“Engraver to the King of the Two Sicilies” was the stirring epithet of the eighteenth-century draughtsman, engraver, and print-seller Filippo Morghen. Much of his work concentrated on ruins, the countryside around Naples, and archaeological works such as those at Herculaneum, but his imagination ranged much further, to the extent that in 1776 he produced this fantasy Suite of the Most Notable Things...
This collection of ten etchings begins with a title page explaining, in Italian, the conceit: it is The Suite of the Most Notable Things Seen by Cavaliere Wild Scull, and by Signore de la Hire on Their Famous Voyage from the Earth to the Moon — a form of travel reportage. Scull and Hire, explains the text, have drawn and described their voyage, while Morghen is simply the engraver. This Philippe de La Hire is a historical figure, a French astronomer who lived from 1640 to 1718. Of Scull, nothing is known, and by the second printing the next year he had been replaced by Bishop John Wilkins, a distinguished natural philosopher.
In devising such a voyage, Morghen was clearly influenced by scientific progress of the previous century. Writing for Cabinet, Viktoria Tkaczyk describes the development of flying machines during the seventeenth century: Bishop Francis Godwin had his Man in the Moone of 1638 carried there by geese. In the same year, and in a similar speculative vein, was Wilkins' own The Discovery of the World in the Moon.
Morghen's explorers mix technological innovation, colonial imagination, and a sense of rococo excess. We see them folding back the roof of their winged, wooden shed and elegantly emerging into a lunar landscape that looks remarkably like contemporary depictions and fantasies of the New World. Over nine further etchings they explore a landscape ripe with not unrealistic wildlife and plants, inhabited by tobacco-smoking, Native American-like residents. But mixed with this is a whimsical, size-altered imaginary world, in which we are never quite sure if the ”lunarians” are extremely small or the natural world around them exceptionally enlarged. Plate 8 depicts snails the size of dogs being fed to an enormous bird, and in several we see “pumpkins used as dwellings”. Yet in plate 9 we see a flock of normal-sized geese, and in plate 2 a normal-sized parrot (watching over the ensnaring of a rodent-like creature the size of a cow).
The prints were popular enough to go through at least three editions, and they have occasionally resurfaced during the twentieth century: four of the images were included in MoMA's 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, and in 1990 a British small press published a version of the Suite with an introduction by science fiction maestro Brian Aldiss.
February 23, 2021