Wednesday, 21 August 2013

A Cabinet of Curiosities - Introduction

The purpose of our blog is to provide our readers a gallery of images of the wonders preserved in a Cabinet of Curiosities throughout a plethora or rare books and antique prints selected from the Golden Age of Natural History publications and give the opportunity to collectors and amateurs to own original artwork, available for purchase on our website at
A cabinet of curiosities was an encyclopedic collection in Renaissance Europe of types of objects whose categorial boundaries were yet to be defined. They were also known by various names such as Cabinet of Wonder, and in German Kunstkammer ("art-room") or Wunderkammer ("wonder-room"). Modern terminology would categorize the objects included as belonging to natural history (sometimes faked), geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art (including cabinet paintings) and antiquities. "The Kunstkammer was regarded as a microcosm or theater of the world, and a memory theater. The Kunstkammer conveyed symbolically the patron's control of the world through its indoor, microscopic reproduction [1]." Of Charles I of England's collection, Peter Thomas has succinctly stated, "The Kunstkabinett itself was a form of propaganda" [2]. Besides the most famous and best documented cabinets of rulers and aristocrats, members of the merchant class and early practitioners of science in Europe also formed collections that were precursors to museums. 
The term cabinet originally described a room rather than a piece of furniture. The classic style of cabinet of curiosities emerged in the sixteenth century, although more rudimentary collections had existed earlier. The Kunstkammer of Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor (ruled 1576-1612), housed in the Hradschin at Prague was unrivaled north of the Alps; it provided a solace and retreat for contemplation [3] that also served to demonstrate his imperial magnificence and power in symbolic arrangement of their display, ceremoniously presented to visiting diplomats and magnates [4]. Rudolf's uncle, Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria also had a collection, with a special emphasis on paintings of people with interesting deformities, which remains largely intact as the Chamber of Arts and Curiosities at Ambras Castle in Austria.
The earliest pictorial record of a natural history cabinet is the engraving in Ferrante Imperato's Dell'Historia Naturale (Naples 1599). 

Ferrante Imperato's Dell'Historia Naturale (Naples 1599)

It serves to authenticate its author's credibility as a source of natural history information, in showing his open bookcases at the right, in which many volumes are stored lying down and stacked, in the medieval fashion, or with their spines upward, to protect the pages from dust. Some of the volumes doubtless represent his herbarium. Every surface of the vaulted ceiling is occupied with preserved fishes, stuffed mammals and curious shells, with a stuffed crocodile suspended in the centre. Examples of corals stand on the bookcases. At the left, the room is fitted out like a studiolo [5] with a range of built-in cabinets whose fronts can be unlocked and let down to reveal intricately fitted nests of pigeonholes forming architectural units, filled with small mineral specimens [6]. Above them, stuffed birds stand against panels inlaid with square polished stone samples, doubtless marbles and jaspers or fitted with pigeonhole compartments for specimens. Below them, a range of cupboards contain specimen boxes and covered jars.
Two of the most famously described 17th century cabinets were those of Ole Worm, known as Olaus Wormius (1588–1654), and Athanasius Kirchner (1602–1680). These seventeenth-century cabinets were filled with preserved animals, horns, tusks, skeletons, minerals, as well as other types of equally fascinating man-made objects: sculptures wondrously old, wondrously fine or wondrously small; clockwork automata; ethnographic specimens from exotic locations. Often they would contain a mix of fact and fiction, including apparently mythical creatures. Worm's collection contained, for example, what he thought was a Scythian Lamb a woolly fern thought to be a plant/sheep fabulous creature. However he was also responsible for identifying the narwhal's tusk as coming from a whale rather than a unicorn, as most owners of these believed. The specimens displayed were often collected during exploring expeditions and trading voyages.

Worm's Museum Wormianum (1655)

Cabinets of curiosities would often serve scientific advancement when images of their contents were published. The catalog of Worm's collection, published as the Museum Wormianum (1655), used the collection of artifacts as a starting point for Worm's speculations on philosophy, science, natural history, and more. 
In 17th-century parlance, both French and English, a cabinet came to signify a collection of works of art, which might still also include an assembly objects of virtu' or curiosities, such as a virtuoso would find intellectually stimulating. In 1714, Michael Bernhard Valentini published an early museological work, Museum Museorum, an account of the cabinets known to him with catalogues of their contents.
Some strands of the early universal collections, the bizarre or freakish biological specimens, whether genuine or fake, and the more exotic historical objects, could find a home in commercial freak shows and sideshows.

  1. ^ Francesca Fiorani, reviewing Bredecamp 1995 in Renaissance Quarterly 51.1 (Spring 1998:268-270) p 268.
  2. ^ Thomas, "Charles I of England: The tragedy of Absolutism", A.G. Dickens, ed. The Courts of Europe (London) 1977:201.
  3. ^ This is the secretive aspect emphasized by R. J. W. Evans, Rudolf II and His World: A Study in Intellectual History (Oxford) 1973.
  4. ^ Thomas Da Costa Kaufmann, "Remarks on the Collections of Rudolf II: The Kunstkammer as a Form of Representatio", Art Journal 38.1 (Autumn 1978:22-28).
  5. ^ Studiolo: the small retreats in the palaces of Urbino and Gubbio were inlaid with intarsia that figured just such fitted cabinets with feigned lattice doors and shelves filled with scientific instruments, books and small sculptures in trompe-l'oeil perspective. The Gubbio studiolo has been reassembled at the Metropolitan Museum; the Urbino studiolo remains in situ.
  6. ^ 16th-century cabinet-makers serving the luxury trades of Florence and Antwerp were beginning to produce moveable cabinets with similar architectural interior fittings, which could be set upon a carpet-covered table or on a purpose-built stand.

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