“This tortoise was a fancy which had seized Des Esseintes some time before his departure from Paris. Examining an Oriental rug, one day, in reflected light, and following the silver gleams which fell on its web of plum violet and alladin yellow, it suddenly occurred to him how much it would be improved if he could place on it some object whose deep color might enhance the vividness of its tints.
Possessed by this idea, he had been strolling aimlessly along the streets, when suddenly he found himself gazing at the very object of his wishes. There, in a shop window on the Palais Royal, lay a huge tortoise in a large basin. He had purchased it. Then he had sat a long time, with eyes half-shut, studying the effect.”
Joris-Karl Huysman’s A Rebours (variously translated as “Against Nature” and “Against the Grain”) has had a cult following since its controversial publication in 1884. Considered the ultimate example of “Decadent” fiction, this basically plotless novel follows the malcontented, misanthropic aesthete Des Esseintes in his attempts to retreat from society into an idyll of exquisite perfumes, sumptuous surroundings, and ever-more-extravagant flights of fancy. He sports a tie made of violets; he carpets his floors with blue fox fur and dyes the water in his fish tank to suit his moods. (The fish are robots.) Each of these ultimately unfulfilling projects is described in obsessive, fantastical detail; it’s no wonder the lurid nihilism has enraptured writers as different as Oscar Wilde (the novel helps corrupt Dorian Gray), Michel Houellebecq, and Richard Hell.
A sketch of the turtle. Courtesy Bulgari.
Perhaps no one element has inspired as much fascination as that pet turtle. On getting the animal home, Des Esseintes is disappointed to find that its natural coloring is much too subdued to work with his decor. Obviously, he has it gilded. When that’s still too low-key, Des Esseintes hires a lapidary to cover the shell with an elaborate mosaic of carefully-chosen precious stones.
“At first he had thought of some opals and hydrophanes; but these stones, interesting for their hesitating colors, for the evasions of their flames, are too refractory and faithless; the opal has a quite rheumatic sensitiveness; the play of its rays alters according to the humidity, the warmth or cold; as for the hydrophane, it only burns in water and only consents to kindle its embers when moistened.
He finally decided on minerals whose reflections vary; for the Compostelle hyacinth, mahogany red; the beryl, glaucous green; the balas ruby, vinegar rose; the Sudermanian ruby, pale slate. Their feeble sparklings sufficed to light the darkness of the shell and preserved the values of the flowering stones which they encircled with a slender garland of vague fires.”
Over the years, numerous artists have portrayed this jewel-encrusted turtle, which functions both as an amazing visual and a useful shorthand for the protagonist’s quixotic m.o. But until now, no one seems to have tried to replicate him as a three-dimensional being. Enter Francesco Vezzoli, who with Bulgari has made a high-glitz turtle, currently on view at the Musee d’Orsay’s Huysmans show, also curated by Vezzoli. What seems at first like an unlikely pairing makes a certain kind of weird sense; Vezzoli’s work is preoccupied with materialism and pop culture, and he’s worked with Lady Gaga, Gore Vidal, and Courtney Love in various media—why not the greatest work of visual excess in French literature? Bulgari provided the jewels.
Resting before moving to the Musee d’Orsay. Courtesy Bulgari.
These include 1,500 carats’ worth of amethysts and rubellites, peridots, topazes, and citrines, plus nine ancient Greek coins (because why not). While 43 gems may sound restrained, by Des Esseintes standards, Bulgari tells us that their turtle took its artisans 530 hours to make—which is more like it. I have seen this turtle, and it is both magnificent and grotesque: the kind of thing that could either inspire you to sell your soul for eternal youth or maybe turn away from the world and take holy orders, like Huysmans did.
As for the actual turtle? “It did not budge at all and he tapped it. The animal was dead. Doubtless accustomed to a sedentary existence, to a humble life spent underneath its poor shell, it had been unable to support the dazzling luxury imposed on it, the rutilant cope with which it had been covered, the jewels with which its back had been paved, like a pyx.” This one’s made of brass.