The tortoiseshell cup

06/01/2015

The natural objects in this painting are interesting both for their natural history as well as their aesthetic value. The small cup placed furthest to the right of the painting, just behind the strings of the lute, can be identified as a mounted shell of the Indian star tortoise. This tortoise's only natural habitats are in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, so the shell must have been acquired as a result of the great increase in international travel and trade occurring in the 17th century. The shell would have been brought to Europe as a curiosity, probably by an East India Company merchant ship. It would have acquired its gilt mount sometime later.

The attractive and distinctive 'star' patterns on this creature's shell explain its long-term popularity, both for decorative purposes, and as a pet. These tortoises are now bred successfully in the UK, although require a constant, warm, dry environment to survive. Sadly, the species is now endangered in the wild, increasingly so since the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. Importing the Indian star is illegal, although its popularity means it is subject to smuggling, like so many other exotic species of wildlife.

Early modern exploration and trade unwittingly sowed the seeds for much later environmental endangerment and destruction. It is interesting that, even in this day and age, the appeal of the 'exotic' is still strong.

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