"Child's Desk Carved by Trained Termites
Russian, 18th century CE 
90 cm ~ wood/ivory

 

A curiosity from the last days of the reign of Tsar Peter the Great, this piece reflects the innovation sparked by Peter, who attempted to lead Russia away from its medieval past and toward western culture and technology. It is believed to be the work of Vasilly Kopekovich, Termite Trainer by appointment to the Tsar. 

Kopekovich recognized that the ability of termites to work wood at far smaller scales than the human hand is capable of meant that exquisite detail could be attained even in the most difficult woods. He bred his worker termites for artistic talent and trained them by stenciling patterns onto the wood in vodka, which added considerably to the insects' enthusiasm for the project. 

Unfortunately during the ceremony when the desk was presented to the young Prince Alexis, Kopekovich couldn't resist demonstrating the process to the assembled nobles. He opened a carrying case of his best workers on the magnificent dining table in the main hall, not realizing that, like most furniture in Russia, it was saturated with several centuries of vodka spillage. In a twinkling of an eye the cherished heirloom was reduced to lacework. 

Instead of the royal reward he was anticipating poor Kopekovich was thoroughly soaked in vodka, inside and out, and walled up in a spare crypt along with his termites. For many years his intricately ventilated skeleton was on view at the St. Petersburg Medical Institute.

 

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