The men who shoe fleas

The men who shoe fleas

In a supersized world, Prague’s Museum of Miniatures thinks small. Very small. In millimetres, in fact.

A short walk from Prague Castle, this odd museum houses wonders invisible to the naked eye. After entering the room filled with microscopes, I found a desert scene of camels and palms inside the eye of a needle, an animal menagerie perched on a mosquito leg and the Lord’s Prayer written on a hair.


The men who shoe fleas
View image of Prague’s Museum of Miniatures showcases wonders invisible to the naked eye (Credit: Credit: Sharon McDonnell)

Most of these minute works are by Anatoly Konenko, a Siberia-born artist who made eye-surgery instruments before turning to micro-miniatures. In order to achieve such precision in their work, micro-miniaturists make their own chisels and gouges. Each work can take between several months and several years to complete. Konenko works between heartbeats, as the most imperceptible movement spells disaster.

Peering into one microscope after another, I gazed at a 35-page, 0.9×0.9mm short story, Chameleon, by Anton Chekhov – just one of 200 micro-books he has created. I admired tiny ink portraits of Chekhov on a poppy seed and John Lennon on a sliver of mammoth bone. I then came across a particularly curious item: a flea with golden horseshoes affixed to its feet.

In a supersized world, Prague’s Museum of Miniatures thinks small. Very small.

A few weeks earlier, I had seen a poster in St Petersburg depicting a similar flea clad in golden horseshoes. Not reading Russian, I assumed the Prague museum was exhibiting in Russia, or the poster was promoting Konenko. What are the odds of two people in the world creating a horseshoe-clad flea, I thought?

I was wrong. It turns out I had come across a popular subject in the art of micro-miniatures.

The poster was probably for St Petersburg’s own Museum of Microminiatures, opened by the International Craft Guild of Masters in 2006. All of its works ‒ including a golden horseshoed-flea ‒ are by Vladimir Aniskin of Novosibirsk, Siberia. In Moscow, artist Nikolai Aldunin went one step further, creating a golden-horseshoed flea that also sported a saddle and stirrups.


The men who shoe fleas
View image of Fleas are a popular subject in the art of micro-miniatures (Credit: Credit: Graham C99/Flickr)

Kiev, Ukraine, also boasts a Museum of Microminiatures, comprising works by Ukrainian artist Nikolai Syadristy, including a portrait of a ballerina on a cherry pit and a 12-page book by Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, sewn together with cobwebs. The museum also houses a flea with the unusual footwear. According to the museum website, Syadristy is ‘the man who really shoed a flea’.

What accounted for the bizarre fixation of putting horseshoes on fleas, I wondered? 

The frequent appearance of the flea in microminiature museums throughout the former Soviet bloc can be traced back to a Russian novella written by Nikolai Leskov in 1881.


The men who shoe fleas
View image of Camels and palm trees were placed inside the eye of a needle (Credit: Credit: Sharon McDonnell)

In The Tale of the Cross-Eyed Lefthander from Tula and the Steel Flea (known simply as ‘Levsha’, or ‘left-hander’), a tsar, when visiting England, is given a gift: a tiny steel flea that dances when turned on by a key. Impressed by the ingenuity of his hosts but bursting with nationalist pride, he was sure Russian craftsmen could outwit the English. The challenge to produce a more impressive invention was issued to gunsmiths in Tula, Russia’s 17th-Century ironworking capital.

As the story goes, it was a left-handed craftsman that ultimately satisfied the tsar, presenting him with a brand-new flea. At first, the tsar was angry, assuming he was being shown the same invention he hoped to best – until the horseshoes, each inscribed with the name of the gunsmith involved, were pointed out. (The flea no longer danced, but, you can’t have everything.) 

The most imperceptible movement spells disaster.

The fable wedged its way into the Russian psyche, where it has remained ever since. The St Petersburg museum is nicknamed ‘Russian Levsha’, and its website notes that gifted artisans are often referred to as ‘Levshas’. The tale is the basis for two films and an opera, all entitled The Left-Hander.

The Left-Handeris screened daily at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, whose microminiature collection includes sculptures of Pope John Paul II, Napoleon and various Disney characters (this is Los Angeles, after all), each carved from a human hair, by Armenian-American artist Hagop Sandaldjian.


View image of One microscope displays a bicycle on a sewing needle (Credit: Credit: Sharon McDonnell)

Sandaldjian, a former music conservatory teacher in Yerevan, Armenia, was inspired to enter the world of microminiatures by a student, Edward Kazarian, who himself was a master of the art form. Some of Kazarian’s work was on display in the Prague museum. I admired his gold and obsidian backgammon board (the world’s smallest) inlayed into a grain of rice and his delicate bouquet of stone flowers whose petals were each 100 times thinner than a human hair.

Other microscopes revealed more examples of the delicate art form, including Henri Matisse’s The Dance etched into a sliver of bone, a train perched on a human hair and a 3.2mm, three-dimensional, golden Eiffel Tower.

But it was a tiny, humble flea clad in golden horseshoes that left the largest impression.

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