Hercule Florence “Le nouveau Robinson” at NMNM Villa Paloma, Monaco
by Barbara Casavecchia
In his Primo Libro delle Favole (First Book of Fables, 1952), Carlo Emilio Gadda tells of how an archbishop of the past, while listening to the chirping of sparrows and starlings outside his window, is certain they are singing praise to the Lord for having created them. Nevertheless, writes Gadda, had those hearing them been “the glottologists of the infidel nineteenth century,” they would have grasped only a cascade of insults cast from one beak to another—in an operatic crescendo of dialectal voices—in order to establish the pecking order, the right to perch on the most comfortable branch. Scientific curiosity, as we know, leads to unexpected discoveries.
Among the above-mentioned glottologist, we might well also find Hercule Florence (1804–79), a painter and self-taught inventor born in Nice into a Monegasque family, who at the age of just nineteen set sail from Monte Carlo heading for Brazil, in order to take part in the naturalist expedition of the baron Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff to Mato Grosso (1825–9), sponsored by the Tsar. Armed with notepad and paints, Florence recorded images of landscapes, native populations, plants and animals, developing what he would call “zoophony”: a system for classifying the voices of birds and predators through sound, translating them into graphics that resemble musical scores, precise to this day. When he wrote O Echo dos animaes irracionaes (1831), Florence had no idea of the revolutionary scope of his work. In the meantime, however, he realized that he had an aim: to capture and reproduce mechanically the most immaterial things he encountered. After sound, the clouds. And after the clouds, light.
Retracing his life and works (an individual epopee which includes a pile of manuscripts, drawings and correspondence sent to the scientific academies of Paris and Turin, in the vain attempt to have his discoveries acknowledged, as well as two marriages, twenty children, a modern school for girls and the management of the Fazenda Soledade in Campinas), the exhibition Le nouveau Robinson is on show at the NMNM Villa Paloma in Monaco, curated by Linda Fregni Nagler and Cristiano Raimondi. It brings together the results of a five-year research project, which included the digitalization of a great deal of archive material, mostly from two collections housed in São Paulo: the Cyrillo Hercule Florence Collection and that of the Instituto Hercule Florence.
Fregni Nagler is an artist who loves to rummage through the archaeology of photography. In this case, she worked on various levels, not only delving into the images but also the writings of Florence, brought together in the substantial monograph (published by Humboldt Books, Milan) which accompanies and integrates the exhibition. “The manuscripts were an obsession for him. Of L’inventeur au Brésil (The Inventor in Brazil), for example, he left behind eleven different versions, covering an autobiographical period of almost forty years. But the decisive encounter as far as I’m concerned was with Photographie Ou Imprimerie à la Lumière (Photography or Impression Through Light), 1833, which I transcribed myself. It’s here that this word appears for the first time in history. The first to use it was Florence, although at that same time it was Niépce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot, in Europe, who were officially establishing the medium. Reading the words of an artist who invented—alone, in complete isolation—the idea of photography, it was like entering a new mental mechanism, trying to understand what drives you to seek a medium unlike all those available to you.”
The exhibition follows two parallel paths. One is thematic and chronological: on the first floor, the iconographic materials concerning the expedition to Amazonia and Mato Grosso (where the images of the Bororo people drawn by Florence are placed in comparison with the photos shot by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1930s, a century later) are on display, while on the second floor we may examine all of Florence’s inventions, like the “hydrostatic noria” (a pump for perpetual movement), the “papier inimitable” (a special kind of paper that was supposed to be used for the watermark for a new, unique Brazilian banknote), the “polygraph” (a sort of proto-photocopier). And lastly, photography, which Florence splits up into photographie (the reproduction drawing or a writing, similar to a cliché-verre) and the fixation des images dans la chambre obscure (what to all effects and purposes we call photography), obtained using auric chloride. A special section is given over to the Atlas Pitoresco Celeste (begun in 1830), a series of watercolours of views of clouds in the Brazilian skies, which Florence conceives as a repertoire useful for young artists; here, it is placed in comparison with the Essay on the Modification of Clouds by the English chemist and pharmacist Luke Howard, with the studies on clouds by Edward Muybridge and with the “cyanometers” (to measure the blue of the sky) of the Swiss naturalist Horace Bénédict de Saussure, later used by Alexandre von Humboldt during his travels through Brazil, thus ideally closing the circle.
The other part of the exhibition is contemporary, unfolding through the works of the artists who—without philological obligations—have come to terms with Florence and his constant research into new ways of copying, reproducing and multiplying images.
As well as Fregni Nagler herself, who performed an almost forensic examination of the manuscript of Photographie, exploiting chemical analyses and magnifications, there are Lucia Koch, Jochen Lempert, Leticia Ramos and Daniel Steegman Mangrané. Koch makes use of the often psychedelic colors of the skies of the Atlas in order to construct a digital pattern transferred onto fabric, making up a curtain that cuts through and redesigns the spaces on the third floor. Ramos uses microfilm to construct the tale of an imaginary exploration. Lempert documents and reinterprets another of Florence’s visionary projects, the definition of a sixth architectural order, the “Brazilian or Palmian,” as he entitled his essay sent to the Royal Academy of Sciences of Turin in 1852. Mangrané immerses the onlooker in the green of the Amazonian rainforest, with a giddying variety of plant shapes and animal sounds. Chronologies and historiographies aside, the aims appear to remain the same: to capture the fragility of our eco-systems on a stable support, one capable of crossing time, along with the amazement of our gaze before the spectacle of nature.
at NMNM Villa Paloma, Monaco
until 11 June 2017