July 12, 2014

Of the Mimick or Getulian-Dog

        Here’s a charming little woodcut of a rather odd critter from renaissance books of natural history.  The mimick or Getulian-dog (Canis getulus) is described in Conrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium from 1551-8 along with other dogs, such as greyhounds, spaniels, and bloodhounds.  It appears again in Edward Topsell’s The history of four-footed beasts and serpents from 1658.  (I’m not sure whether it’s in Topsell’s original History of four-footed beasts first published in 1607.)  The spaniels and other dogs are still with us, but of course we know of no mimick or getulian dog nowadays.  So, is the Getulian dog now known by another name, or is it extinct, or has it always been mythical?  According to the worthy naturalists Gesner and Topsell, this dog has shaggy hair, long legs, short tail, curved back, and a face sharp and black like a hedgehog.  I think it looks pretty adorable, but its appearance isn’t what makes it special.  It is “apt to imitate al things it seeth, for which cause some have thought that it was conceived by an Ape.”  Mimicks are trained to act out human parts in plays, or to perform as servants for poor men.  “In Egypt in the time of king Ptolemy [they] were taught to leap, play, and dance, at the hearing of musicke.”
        Topsell places the Getulian dog in England, although its name “Getulian” would imply an origin in Northern Africa, which would also fit with its prevalence in Egypt in Gesner’s time.  So, what could this creature be?  Nowadays some people think it must be the poodle, on account of the long legs, shaggy hair, and sharp nose.  Some think it’s really an ape such as a baboon, on account of the behavior.  Of course I think it would be fun if it were really something magical, but I’d enjoy finding out a real explanation, too.
        As for this illustration, which I find so delightful, it’s never easy to learn much about the artists responsible for renaissance woodcuts.  Gesner named Lucas Schan of Strasbourg as one of his main illustrators, but I have no idea whether this particular image was drawn by Schan, by some other artist, or possibly even by Gesner himself.  And whoever drew it, it was presumably carved by someone else entirely.  The illustration I’ve shown here comes from Topsell, but was clearly copied as exactly as possible from Gesner.  The only difference is that it’s reversed, presumably because it was copied exactly from Gesner’s printed image onto Topsell’s block, which then flipped when that second block was printed.  But whatever anonymous artist or artists deserve credit for this one, I think it’s great, with confident curves and curls.  Unlike many contemporary illustrations of beasts, it doesn’t look distorted, stiff, or unnatural.  It looks odd enough to be interesting, but natural enough to be believable.

[Picture: The Mimick, or Getulian-dog, woodcut from The history of four-footed beasts and serpents by Edward Topsell, 1658 (Image from University of Houston Libraries).]

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