Variations on a Brandenburg Salamander


by Colin Raff

In the spring of 1793, the entomologist Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Herbst, as a means to supplement his lectures at the newly founded Berliner Tierarzneischule, outfitted his dissecting microscope (built from Lieberkühn’s designs) with the projection apparatus of a lucernal microscope (after Bonnanni) and an enclosed lantern. This, combined with an additional, exterior light source, allowed his often-minute anatomical demonstrations to be cast magnified against a wall. A visiting student, Aldurque Catechault-Bonneleck (later to gain repute for the study of hymenopterans in his native Euxinova), provided his teacher with several preserved specimens of Asian ibex Manticora (M. oceaniae, later renamed by Walther Horn as the Coelobonese false Manticora and reclassified as Cicindela noctis). A new and very rare discovery, this insect was valued for the ease with which its sizeable ganglia could be stimulated (by a needle connected via copper wire to a galvanic cell), effecting pronounced motor reflexes. By simply adjusting a few lenses, Herbst could project, in great magnification, the flailing limbs and mandibles of the dead subject, and then close in on the agitated nerve clusters causing this movement — all in one seamless action, unprecedented at the time.

On the second Tuesday of May, an expedition party led by Herbst entered the humid, cavernous vaults of the Zitadelle Spandau, having received written permission from Herr Gouverneur Ernst Ludwig von Pfuhl to conduct experiments therein. They placed their equipment (including the hybrid microscope) opposite a rough wall of masonry in a dank corner of the complex, riddled with holes and cracks, where obscure subterranean animals were known to make appearances.

The object of the expedition was to use the stimulus of projected light (with added variables) to attract a Brandenburg cave salamander (Salamandra atra albina, Laurenti, 1768). None had yet been captured alive, but were known to react to flickering lights in peculiar ways before fleeing. Live specimens were in great demand at the school, as their translucent flesh granted a view of internal bodily functions.

Two hours into the experiment, with all nearby light extinguished save for the microscope’s lanterns, a Brandenburg cave salamander crawled into view, approaching the point of illumination. With an M. oceaniae [sic] specimen already in place, Herbst stimulated the insect’s nerves, casting a moving silhouette in the salamander’s path.

The response justified the entire expedition: The salamander rose, positioned itself on its back legs, and gesticulated in an ordered fashion, at times synchronizing with the shadow’s movements. This was later understood to be a courtship display. A Buntrizzi amplifier (nearly as rare an item then as today) gave an accompanying draftsman a chance to make detailed studies of the animal before its capture.

In June, the university hung a series of illustrations based on these drawings in the Trichinentempel, where Herbst and his colleagues conducted their lectures. The appeal of the images extended beyond the student body, and soon curious visitors, common and noble, were disrupting scholastic proceedings daily with requests to view this salamander that erroneously “courted its own shadow” (as the illustrations depicted only the insect’s shadow for clarity). The institution responded by disseminating to the public a printed leaflet containing etchings of the experiment and explanatory texts that went largely unread.

Just as the general interest in this subject was waning, the Zollenbeck puppet company (itinerant as was common for the time but frequently performing in Berlin) returned to a familiar spot in the Gendarmenmarkt, their booth arrayed with gaudy placards featuring that renowned salamander who, upon emerging from the earth’s fiery center, “captured and clothed himself with his own shadow.” This new marionette, named “Herr Doktor Schwanzlurch,” had a singular appearance, being made up of semi-opaque glass parts (likely inspired by the flesh of the S. atra albina) joined by brass links. 

Herr Doktor Schwanzlurch was an elemental creature derived from folkloric salamanders. His shadow, once conquered, was his only vestment, as any other would catch fire. With its true nature made clear to the audience, it took the form of a various black costumes: perhaps a segmented cuirass or a doctor’s robes, depending on the story — but always covering his hands. He roamed the surface world on the pretext of healing mortals in order to study them closely. Often accompanied by fantastical beasts, he would use alchemical tools (stored in a preternaturally robber-proof chariot) to convert their venoms into remedies. These cures also involved the ostentatious use of flames. His presence was generally beneficial, but he would disappear the moment anyone remarked that he cast no shadow.

The latter plot device was used in every play to set off sudden farcical complications for the puppets remaining on stage. The most detailed contemporary account of the shows provides an example:

Having identified the malady, the good Doctor darted off the stage and immediately reappeared, holding an enormous tin clyster. It spanned half the booth, though it was perhaps not too large for use on the Oberbürgermeister, who was composed of a preposterously large bedsheet-draped mound complemented by a swollen head (stage left) and a pair of feet (stage right). The Doctor, Franz and one other puppet took hold of the instrument’s piston, and began to push it in ever so slowly, as the Doctor commanded, “Nur die richtige Dosis!” While this happened, the Oberbürgermeister’s wife, who was holding the nozzle steady by his rump, began to crane towards the Doctor, until her neck was as long as a goose’s (she was plainly built this way for comical effect), and she squeaked, “aber wo ist ihr Schatten, Herr Doktor?” This seemed, all of a sudden, a reasonable question, for the lamps had slowly brightened without my notice, and indeed everything on stage right, with the good Doctor’s notable exception, cast a long shadow.

His answer was to turn his head all the way around numerous times, then uncoil a stout tail (his single animal property, that I could tell), and finally to leap completely out of view, as fast as his strings could take him. This by no means put an end to the treatment, as the Oberbürgermeister continued to bellow that his choleric distemper must be relieved — and the three remaining puppets returned their attentions to the clyster, giving it a timorous push after Franz cried out, “die richtige Dosis! Nicht vergessen!” despite being clearly unaware of what the correct dose might be. And they guessed wrongly, for the Oberbürgermeister’s head spun round as had the Doctor’s and withdrew into the sheet, only to re-emerge as the head of a wood pigeon, brightly painted and cooing loudly. More cries and dispensations of the medicine only furthered the transformation, until the bedsheet fell, disclosing a complete pigeon, with wings extended, where the Oberbürgermeister had been. It seems the richtige Dosis was never administered…

[The account continues with several attempts by the puppet “Franz” to capture the pigeon, culminating with its accidental death. It leaves behind an egg, from which hatches a smaller Oberbürgermeister, “cured of all swellings, choleric or otherwise.”]*

These performances ended following a decisive catastrophe in the October of 1793, when the booth caught fire and burned down completely, resulting in the deaths of some puppeteers, including, apparently, the elusive Zollenbeck himself. By all accounts, the fire started due not to the incessant pyrotechnics — which were created by harmless Bärlappenmehl (flash powder made from dried clubmoss spores) — but to the lighting trick that allowed the salamander to cast no shadow. (Although a routine effect in standard theaters, for the booth it required a handheld rig consisting of a long wooden board and a pair of oil lamps: one level with the puppet, one cast from above his head to negate the shadow.) The troupe was not heard from again, and no others were bold enough (likely on account of the fire) to revive the characters.

Several artifacts from 1793 attest (though rarely in great detail) to the popularity of Zollenbeck’s marionettes, and of Herr Doktor Schwanzlurch in particular. This acclaim was not sufficient, however, to create a lasting iconography. It is true that in 1814, Adelbert von Chamisso’s influential tale Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte had a protagonist without a shadow (which Schwanzlurch, strictly speaking, only appeared to lack), and a year later, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der goldne Topf featured a salamander in human form (“der Archivarius Lindhorst,” an Atlantean figure drawn mostly from St. Germain’s De Hortus Phosphori). Neither character had any credible origins in the puppet, yet the vague similarities suggest that the literary climate surrounding the publication of the Brothers Grimms’ Kinder-und Hausmärchen (1812–15) would have favored his antics, twenty years after they abruptly ceased. But like so many cultural phenomena, the Herr Doktor’s fame was never consolidated, and left behind a collection of fading memories instead of a tradition.

A ziggurat commemorating the episode with the Brandenburg cave salamander — displaying sculptures of the animal specimens and equipage on different tiers and Herr Doktor Schwanzlurch at the summit — was excised from the finalized plans for a group of tableaux celebrating the life of Aldurque Catechault-Bonneleck in the Parc d’Urongulex at Ellubecque, Euxinova, in 1909. Pleophina d’Urongelex, then director of the complex, approved of the preclusion, citing Catechault-Bonneleck’s minimal participation in the experiment, its lack of relevance to his mature research (concerning wasps), and the marionette’s obscurity.



* Follerne, Thromence. Travel Journals, vol. 3: 1790-1795. Introduction and commentary by H. Viveam Constanelle. University of Glasgow Press, 1972.

About the Author:

Colin Raff is a multimedia artist and writer residing in Berlin.