Cabinets of Curiosity

Who among us has not slipped a whorled shell, an autumn leaf, or a shiny pebble into her pocket?  We have   collected the rare, the beautiful, and the wondrous since time immemorial.

During the  Age of Discovery (1400s-1600s), European seafarers, exploring and mapping distant African,   Asian, and American shores, bore home not only accounts of astonishing adventures, but also wondrous manmade and natural artifacts they discovered along the way. 

European royalty and scholars, on acquiring their curios, sometimes displayed them in chambers aptly named “cabinets of wonder” or “cabinets of curiosity.” (The term “cabinet” originally meant a chamber, rather than a piece of furniture.)

Because    17th century collectors described, organized, and displayed their   acquisitions subjectively, each cabinet of curiosity    differed subtly from the next.   Each, a kaleidoscope of knowledge  mixing art with artifice and science with superstition, reflected the rich diversity of the Renaissance.  (Despite their scope, however, they   were not museums  as we know them today.)

Anatomical oddities, like ” two ears of a Thief that was hang’d,” nestled near mythical creatures like “two beast call’d Taitons,” zoological marvels like the “bristly Skin of a Brazilian Beast,” and scientific wonders like clockworks and distortive mirrors. These displays, merging science with superstition and art with artifice, delighted, astonished, amazed.   

Ole Worm, (1588-1655), a Danish philosopher, physician, and antiquarian, for example, filled his cabinet of curiosity with a hodgepodge of masks, tusks, tortoise shells, skeletons, spears, and a suspended kayak.

“Musei Wormiani Historia”, the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm‘s cabinet of curiosities. Wiki, public domain

Others, like King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, displayed smaller collections in elaborate pieces of furniture featuring tiny pigeon-hole compartments, richly decorated drawers, even miniature chapels. Some of these cabinets, rotating marvels fashioned from exotic woods or inlaid with imported jewels or shells, were collectibles in themselves.

Fold-out engraving from Ferrante Imperato‘s Dell’Historia Naturale (Naples 1599), the earliest illustration of a natural history cabinet, Wiki, public domain

Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625) lined his with books, stuffed birds, gems, fossils, corals, marbles, and minerals. Its vaulted ceiling, teeming with shells and preserved sea creatures, also featured an enormous stuffed alligator.

British naturalist and gardener John Tradescant the Elder (c1570s-1638), while gathering botanical specimens across Europe, the Caribbean, the East Indies, the Levant, and Russia, amassed many natural and artificial worldly wonders. John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662) later added North American ethnological items, like the deerskin, ceremonial mantle of Chief Powhatan, “King of Virginia.”

By 1638, their collection included two ribs of a whale, a little bark boat, a salamander, a flying squirrel, a girdle that Turks wear in Jerusalem, a bat as large as a pigeon, a variety of shells and stones, the hand of a mermaid, an ape’s head, a dragon’s egg, a piece of wood from the True Cross, brightly colored birds from India, a polished metal mirror, an elk’s hoof with three claws, a cup made from a unicorn horn, foreign boots and shoes, a toad-fish, Indian arrows, lathe-turned ivory, a piece of human flesh on a bone, a large magnet stone, and a hat band made of snake bones.

Though father and son held all items of equal importance, they separated natural from artificial, then divided them into sub-categories like portraits of royalty, religious relics, animals, plants, and minerals. They displayed their collection in their home, dubbing it “The Ark.” Tradescant’s Ark was not only the earliest major English cabinet of curiosity, but was also open to the public. Now common folk, like aristocracy, could behold outlandish curiosities.

That was then.

Then, amazingly, I discovered a living cabinet of curiosities at Amsterdam’s Rembrandt House Museum, ” a reconstruction of Rembrandt’s rooms and of his workshop.” Though obviously a modern presentation… still exciting.

Treasures of all kinds, a mirror of the times: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Dutch  draughtsman, painter, and printmaker.