Pygmies versing beasts according to Homer and Pliny

According to Homer, there existed a tribe of Pygmies, or diminutive people one-and-a-half feet tall, who were constantly at war with cranes (The Iliad book III). This Greek myth recounts how these Pygmies lived in caves and rode about on rams. Annually the tribe partook in a great war with the cranes, with the objective to steal and eat many crane eggs and chicks, thereby keeping the vicious crane population in check.

Fight between Pygmees and Cranes engraving
Adriaen Collaert after Jan van der Straet, Fight between Pygmees and Cranes, (c.1596), engraving

The Flemish artist Adriaen Collaert (c.1560-1618) illustrates this very event in his engraving, Fight between Pygmees and Cranes (c.1596) where we see the tribe gallop forth on their rams and billy goats, and a deadly skirmish between human and beast ensue. This plate is from the large series, Venationes, ferarum, arium, piscium (Hunts of wild animals, birds and fish). When the series was commissioned, hunting scenes were of great interest, for Jan van der Straet (1523- 1605) had just made drawings of hunting imagery for tapestries to decorate the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano. The success of van der Straet’s scenes were the basis of this printing epic which was first published in 1596 and again in the following centuries. [1.]

Something rather curious takes place within the set of engravings, for Homer’s Pygmies seem to have found their way from one plate into another. In Cavemen chasing elephants, several tiny individuals, outfitted in the same garb as the Pygmies in plate 22 (hat and waistcloth), have launched an attack on some unsuspecting elephants.

Cave men hunting elephants engraving
Hans Collaert after Jan van der Straet, Cavemen chasing elephats, (c.1596), engraving

In book eight of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History we read that: ‘The Cavemen on the frontier of Ethiopia, whose only food is elephant meat obtained by hunting, climb up trees near the elephants’ track and there keep a look out for the last of the whole column and jump down on to the hind part of its haunches’ [2.] A quote which is very aptly illustrated by the engraving. With the exception that the Ethiopians seem to have been depicted as Pygmies.

Homer’s tribe were said to live in Okeanos (Oceanus), a location sometimes interpreted as the Nile, Africa, where cranes migrate. The cranes ‘make for the rivers of Ocean to bring death and destruction to the Pygmies, launching their wicked assault from the air.’ [3.] So it seems that the writings of these two ancient authors, Homer and Pliny, were combined in the creation of these two engravings. Whether either literary source was based on factual evidence or fantasy concerning the existence of an ancient Pygmy tribe, the texts and the engraved series stimulates a hunger to learn more about exotic lands, people and animals.

Kerrianne Stone (Curator, Prints)


[1.] Joannes Stradanus and his Hunting Scenes

[2.] Pliny: Natural History, Plinii: Naturalis Historia, Liber VIII, Loeb Classics Library

[3.] The Iliad Homer; originally translated by E.V. Rieu; revised and updated by Peter Jones with D.C.H. Rieu; edited with an introduction and notes by Peter Jones, London Penguin Classics, 2014, p. 45

Dark imaginings: A new exhibition and website launched

Dark imaginings: Gothic tales of wondera new exhibition in the Noel Shaw Gallery, was officially launched on March 1st.

Dark imaginings explores the emerging 18th century Gothic sensibility in literature, art and music, primarily as represented in the rare book, print and music holdings of the Baillieu Library.

This heightened  creative mode abstracted nightmarish images form an earlier medieval (or ‘Gothic’) age, and fused them with a Romantic focus on imagination and emotion, to create a literary and artistic tradition of thrilling originality.

The exhibition celebrates several important 2018 anniversaries, including the publication of the first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the birth of Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights, and references aspects of the Gothic into the 19th century and beyond.

Sitting alongside the exhibition is a new and enthralling website featuring Gothic research by scholars of the Gothic, postgraduate students and Special Collections curators. There is also an exciting opportunity for all students of the University of Melbourne to enter the micro-story competition. The exhibition and website are a timely celebration of all things wild, gloomy and fearful.

Glyphs, cyphers and symbols: Mysteries by Romeyn de Hooghe

It is always satisfying to finally identify works of art in the collection that have otherwise remained cloaked in mystery. Such is the case with a group of 20 etchings and engravings in the Baillieu Library Print Collection, which remained unidentified for decades, until now.

A previous researcher was convinced that these perplexing scenes were Spanish emblems, but in truth, separated from any signatures or other explanatory text, it is possible for a viewer to probe these images for hours and remain baffled as to their correct origin and meaning. This is largely because they are the product of the labyrinthine mind of Dutch artist Romeyn de Hooghe (1645-1708) and their true source is his Hieroglyphica of Merkbeelden der oude Volkeren (Symbols of ancient people), published in 1735.

The structure of his book is unusual; instead of a narrative it presents illustrations with a key, accompanied by copious text, to explain their content. In de Hooghe’s lifetime, the deciphering of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs had not been achieved. Thus, they invited interpretation and additionally, it was common practice in the Dutch Republic to present a symbol and apply layers of potential meaning to it. [1.] De Hooghe provides us in his illustrations symbol upon symbol and consequently an overwhelming schema of knowledge. For example, in plate three he conveys the overall theme of Iconology and the symbols represented are: A: The progress of science B: Harpocrates, the silent student C: A priest D: An archaeological obelisk E: Godly exorcism F: A statue of Hecate G: Statue of the Egyptian Horus H: Artificial austerity I: Supplicate the oracle K: Presenting the sacrifice L: Statue of Mophta. [2.]

plate 3 from Hieroglyphica of Merkbeelden der oude Volkeren
Romeyn de Hooghe, plate 3 from Hieroglyphica of Merkbeelden der oude Volkeren, etching and engraving, 1735

The ancient Egyptians were not the only subject of his interpretations though, he also reasoned about the occult, science, classical mythology and religions. Although he may have begun the project with the intention to produce a history of ancient symbols, his focus on religion is such, that the production may be considered rather as a genealogy of religion. [3.] The study of Hieroglyphica is complex, yet highly rewarding experience.

plate 37 from Hieroglyphica of Merkbeelden der oude Volkeren
Romeyn de Hooghe, plate 37 from Hieroglyphica of Merkbeelden der oude Volkeren, etching and engraving, 1735

Kerrianne Stone (Curator, Prints)


[1.] For further explanation of Hieroglyphica see Joke Spaans, ‘Art, science and religion in Romeyn de Hooghe’s “Hieroglyphica”’ in Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) (Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art), Vol. 61, pp. 281-307, 2011

[2.] Romeyn de Hooghe: Hieroglyphica — Symbols of Ancient People

[3.] Joke Spaans, p. 294

Treatment of “The Risen Christ with St Andrew and St Longinus”: An Andrea Mantegna engraving

As part of the Miegunyah bequest funding, engravings after Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) – much sought after by students of Renaissance art – were conserved. Adele Barbara explains her treatment of one these important works of art. 

The Risen Christ engraving after Mantegna
Unknown artist after Andrea Mantegna, The Risen Christ with St. Andrew and St. Longinus, engraving (1470-1500)

Initially, it was thought there was only one thick backing layer on the engraving of The Risen Christ with St Andrew and St Longinus that had to be removed. Mechanically removing this backing with a scalpel, however, uncovered another, very thin lining that had been fully adhered to the back of the work. A series of investigations were conducted in order to determine what exactly was bonding this lining to the print and the best way of removing it safely.

To discover what kind of adhesive was used to bind the lining to the back of the work, a series of spot tests were conducted. Spot testing in conservation not only helps to identify materials, but can contribute to the development of a treatment methodology. For this work, both a potassium iodide test and a biuret test was used to assess what kind of adhesive was used. Results indicated that the adhesive was starch based. This series of spot tests helped to troubleshoot the next stage of treatment; the separation of the print from its lining.

In order to separate these layers without disrupting or damaging the print, the starch-based adhesive had to gradually softened. To achieve this, the work was gently humidified before it was carefully placed faced up on a piece of thick, wet blotter. To ensure good contact between the back of the work and the blotter, a sheet of Bondina tissue was placed on top of the work, followed by a sheet of glass. This sandwich of blotter and Bondina allowed moisture to gradually permeate through the layers without causing visual or dimensional change to the print.

Smoothing Bondina over the engraving
Smoothing Bondina over the surface of “The Risen Christ” using a smoothing brush

After four hours, the work was removed from beneath the glass and hand tools were used to gradually peel back the lining. Some areas of the lining, however, needed a little more encouragement. To help ease the two layers apart, a heated spatula was applied to the work with a wet blotter to further soften the adhesive. Hand tools could then be used to separate the layers without damaging the print.

Using a heated spatula
Using a heated spatula to soften adhesive
Removing the lining with hand tools








Once this lining was removed, the work could be thoroughly washed and flattened to remove dirt and impurities. Finally, The Risen Christ and other works in the Baillieu’s Print Collection were mounted. Small Japanese paper hinges were attached to the works, which were then joined to inlay paper and then into their own window mounts. This very precise method of mounting allows both sides of the prints to be viewed by students and researchers safely and securely.

Print mounting process
Baillieu prints during the mounting process

Adele Barbara, Paper Conservator

The Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation

Conserving the Baillieu’s dragon

Funding from the Miegunyah Bequest enabled the Baillieu Library’s most requested work of art, The Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus (c.1588), to be conserved. Treatment was carried out by paper conservators Peter Mitchelson and Adele Barbara, who explain this intricate process.

The Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus
Hendrick Goltzius after Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, The Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus, engraving, (c.1588)

While Hendrick Goltzius’ 16th century engraving, The Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus, arrived to the laboratory in a good condition for its age, a thorough conservation treatment was required to bring the print back to its former glory.

The print itself was mounted onto acidic backing board, which prevented access to the back of the work and was potentially a catalyst for degradation into the future. Edges of white paper visible along an edge of the print indicated that it had also been lined in the past to repair tears and strengthen the work. In order to discover what was hidden behind these layers, and allow the print to be repaired and cleaned effectively, these backings had to be removed.

To remove the mount board backing, the engraving was placed face down on a flat, even surface. As the support was adhered in all four corners, most of the board could be cut away. What remained was carefully pared back with a scalpel. Beneath this backing, however, another layer or partially removed backing, with the hint of an inscription showing through, was uncovered. This backing differed from the first in that it had mostly been removed. Due to the presence of an inscription, though, it was decided that these final layers had to be removed. A poultice of methylcellulose was used to gently moisten the remainder of the backing before it could be carefully scraped away.

Once this final layer was removed, the lining paper adhered to the back of the work could then be considered. After trialling the use of a high-pressure steamer to remove the lining with little success, testing was conducted investigate what was adhering the lining so strongly to the back of the print. Spot testing using a potassium iodide solution revealed that a starch-based adhesive was used during the previous treatment. Consequently, it was decided that the most effective way of removing the lining would be while both the lining and the print were wet.

Paper conservators at work
Paper conservators treating the engraving

To achieve this, the print was placed in a bath of warm deionised water face down. Using soft brushes and hand tools, we were gradually able to carefully peel back small sections of the lining until it was completely removed. After the lining was removed, however, a sticky residue remained behind. To quickly remove the adhesive before the print dried, the back of the work was carefully swabbed with small cotton swabs.

Once this process had been completed, the print could then be thoroughly washed in deionised water. This process allowed for any remaining dirt or degradation products to be released, stabilising and cleansing the print. Once washed, the print was flattened to allow for repairs to be made to the tear on the front of the work.

During the removal of the lining, a historic infill was removed from the top right corner of the work. We have selected to retain the original fill, but will instead secure it with discreetly with Japanese tissue.

Once the repairs are complete and the engraving is mounted, The Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus may return to the Baillieu Library Print Collection to be displayed and enjoyed for years to come.

Adele Barbara, Paper Conservator
The Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation


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