Thursday, June 7, 2018

Book Review / The Tulip by Anna Pavord

Ms Pavord's tome, coming to 439 pages, contains many intriguing and beautiful colour illustrations. Much beguiling information derived from extensive research is divulged. Tulips which 'broke', that is, became variegated, were highly sought after. However, it was much later that the reason for the flaming and feathering of different colours was discovered which was a virus transported by aphids. Before then, one method was to put the desired colours in powdered paint on their tulip beds, expecting the colours somehow miraculously to transmute the flowers.

Species tulips naturally abound just in Central Asia and the Caucasus.  It was only in 1451 that the first known cultivar was found in the garden of Sultan Mehmed II. So when did our globetrotting floral subject begin its travels? Based on the flowers in medieval paintings before the 15th century, as in the Portinari Altarpiece which shows no tulips, but red lilies, white and blue irises, and violets, tulips stayed in the east until that time.

Goodness! I have water glasses similar to the one in the painting!

Though the Dutch may be historically entangled with tulip mania which lasted just a few years from 1634 to 1637, they were not connected to many significant developments in the adoption of tulips by Europeans. Most likely the first introduction of the bulbs was accomplished by a Frenchmen. The first shipments of tulip bulbs arrived in Antwerp from Constantinople and the first known tulip bloomed in Augsburg, Bavaria. As for the Dutch tulip mania, there was much confusion as to legal settlements regarding complicated ownership since more than one person could have dibs on a single tulip bulb along with the increasing involvement of marketplace futures causing a tangled chain of interactions encouraging the government to put strictures on trading tulips. There are several explanations why the mania took off in the Netherlands and one was that the Plague which happened shortly before raised wages because there was a sharp decline in workers, therefore allowing extravagant purchases.

Criticism has been levelled at Ms Pavord for not translating French from which she often excerpts. Sometimes she summarises in English the untranslated section, but mostly she doesn't. She does that a bit with Latin and additionally quotes early modern english. This latter aspect puts her style in perspective for me: she is trying to transport us back into the 16th century without the help of period costumes and speaking actors. It's a bit off-putting but worth the inconvenience because if you let yourself go with the flow of the different languages, you get a sense of the type of interconnected linguistic world in which European horticulturalists lived at that time. 

À la prochaine!


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Amazon listing for The Tulip by Anna Pavord

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