of health when not extremely abnormal, and the entire itinerary after 1751, are admittedly fragmentary, but the story is patched together not by considering Clara so much as a particular physical beast with particular travels and properties, most of which were not written about, but through the lens of the actual writings that exist, which record Clara as a social and cultural phenomenon, or, how the experience of having a rhinoceros present convulsed society wherever Clara went. One of Ridley’s primary emphases is on Clara’s effect on zoology and anatomy: most contemporary conceptions of the rhinoceros’s anatomy were copies (or copies of copies) of an extremely inaccurate woodcut by Dürer, and their understanding of rhinoceros behavior, diet, and physiology based on equally inaccurate reports of Pliny, and Clara’s tour led to greater promulgation of accurate information. She likewise convulsed the art world at the Meissen Porcelain factory, the world of fashion in Paris and Venice, and was even the subject of political machinations, as her hospitality was provided in a show of power by the Electors of Hesse. It’s a fascinating story, and one with enough peculiar events highlighted in each stage of the tour that, even viewed from the present day when anyone in a major city can view a rhinoceros any time they want, the story of trooping a rhinoceros around every city in Europe in turn never feels monotonous, but rather conveys the enthusiasm and excitement which different people all over Europe would have felt about the coming of such an extraordinary sight to their town.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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