The Alchemist’s Apprentice

The remarkable story of Hercules Florence and his pharmacy labels 

This much we know: on 31 July 1823, a young Monégasque from an artistic family, his head filled with ideas of Robinson Crusoe (1719), receives his passport from the Principality of Monaco. In spring 1824, a long boat journey takes him to the newly proclaimed Empire of Brazil, where he disembarks in the capital, Rio de Janeiro, on 1 May. As evinced by a vivid, extensively researched recent exhibition at the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco (curated by Linda Fregni Nagler and Cristiano Raimondi), this young man – Hercules Florence – is a talented cartographer. He joins, as second draughtsman, an expedition led by the great German-Russian naturalist Baron de Langsdorff into Brazil’s uncharted interior. In June 1826, the expedition sets off up the River Tietê from Porto Feliz with the intention of finding a fluvial route to the Amazon; in spring 1829, what is left of the expedition makes it back to Rio. The first draughtsman, a French painter by the name of Aimé-Adrien Taunay, has drowned; yellow fever has claimed many more of the crew; Langsdorff himself has lost his mind. So far, so Heart of Darkness (1899). Yet Florence survives, bringing back sketchbooks filled with his intriguing drawings of the pierced and painted indigenous tribes the expedition has encountered, as well as an ingenious system of notation for transcribing the bird and animal cries that convulse the jungle night. He calls his invention zoophonie.

From 1830, Florence’s life reads like a story that might have sprung, fully-formed, from the febrile, fantastical imagination of Gabriel García Márquez. He marries Maria Angélica de Vasconcellos, the daughter of a patron, and the couple settle on a fazenda in the small town of Campinas in São Paulo state. They have 13 children. At this time, printing presses in Brazil are few and tightly controlled by the Portuguese Crown, which fears the spread of anti-colonial propaganda. In an attempt to circulate his findings on zoophonie, Florence begins to experiment with methods of using light to fix words on paper. We might imagine him, like José Arcadio Buendía – the madcap, neophile patriarch in Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) – tinkering in dark rooms with alchemical-sounding substrates (silver nitrate, gold chloride) and using urine as a fixing agent in the absence of ammonium. It is Florence’s friend Joaquim Corrêa de Mello, his father-in-law’s druggist, who teaches him about the properties of silver nitrate. And it is almost certainly for Mello that these six contact-print pharmacy labels, with their floral festoons and serpentine curlicues, were made. (Can it be pure coincidence that ‘Mello’ even sounds a little like ‘Melquíades’, the name of the wise gypsy and oldest confidant of José Arcadio, who brings magnetism, alchemy and, finally, the daguerreotype to the Buendía’s jungle-locked family-state?)

According to Florence’s detailed diaries, these images were made around 1833, which is to say six years before Louis Daguerre announced his invention and roughly six years after Nicéphore Niépce captured his famous View from the Window at Le Gras. In the bottom left-hand corner, in reverse, the inscription reads: ‘Photography by H. Florence, inventor of photography.’ (This predates the traditional attribution of the neologism to the British chemist John Herschel in 1839.) It did not take long for word of Daguerre’s discovery to reach the Brazilian press. With a turn of phrase worthy of great literature, in a diary entry written some years later, Florence described his reaction to the news as ‘a jolt in my mind and my blood’. He ceased work on his photographic method. However, in the solitude of Campinas, he continued to experiment and developed, amongst other things, a method of colour printing (polygraphie), a copy-proof banknote and a hydraulic irrigation pump. He died in 1879, not long after having submitted a paper on a new, palm-inspired architectural order to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Turin. We might say, as Márquez wrote of Buendía, that Florence was a man ‘whose unbridled imagination always went beyond the genius of nature and even beyond miracles and magic’.

Main image: Hercules Florence, Épreuve no.°2 (photographie), Ensemble d’étiquettes pour flacons pharmaceutiques (Print no. 2, Photography. Set of Pharmacy Labels), c.1833, photographic copy of pharmacy labels obtained through direct contact with photosensitive paper under the action of sunlight, 22 x 20 cm. Courtesy: Instituto Moreira Salles Collection, Rio de Janeiro

Amy Sherlock is deputy editor of frieze and is based in London.

Issue 6

First published in Issue 6

October 2017

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