How to Prepare Mandrake » Art with me! Vienna – Вена


How to Prepare Mandrake

Useful Knowledge from the Austrian National Library

The great hall of the Austrian National Library in Vienna is excluded from the touristic short-list of places to visit, but the small pictures in old books surrounded by the entourage of Baroque superfluity can impress no less than the Gothicism of St. Stephen’s Cathedral or the crowns of the Imperial Treasury.

The hall itself is a vivid example of the pinnacle of the Baroque art that you can find all over Vienna; count in the thirty-meter high dome with the Apotheosis of Charles VI fresco, marble statues of the book-loving rulers, and shelves with rare publications exceeding 200,000 pieces. If you are not interested in visiting the endless enfilades of Viennese palaces trying to embrace Baroque aesthetics, the Great Hall is just what you need. Enter this temple of books in Hofburg and you will be immediately struck by a knock-out dose of art featuring visual superfluity.

PHOTOS: Austrian National Library / Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (c) OENB

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    But the breathtaking interiors are not the only reason for visiting this place; it’s the curious exhibitions occupying barely few square meters of the elegant cases that are a must see. The exhibition under the glass doesn’t change frequently, only every year or half a year, and it represents pieces of paper, from papyrus to newspaper clippings, unified by a single topic, be it violence, travel, masons, the official language of the empire, or the culture of private communication of the crowned heads.

    The knowledge is all different. For example, there are guidelines on preparing the mandrake. Since it was considered that its root is alive and can use its voice to kill the person trying to pluck it out, it was recommended that the action should be performed by a black male dog, forcing it to sacrifice its life for the sake of the valuable photographic material. If you happen to remember the scene from the first Harry Potter movie, where wizard kids are replanting mandrake wearing ear muffs used by construction workers, you will see how much modern fantasy writers took from the real Medieval times.

    Herbarium II, Mandragora [Alraune],Süditalien, 13. Jh.© Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

    At the same time, it’s possible to find here guidelines on delivering a malpositioned baby, sketches of complex astronomical instruments, and descriptions of medicinal characteristics of plants that are considered correct nowadays. All in all, you will find plenty of reason to exclaim both ‘wow, them ancestors knew this already!’ and ‘huh, ignorant medievalism’.

    The organizers tried to present pieces of knowledge from all corners of the world, that is, from different sections of the library, but the number of European books is of course prevailing. However, even European books contain numerous references to Avicenna (who presented himself as the king of all doctors of all times), aside from mentioning Western Galen and Hippocrates. Knowledge was not discriminated based on its origin, and despite all the mistakes of the cartography of the time, I didn’t see any attempts of crafting the ‘terrestrial globe of Europe’.

    Albucasis, Chirurgia, Geburtsdarstellungen, Südfrankreich (?), 2. Hälfte 14. Jh.© Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

    If anything, the more exotic the origin is, the more effective the material is; the same goes for ancientry, the older and the more tested a technique is, the likelier it is to help, which is why discoveries were frequently made to appear older, which, of course, did not promote progress. As is known, medicine was often powerless, which is visible from the concerned facial expressions of healers and the crestfallen faces of the sick in the manuscripts.

    Aside from medicine, astrology is also represented in detail. This section is worth paying attention to so that you could see for yourself that the horoscopic descriptions of human characters haven’t changed since then, only the ‘scientific basis’ has disappeared from the modern-day books.

    Theriakbuch, Der Arzt Andromachos d. Ältere beobachtet einen Yaḥyā an-Naḥwī (= Johannes Philoponos) Mosul (?), um 1220–40 © Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

    Sacred texts are also present in the exhibition, since they represent the knowledge about the structure of the world, or even worlds. I found a 14th century volume made for an Austrian duke especially interesting. It’s a bible translated into German for the personal use and better understanding of the contents rather than for a liturgy. This can likely be considered an evidence stating that Latin was no longer an obligatory subject in the curriculum of noble and crowned people.

    Tacuinum sanitatis, Ernte und Zubereitung der, Edelkastanien (Castanee), Oberitalien (Verona?), Ende 14. Jh.© Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

    The most precious thing about this exhibition is, pardon my obviosity, the chance to enter the Medieval world filled with naive sugary exaggerations. Such an exposure is capable of provoking the most valuable sensations, on condition that they are taken with real maturity and seriousness.