The fantastic apparitions which alledgedly happened in Genoa in August 1608 has been the subject of many ufological discussions ever since the rediscovery of the French canard (chapbook) by Guy Tarade in the late 1960s. Following up on a series of discussions on the subject, I hereby present a condensed version of a much more detailed article I have been writing on the subject and in which I present some contemporary documents which might have served as a possible source of inspiration for the author of the 1608 French canard. The article is also a pretext for bringing in some thoughts about the historical and ufological treatment of 17th century prodigy literature.
The nautical celebration on the Arno river in Florence
On the 3rd of November 1608, an amazing show was staged on the Arno river in Florence. This representation, based on the Argonautica of Appolionius of Rhodes as rewritten by Francesco Cini, was staged as part of the three weeks-long celebration of the marriage of Cosimo II de Medici and Maria Magdalena of Austria. It consisted of a naval battle complete with various vessels decorated with all sorts of mythological apparatus and a reenactment of the Golden Fleece retrieval with Cosimo in the role of Jason. The staging was as magnificent as could be Medici representations of the time and it didn't miss to impress high ranking guests from all over Europe and every beholder present that day on the banks of the Arno river.
Fortunately for us, a few accounts have survived of this splendid representation along with engravings of the scene and of the vessels. Apart from Francesco Cini’s Argonautica, the main source is a booklet by Camillo Rinuccini entitled Descrizione delle feste fatte nelle reali nozze de Serenissimi Principi di Toscana D. Cosimo de Medici e Maria Maddalena Arciduchessa d’Austria (Florence, 1608). As far as iconographical sources are concerned, an interesting engraving by Matthias Grueter representing a general view of the event on the Arno river (ill. 1) is inserted in Rinuccini’s work and independent contemporary engravings by Remigio Cantagallina and Giulio Parigi depict each of the vessels involved.
Using both these textual and iconographical sources, we can piece together an almost precise idea of what the naval event looked like. Among the twelve decorated vessels sailing on the Arno that day, four of them stand out as far as similarities with the Genoa apparitions are concerned. Here is how Rinuccini describe them:
Vessel of Iphiclus and Nauplius (ill. 2)
« Seguiva dietro a Giasone Iflico, e Nauplio, rappresentati da Adamo Ermanno di Rotnehan [sic], e dal Baron di Losenstein Tedeschi. La nave loro, per esser que’due Argonauti figliuoli di Netunno, era finta uno scoglio di spugne, pieno di coralli, e muscho, e a prua veran due cavalli marini, che mostravano tirare il carro di Nettunno, che era la poppa, e le ruote si vedevan mezze nell’acqua, e girar camminando, e sopra il Carro stava Nettuno col tridente, e a suoi piedi i Cavallieri. »(Rinuccini 1608, p. 60).
« Following [the vessel of] Jason were Iphiclus and Nauplius, represented by Adam Herman von Rotenhan and by the Baron von Losenstein, [both] Germans. The two Argonauts being sons of Neptune, their ship was made as a fake sponge rock, full of corals and moss, and at the bow were two seahorses seemingly pulling the chariot of Neptune which was the stern. The wheels which were half submerged, were turning, and on the chariot stood Neptune with [his] trident and knights at his feet. »
Vessel of Glaucus (ill. 3)
« Glauco Dio marino in questo sur’una barca spinta, e governata da Tritoni, venendo incontro a questa armata, cantando [...]. » (Rinuccini 1608, p. 63)
« Glaucus, the Sea God on a boat driven and governed by Tritons coming to meet this army [and] singing […]. »
Vessel of Idmon and Mopsus (ill. 4)
« La barca seguente era Idmone, e Mopso figliuoli, e Sacerdoti d’Apollo, il quale sedeva in poppa, sopra un bellissimo carro circondato di nugole. Il timone era governato da un vecchio, con l’ali, figurato per lo Tempo soggetto a’moti del Sole: e la prua era il Serpente Pitone, che gettava fuoco per bocca, e moveva l’ali, fra le quali, sul piano della prua, per insegna del ministerio di questi Sacerdoti, era un’altare da sacrifizii, col fuoco acceso, e tutto il d’intorno della barca, era dipinto d’animali sacri ad Apollo. » (ibid, p. 62)
« The following boat was that of Idmon and Mopsus, sons and priests of Apollo, who sat on the stern on a beautiful chariot surrounded by clouds. The rudder was governed by an old man, with wings, figurating Time subject to the motions of the Sun: and the bow was the serpent Python, which threw fire from his mouth and moved his wings, between which, on the floor of the bow, as a sign of the ministry of these priests, was a sacrificial altar, with burning fire, and all around the boat were painted animals sacred to Apollo. »
Vessel of Herakles (ill. 5)
« La prua figurava un’Idra spirante fiamma da tutte le teste, la parte di dietro della poppa ritraeva un mascherone d’un mostro, alla cui bocca era incatenato Cerbero, che serviva di timone. (...) » (ibid, p.58)
« The bow figured a hydra breathing fire from every head, the part below the stern portrayed the figure of monster, to which mouth was chained Cerberus, which served as a rudder. (…) »
We might rightly object that none of the descriptions above corresponds in every detail to the description given in the canard. However, each one of them share common features with the Genoa apparitions and one can only wonder whether the author of the canard could have used the nautical festival on the Arno river clearly not as a direct source but rather as a source of inspiration.
It seems obvious enough that the horrible figures covered in scales and holding serpents of the canard do represent, or are influenced by the mythological tritons:
« […] les uns estoient en figures humaines ayant des bras qu'ils sembloient estre couverts d'escailles, & tenoyent en chacune de leurs mains deux horribles Serpens volans, qui leurs entortilloient les bras, & ne paroissoyent que depuis le nombril, en haut hors de la mer […] »
Similarities are evident enough if we compare them to the accompanying figures of Glaucus and Iphiclus vessels on the Arno, as clearly depicted on Parigi’s engraving (ill. 2 and 3) and which represent half-immerged tritons, albeit winged, holding serpentine blowing horns.
As for the Genoese chariots driven by two fiery dragon-like figures fire, these are not unlike the fire-spitting serpent Python, which is usually depicted as a dragon in 16th and 17th iconography, on the bow of the vessel of Idmon and Mopsus (ill. 4) or the fiery-eyed Hydra of the vessel of Herakles (ill. 5).
« […] trois carrosses trainant chacune par six figures toutes en feu, en semblance de dragon. Et marchoient lesdictes carrosses, l'une à l'oposite de l'autre, & estoient lesdictes carrosses trainées par lesdits signes qui avoient tousjours leurs serpens, en continuant leurs cris espouventables […] »
Rinuccini also tells us that during the course of the nautical representation, cannons were fired « in tanto numero, e in tanta varieta, che imito a pieno il vero del legni grandi, e nimici » (p. 65), while in the canard, we learn that some eight hundred cannon shots were fired at the terrible apparitions on the sea (« […] & leur fut tiré quelque huict cens coups de canon […] »).
All these graphical similarities are enough to ask ourselves whether the author of the canard could have heard about the naval representation in Florence and subsequently drew upon it for his narration, eventually changing the location and dates. While no definitive proof can be offered here, it is nonetheless certain that a major event such as this one, along with its wonderful artifices and machinery, must have struck the minds of the beholders which counted high ranking envoys from all over Europe among them. And through these officials, news of the event must have spread quickly outside Florentine territory. It is thus not improbable at all that the author of the canard knew about this particularly spectacular representation when he began writing his leaflet, either directly through a written account or by way of rumor. But the nautical spectacle of Florence having occurred on the 3rd of November 1608 and the alleged Genoa apparitions in August, we still need to check whether the canard appeared before or after the Florentine festivities.
Thanks to a mention by the Parisian chronicler Pierre de l’Estoile, we know that the canard began circulating in Paris on December 10th 1608, that is more than a month *after* the nautical battle in Florence. However, we also know that the Parisian edition of the canard printed by Pierre Menier, drew upon an earlier copy, most certainly the editio princeps, printed in Lyon. It can be assumed quite safely that the delay between the Parisian and Lyonnese edition was relatively short as information between these two major cities moved quite fast. That means that the Genoa apparition story probably first began to be circulated in France sometime in early December, or at the earliest in late November. If this assumption is correct, this would have left just about enough time for the author of the canard to hear about the Florentine representation and use it as a factual basis for his prodigious narration, only changing the date from November to August and the setting from Florence to Genoa in order to cover his tracks. This was in no way uncommon in early 17th century prodigy literature and other examples exist of date or setting changes made by the authors in order to resell their stories. Moreover, this would also explain why events in Genoa were related almost six months after they had supposedly occurred.
And this brings us to the motivation of the author for whom we might ask what he could possibly have gained from such an enterprise, apart of course from the relatively small financial retribution such authors received upon delivering their works. On the one hand, it does not really come as a surprise that a magnificent event such as this one might have given rise to a prodigious narration, either through way of successive oral deformation or simply by awe of the event itself. But on the other, we might still ask ourselves whether the author might have followed a deliberate agenda while building up his narration.
In an earlier article, we had already noted that some elements in the text of the canard hinted toward the fact that the author might have been either a Capuchin sympathizer or a Capuchin monk himself. This was supported by the fact that he almost certainly authored a few months later, in 1609, another canard entitled «Le terrible et espouvantable dragon apparu sur l’Isle de Malte… le 15 Decembre 1608» (National Library, Paris, BN K-15938) where a teratological issue was resolved by way of Capuchin intervention, just as was the case for the 1608 Genoa apparitions.
Capuchins, which were already very influential in the Italian peninsula, were at that same time beginning to grow exponentially in France. A recent study by Dominique Varry (Varry, D. « L’introduction des Capucins en Franche-Comté et le ‘miracle’ de Faverney’ », in Autour du Miracle de Faverney (1608), Faverney, 2008), shows that the exploitation of miracles was an important component of Capuchin discourse in order to propagate their views and gain influence, most notably in the popular layers. Miracles such as the one of Faverney, which occurred in May 1608, just a few months before the alleged Genoa apparitions, could only strengthen the Capuchin reputation.
It is thus plausible that the author intended to exploit yet another striking event in such a way as to stress out to a popular public the wonders of the Capuchin order which was actively acting for the Counter-Reform. The magnificence of the celebrations of the marriage of Cosimo II and Maria-Magdalena of Austria in Florence might have given him such an opportunity.
As a final note on the subject, it is important to remember that the 17th century prodigy literature was certainly not phantasmagorical, or at least not entirely. In effect, it would certainly be wrong to consider these leaflets as mere misperceptions of natural events by some culturally « lower minded » as this approach would fail to take into account the crucial fact that in the early 17th prodigy literature, the message conveyed by a prodigy or wonder was much more important than the nature of the event itself.
Moreover, considering prodigy literature in terms of errors or deceptions would lock the historian into a «realist» approach of historiography, failing to take into consideration the contribution of this whole literature to Renaissance culture and knowledge, and failing to explain these narrations in terms other than that of« superstition » or « irrationality ».
It might seem a paradox at first sight that the ufological treatment of prodigies might be related to this historiographic «realist» approach, but in fact they are more related than meet the eye. In effect, both of them share a similar and symmetrical conception by considering prodigies as epiphenomenal reflexes. In other words, both of them acknowledge misinterpretation as the basis of their understanding of prodigious narrations and experiences for which we obviously have difficulties finding *direct* modern parallels. It is my opinion that this shared approach if applied systematically misses the main point of 17th century prodigious narration which aims less to explain the nature of a phenomenon than to understand its consequences. It is this original reading, primarily based on symbolism that we, as modern readers, should not forget when dealing with such documents lest we offer a literal reading which would be completely anachronistic and imply some kind of « magical thinking » of old as opposed to an infallible rationalistic modern approach.
As a matter of fact, the authors of the canards, those short leaflets sold in the streets, were in all probabilities and in most cases neither deliberately confabulating nor misinterpreting, but rather struggling to give sense to uncommon happenings. Many examples show that most of the time they relied upon real factual events. Sometimes these would clearly be prodigious in the strict sense of the term, but more often than not, exaggeration would follow the spread of rumor. As a consequence, lesser striking events could grow, either deliberately or not, and be reshaped into major prodigies. In fact any event that would present some irregularities compared to the normal course of nature had the potential of being considered as a prodigy as could any uncommon humanly event provide matter for a prodigious narration.
And that might have been just the case for our 1608 Genoa story. Diego Cuoghi’s earlier researches on the subject had already shown that the Genoa apparitions were with pretty good certainty a non-event as it was not corroborated by local chronicles. What remained to be understood were the motivations of the author behind his narration. While admittedly not entirely satisfactory as far as this last question is concerned, the present documents might at least offer an explanation as to the source of inspiration for the story itself.