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Introduction

In the 16th century, news of the great geographical discoveries prompted the most enlightened Western artists to portray the mysteries of those far-off places, which could still only be imagined. Paintings became the vehicle for new ways of viewing the world. Among them the Allegory of the Discovery of America, by the Tuscan artist Jacopo Zucchi, is particularly significant in terms of our specific topic. Now conserved in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, the small picture, done in oils on copper, was one of the paintings adorning the “Studiolo” which the Granduca Francesco I de Medici created in 1510 as a “closet of rare and precious things… ingenious devices and suchlike”, a Wunderkammer or laboratory housing the “wonders” reflecting the contemporary state of knowledge. Zucchi filled his allegory with scenes from classical mythology and details of the natural world: the extraordinary discovery of a new continent is flanked, or indeed symbolised, by the remarkable attributes of “naturalia corallii”. The biological origins of coral had not been established when Zucchi painted its characteristic ramifications1, and its exceptional nature was a perfect foil for the mystery of a land whose features were still to be explored. Thus here we have coral as an allegorical link between the Old World and the New.

In fact it has always combined myth and magic, for its bright red colour has fascinated people in the East and West alike. Its mysterious origins and its ambiguous nature, combining the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, have given rise to conjecture and myths, reinforcing its mythical potency and aura of white magic. In classical antiquity it was the blood of Medusa, “soft and diaphanous under water, as hard as stone in the air”. Or again it was a tree of blood, symbolising procreative force, a link with the divine and the supernatural.

Thanks to its association with well-being, good luck and life, and its use as an amulet against the evil eye and as a medicine able to cure various complaints, coral became a commercial asset from very early times. At the beginning of the Christian era it spread from the Mediterranean to Asia, following the shipping routes used to transport incense. Once across the Red Sea, these routes started out from the port of Aden in the south of the Arabian Peninsula and reached the southern coast of India2. The fall of the Roman Empire in the West and the expansion of Islam in the strategic areas controlling the key trading stations on the way to the Levant subsequently hampered the sea-borne exchanges between the Mediterranean and Asia.

Over the following centuries the route taken, overland or by sea, varied according to the political climate. From the mid-13th century a hundred years of stability under the Mongol hegemony stretching from Asia to Europe ensured security and saw the establishment of the great Eurasian caravan routes. The distribution of coral began to take these routes, leaving traces of its passage in all the countries involved in this great commercial network. We can recognise a bright red itinerary of coral overlying the map of trade that was gradually being extended.
*The peoples of Arabia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tibet, Mongolia and India were all captivated by its allure: its blood-red colour, enigmatic essence, indecipherable origin and durability. The history of its itinerary saw the flowering and withering of great civilizations. Prosperous cities declined, peoples and religions made their appearance on the stage of history, old routes and caravanserais disappeared in the sand, but the red allure of coral found its way into the symbolism of all the cultures, taking on new metaphors connected with the various religions and local customs. It began to feature in local folk costume: in Mongolia in the impressive head-pieces of bridal costumes to ward off evil3; in Tibet in the ritual masks incarnating the forces of good4; in India in the amulets protecting the owner against misfortune of all kinds5; in Uzbekistan in the jewelry worn by brides and mothers to ensure fertility6; in the Yemen in Moslem rosaries and symbolic male attire7. For all these peoples it possessed apotropaic powers, as well as being ornamental and proclaiming ethnic identity.

While for the peoples of Eurasia the seduction of coral has ancient roots, it is a recent phenomenon for the native North Americans, a sort of transplant from the ancient Mediterranean civilization in this new continent. In fact Corallium Rubrum, the coral gathered in the Mediterranean, was introduced to the New World by the Spaniards, along with many other products unknown to the native populations such as sheep and horses8, wheat, and also new production techniques such as metal working. This is not to say that the local peoples did not wear jewellery, or that they had no tradition of using materials found in the sea in its production, including other varieties of coral and madrepore. But we are getting ahead of ourselves: this is where our story begins.

1 The zoological nature of coral reefs remained a much-debated scientific enigma until the 17th century, when a Marseilles physician, Peyssonel, showed that the scarlet structures were made up of the secretions of colonies of small polyps.

2See Del Mare C., Vitale M., Il Corallo nel gioiello etnico indiano, Electa Napoli, 1999

3See Zolla E., Del Mare C., Il Corallo nella gioielleria etnica della Mongolia, Electa Napoli, 1997

4Op. cit., pp. 9-17

5See Del Mare C., Vidale M., Il corallo nel gioiello etnico indiano, Electa Napoli, 1999

6See Del Mare C, Vitale M., Il Corallo nell’ornamento dell’Asia islamica dalla Turkia all’Uzbekistan, Electa Napoli, 2001

7See Del Mare C., De Maigret A., Il corallo negli ornamenti tradizionali e nel costume dello Yemen, Electa Napoli, 2003

8Strange as it may seem, until the arrival of the Spaniards there were no horses in the American continent. The animals they imported were robust, working horses of Iberian, Berber and Arabic stock, as well as ponies from Northern Spain. Many animals failed to survive the voyage, but those that did bred prolifically. The genetic pool was increased thanks to the thoroughbreds brought over by European colonisers down the centuries. In many parts of America one still comes across herds of wild horses called Mustangs, the progenitors of all the horses that have been bred in the New World.

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