Thursday, February 9, 2012

Persian Cats Part 2

"For the English cats are the best in Europe." (Christopher Smart)
Weir’s Persians, from his 1889 book, appear to be much like the Persians today, except that the characteristic flat face and large round eyes were still a work in progress. The Persian cat is the most popular breed today in the Cat Fanciers’ Association, the largest registry of pedigreed cats in the United States and in the world. In the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy, the largest registry in the United Kingdom, the most popular breed is the British shorthair, which looks surprisingly like a short-haired Persian! Siamese is second, and Persian is third.
The hazy past of the Persian is made even more ambiguous by the fact that Europeans indiscriminately interbred all the long-haired cats they had. It appears that color was a big issue for the English. They sought to have long-haired cats in every color of the short-haired cat. But the Persian cat brought back from Khorasan was gray, and the Angora from Turkey was white. White was a sought-after color, but the Angora may have been disappointing after it came to Europe. One source I found suggests the Angora may actually have been a temperature-sensitive albino (i.e. a long-haired Siamese, more or less) which would get darker in the colder European weather.

Angora, by Weir

The Angora
Using the same trade routes that bypassed the Siamese cat in Southeast Asia, merchants brought long-haired cats to Europe in the Middle Ages. The cats apparently came from mainland Asia and eastern Europe (Turkey and Russia), and were called, with some lack of specificity, Angoras, Persians, and Russians.
Tradition says that Pietro Della Valle (1586-1652) brought the cats from Khorasan, Persia, back to his home in Italy in 1620. At about the same time, Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1623) brought cats from Angora, now Ankera, to France.  Khorasan cats were gray, while those from Angora were white.
I translated an excerpt of L'Historie Naturelle, generale et particuliere (volume VI, pages 11-13), written by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788). He was a French naturalist, mathematic, biologist, author, and apparently an exotic cat breeder, in the French hayday of that craze. He writes as if he is quoting Della Valle, and seems to mix the story of the Persians and the Angoras. In a practical sense, it doesn't matter because by that time, the cats almost assuredly had been interbred. Most interesting is his description of what we now know is temperature-sensitive albinism, which must have intrigued him as a biologist. Even as he was being a scientist, though, he was not above making a very commercial plug for the cats.
“There is in Persia a breed of cats which are originally from the province of Chorazan; their size and form is like an ordinary cat; their beauty consists in their color and in their fur, which is gray without any blotching or pattern, of the same color on their whole body, only a little darker on the back and the head, and lighter on the chest and belly, which sometimes gets nearly white. The contrast makes for a wonderful effect, say the artists.”
I’ll include the French here because I believe he is using a technical art term:  “avec ce tempérament agréable de clair-obscur, comme parlent les Peintres qui, mêlés l’un dans l’autre, font un merveilleux effet.”
And then I have to stop here: The cat is prized as a work of art! Leonardo Da Vinci said it: “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.”
Leclerc continues: “What’s more, their fur is delicate, fine, lustrous, soft, silky, and long; it does not bristle out, but lays flat. The hair forms curls in several places, particularly around the neck. These cats are among other cats what the spaniels are to dogs.” (In other words, these are pedigreed cats among mongrels.) “Even more beautiful is the tail. It is very long and covered with fur measuring five or six fingers. The cats swish their tails over their backs as if they were squirrels…” (And here it becomes  obviously a merchant’s advertisement.) “The cats are very tame. Della Valle brought back four pairs from Italy. He called the color 'chartreuse,' and said they appeared to be of the same breed of silky-haired cats found in Spain, the Angoras, which were found there in reds, whites, and blacks, with the color difference due to the climate of Syria. The climate seemed to cause the colors to become muted, he said.” (This is temperature-sensitive alibinism.) “As these cats have more or less white on their bellies and sides, one can easily conceive of creating a totally white cat with long hair, which we could properly call Angora cats. We only need to breed together the whitest cats we can find to create a totally white cat.”
Of course, that never happened. The temperature-sensitive albino just got darker in Europe, and although it is possible to create a true albino cat, it is too unhealthy to breed.
Even so, the exotic cats were popular with the aristocracy in France in the 1600s and 1700s. Louis XV, and Marie Anoinette reportedly owned the cats. Cardinal Richelieu had 14 cats, whose names came down through history. One of them was a black Angora he called Lucifer.
And then there was the French Revolution.
the Great Cat Massacre
Persians in Paris

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