As November 2018 heralds the worldwide release of J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindewald, it would be interesting to take a brief look at how legendary and mythological creatures were depicted in Italian art from eras past and described in world literature. 

The Basilisk

Pliny the Elder, in his Historia Naturalis, described the basilisk as follows:

“Anyone who sees the eyes of a basilisk serpent (basilisci serpentis) dies immediately. It is no more than twelve inches long, and has white markings on its head that look like a diadem. Unlike other snakes, which flee its hiss, it moves forward with its middle raised high. Its touch and even its breath scorch grass, kill bushes and burst rocks. Its poison is so deadly that once when a man on a horse speared a basilisk, the venom travelled up the spear and killed not only the man, but also the horse. A weasel can kill a basilisk; the serpent is thrown into a hole where a weasel lives, and the stench of the weasel kills the basilisk at the same time as the basilisk kills the weasel”.

The Centaur

Both the Ancient Roman poet, Ovid and his Medieval peer, Dante Alghieri describe the centaur as a gluttonous creature possessing a strange physical and emotional duality.

The Chimera

Homer recounts that the Chimera is, “a monster, sent from Heav’n, not human born, with head of lion, and a serpent’s tail, and body of a goat; and from her mouth there issued flames of fiercely-burning fire.” 

The Griffin or Gryphon

The Griffin is described by Aeschylus as a “sharp beaked” creature, whereas, almost eighteen centuries later, Sir John Mandeville, stated that ‘one griffin hath the body more great and is more strong than eight lions, as such lions as be on this half and more great and stronger than a hundred eagles.’ Perhaps this is why the Griffin was accorded the task of pulling the carriage that transported Dante’s muse, Beatrice Portinari, through Purgatory. 

The Mermaid

Over time, mermaids and sirens have become slightly confused. their physical and characteristic attributes becoming strangely amalgamated. The mermaid however, was traditionally half woman, half fish and benevolent in nature. The siren – half woman, half bird, was malevolent and intended harm to her victims. 

The Phoenix

Ovid, the ancient Roman poet, wrote about the phoenix and stated that, “these creatures receive their start in life from others: there is one, a bird, which renews itself, and reproduces from itself. The Assyrians call it the phoenix. It does not live on seeds and herbs, but on drops of incense, and the sap of the cardamom plant. When it has lived for five centuries, it then builds a nest for itself in the topmost branches of a swaying palm tree, using only its beak and talons. As soon as it has lined it with cassia bark, and smooth spikes of nard, cinnamon fragments and yellow myrrh, it settles on top, and ends its life among the perfumes.

   They say that, from the father’s body, a young phoenix is reborn, destined to live the same number of years. When age has given it strength, and it can carry burdens, it lightens the branches of the tall palm of the heavy nest, and piously carries its own cradle, that was its father’s tomb, and, reaching the city of Hyperion, the sun-god, through the clear air, lays it down in front of the sacred doors of Hyperion’s temple.”

The Dragon

In antiquity, dragons were thought to exist in India and Ethiopia. A mortal enemy of the elephant, the dragon is variously described as the greatest of serpents, possessing an incredibly strong tail and an insatiable thirst. A cave dweller and hunter by nature, the dragon is also capable of flight.

References: Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009

Homer, The Iliad, trans. E.V. Reiu, London, Penguin, 1950. 

Keala Jane Jewell ed., Monsters in the Italian Literary Imagination, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2001.

Alison Luchs, The Mermaids of Venice: Fantastic Sea Creatures in Venetian Renaissance Art, London, Harvey Miller Publishers, 2010. 

Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. A.D. Melville, With an Introduction and Notes by E. J. Kenney, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, A Selection, trans. John F Healy, London, Penguin Books, 1991. 

The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages website. 

Images: Paolo Uccello, Saint George and the Dragon, c.1470, oil on canvas, 55.6 x 74.2 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Unknown, Figure of a Basilisk, 16th Century Milanese, bronze, 24.5cm, Private Collection. Artnet.

Unknown, Arms of the House of Visconti, Archibishop’s Palace, Milan, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Sandro Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur, c. 1482, tempera on canvas, 205 x 147,5 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Unknown, The Chimera of Arezzo, c.400 BCE, bronze, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Carlo Bianconi, Design for a Cartouche with a Coat of Arms containing a Griffin,1732–1802, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash over traces of leadpoint, 22.4 x 18.1 cm, The Metropolitan Museum, New York. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1952. Public Domain.

Master of the Antiphonar of Padua, Dante is Led to Beatrice, 14th Century, tempera, pen and gold on parchment. In Divina Commedia : Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, with a short Latin commentary; the Capitolo (ff. 187-187v),  MS Egerton 943, British Library, London. © The British Library

Unknown Roman, Siren, ca. 1571–90, bronze, overall (confirmed): 32 1/8 × 44 ¾ × 13 3/8 in., 130 lb. (81.6 × 113.7 × 34 cm, 58.9676 kg), The Metropolitan Museum, New York. Rogers and Edith Perry Chapman Funds, 2000. Public Domain.

After Master of the Die, A phoenix sat atop a tree, wings open, an assortment of animals below, engraving, Italian, Rome, ca. 1530–60, The Metropolitan Museum, New York. Gift of Harry G. Friedman, 1962. Public Domain. 

Leonardo da VInci, A design for a costume of an imaginary beast, c.1517-1518, black chalk, pen and ink on paper, The Royal Collection Trust, England. 

Posted by Samantha Hughes-Johnson.

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