Tuesday 22 January 2019

Great Flower Books - Three Centuries of Masterpieces

There is always something mesmerizing about botanical books to anyone who appreciates nature, for they include an ever-unfolding treasure house. The portrayal of flowers in the publications we have selected in our journey through three centuries of masterpieces are visions of plants that go beyond an eye-catching fulfillment, but strive to soothe the mind and the spirit.

At the beginning of our period of research, the time when books with botanical illustration were first produced (second half of 16th century), the plates were elaborated from woodcuts, a relief printing technique where the artist carves an image into the surface of a block of wood leaving the printing parts level with the surface while removing the non-printing parts. 

A great example of such early intaglio efforts was Pietro Andrea Mattioli's Commentarii in sex libros Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei...de medica materia, published in venice by Valgrisi in 1565, illustrated by talented artists Giorgio Liberale and Wolfgang Meyerpeck, who designed nearly 600 large blocks that appeared in the herbal. 

Mattioli's Commentarii. Venice, Valgrisi, 1565.
This method was slowly replaced by copper plate engravings, whose success is corroborated by what might be called the golden age of natural history book. 
This process was extensively used from 1700 until about 1830, when that type of illustration was outmatched by the aquatint, the mezzotint and the stipple engraving, often printed in color. 

A work of outstanding beauty was Jean Louis Prevost's Collection des Fleurs et des Fruits, published in Paris in 1805, one of the earliest examples of stipple-engraving used to create a grainy effect with a series of dots or flecks using a finely-toothed "roulette" or wheel. This was the finest hour of color printing.

Prevost's Collection des Fleurs et des Fruits.
Around 1830 the lithograph appeared, which involved printing from a stone instead of a copper plate; it was still, however, colored by hand. But towards the the end of nineteenth century the chromolithograph, in which the color came directly from the stone and not applied by hand, had won the battle. It made natural history books grow steadily cheaper and was the model of all later flower, bird and animal plates, but these illustrations lack the individual artistry that made the earlier ones fascinating and unique, and the pleasure of looking at the pictures of art has gone.

Before moving onto the exegesis of a few single publications, it is significant to stress that throughout these centuries only certain countries were at the top of what might be called the natural history book league, confirming also their cultural and commercial influence over the rest of the western world.
During the 15th and 16th century, Germany and Italy were very important places for the divulgation of botanical texts, the former, being the cradle of the printing press and home of Martin Luther, the latter the birthplace of the Renaissance.
The Dutch came shortly after because they were among the earliest explorers. Maria Sibylla Merian's Histoire générale des insectes de Surinam et de toute l'Europe, published for the first time in 1705 was probably the best example of Dutch work, although earlier flower books like Emmanuel Sweert's Florilegium (1612) or Jan Commelyn's Nederlantze Hesperides (1676) were a substantial certification of a northern European superiority in the industry of illustrated volumes.

Merian's Insects of Surinam
The Germans were also active in the early eighteenth century and J.W. Weinmann's Phytanthoza Iconographia, a large folio publication comprising of four volumes and 1026 plates is perhaps the most notable example. 

Starting from 1730 onwards, the British really dominated the field with a very large number of great books, with an obvious exception: France. 
Redouté and Prevost, using stipple engravings expertly printed in color and finished by hand, undoubtedly created the finest books of all between 1790 and 1830, despite competition from outstanding works such as those of Thornton (Temple of Flora) and Brookshaw in England. The United States, besides the renowned Audubon, does not enter into this particular discussion, since it must be remembered that his masterpiece, The Birds of America, was actually printed and published in London.

Not all of the books that I will describe in my next posts deserve the status "great", but they are all of the highest quality. In other words, their printed plates are among the best of their period and their value, besides number of volumes and plates, intrinsic beauty, scientific merits is ultimately determined by a common denominator: their scarcity.

References: Great Flower Books. 1700-1900. The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990. Introduction: Nature  into Art by Handasyde Buchanan, 1979.

Monday 14 October 2013

A Cabinet of Curiosities - Buonanni's "Ricreatione dell'Occhio e della Mente"

One of the earliest work to be dedicated entirely to the study of shells and a book of considerable aesthetic quality was Filippo Buonanni's "Ricreatione dell'Occhio e della Mente nell'Osservazione delle Chiocciole", published in 1681.  
Frontispiece of Buonanni's "Ricreatione"

Buonanni (1638-1725), one of the most learned Jesuits of his time, was a pupil of Athanasius Kircher, and in 1680 succeeded his master as teacher of mathematics at the Collegium Romanum; in 1698, he was appointed curator of the Kircherian Museum, which he described in his Museum Collegii Romani Kircherianum (1709). Erudite in a number of fields, including numismatics and ecclesiastical history (writing on both subjects), Buonanni made extensive studies in the natural sciences; he constructed his own microscope with three lenses (according to Tortona's system), which proved to be an ingenious mechanism for continual observation. 
In his "Ricreatione dell'Occhio e della Mente nell'Osservazione delle Chiocciole" (First edition, 1681), a work valuable for its many illustrations of shells, he explicitly affirmed his belief in the spontaneous generation of mollusks and rekindled the controversy over generation that had flared in 1671 between Kircher and Francesco Redi. Buonanni's position was anachronistic, since the Aristotelian theory of spontaneous generation had been disproved by Redi in his "Esperienze intorno all generazione degli insetti" (1668) and by Marcello Malpighi, who had demonstrated the pathogenesis of oak galls from the development of fertilized insect eggs in his "Anatome plantarum" (1679). He based his belief in the spontaneous generation of mollusks partly on the authority of Aristotle and Kircher and partly on a report by Camillo Picchi of Ancona. He was convinced, as he stated in his "Ricreatione", that the mollusks had no hearts. If this were so, they had no blood; Aristotle had written that no bloodless animal is oviparous, and that all conches are generated spontaneously by the mud-oysters by dirty mud, the others by sandy mud. Convinced that the conches were heartless and bloodless, Buonanni believed that both observation and authority supported the idea of spontaneous generation. His blind determination in the existence of such "freaks" of nature even induced him to give credence to the existence of the legendary Sarmatian Snail, which is reproduced in one of the illustrations included in his work.

Plate from Buonanni's "Ricreatione".

In Buonanni's "Ricreatione" nearly 450 different shells are represented by fine detailed engravings preceded by descriptive text of each specimen. 
The three exceptional frontispieces are the work of the Baroque artist Giovanni Francesco Venturini (1650-1710). The first two different but similar frontispieces depict Poseidon in his conch shell chariot drawn by dolphins and seahorses within borders adorned by mermen and rocky cliffs on which men and women collect shells. The final frontispiece is a creative Arcimboldo-like grotesque made entirely of shells.

Another frontispiece from Buonanni's "Ricreatione".

Dictionary of Scientific Biography p.591. Krivatsy/ NLM 1936. Nissen ZBI 753. Be Backer-S. II:377,2. Wood 272. Eales I:991. Anm-Ebert 2712. Poggendorf I: 341

Monday 9 September 2013

A Cabinet of Curiosities - Jonston's Encyclopedia of the Nature

In the 16th and 17th centuries, with the expansion of trade, important geographical discoveries, the exploration of new regions and the importation of strange and exotic animals, the growing popularity and people's taste for natural history made printing an increasingly powerful weapon of disseminating knowledge.
When John Jonston's work was published for the first time in Frankfurt am Main between 1649 and 1653, the study of zoology had already gone a long way since Pliny the Elder wrote in 77 AD his Historia Naturalis, a compendium of zoological folklore, superstitions and some good observations.
Jonston's own version of the Historia Naturalis represents an archetypal example of Encyclopedic compilation of naturalist knowledge. He takes inspiration from both modern world authors like Belo, Gessner, Aldrovandi, Rondelet and other classical naturalists like Aristotle, the above mentioned Pliny, Galen, Dioscorides.

Historiae Naturalis. De Quadrupedibus

Jonston was born in Poland in 1603, from a Scottish father and a German mother. In 1622 Jonston had already studied at several centers in Prussia and he visited England and Scotland (collecting already in 1623 valuable information about some British species). After traveling around Germany, France, Italy and Holland, he came back to Britain, to study in Cambridge and London. Afterwards, he graduated in Medicine in Leyden, Dutch city in which he was offered the Medicine chair at University and where he published his first works. Several years later, he was offer the same chair at the electorate of Brandenburg, preferring, however, to continue studying in private and develop his masterpiece: the Historia Naturalis, which would be published for the first time in Frankfurt am Main between 1649 and 1653. 
In 1655 he came back to Silesia, where, due to his well-earned reputation, he was invited by the Duque of Liegnitz and Brieg. He would die there ten years later, on 8th June 1675.

Historiae Naturalis. De Quadrupedibus

Jonston’s Natural History is one of the most influential works during a great part of the Modern period and the last great work of zoological encyclopedias which emerged during the Renaissance. In this piece of work he intends to list, get to know and make known the world of natural things, which was the significance and scope given to these matters in the Renaissance, with a clearly pragmatic use. Jonston, however, goes further than that; he searches for the similarities between new things and things previously known, and he intends this knowledge to be an instrument of education to train the honorable and free man into the construction of a fair and happy world. Hence, he becomes a classic in the field of Natural Science. 

Historiae Naturalis. De Avibus

The reception of the Historia Naturalis by the educated reader of the time was extraordinary. Written in Latin, language commonly used by science at the time, it gives illustrations a prominent role. It is hardly surprising that such a proposal became a great publishing success with the printing of several editions during the 17th and 18th centuries and its translation into different languages.
A great part of its fame and success is due to the wonderful copper-carved plates which superbly enrich the text and were brilliantly used overall by the great Matthaeus Merian junior.
The artistic lexicon is in the hands of the Merian, a lineage of printers and superb engravers. Matthaeus Merian senior (1593 – 1650) was the printer and father of the Matthaeus Merian brothers junior (1621 - 1687), Kaspar Merian (1627) and their sister María Sibylla Merian (1647 - 1717), the latter from his second marriage to a Dutch woman. Sibylla was firstly an entomologist and a great draftswoman, painter and engraver of plants and insects. However, the most conspicuous artist of the lineage was Matthaeus Merian junior, to whom the Jonston’s most famous copper engravings have been attributed, for in more than one plate of this encyclopaedia we find the legend Matthaeus Merian Junior Fecit (see, for instance, the illustration of the lion in De Quadrupedibus). The composing set design, with some classifying affinity composes a proposal which is even aesthetic, livening up the reading, making the work more attractive and the texts more understandable.

Historiae Naturalis. De Piscibus et Cetis.

The book
JONSTON, JOHN. HISTORIAE NATURALIS DE QUADRUPEDIBUS. [bound with] DE PISCIBUS ET CETIS. [bound with] DE EXANGUIBUS AQUATICIS. [bound with] DE AVIBUS. [bound with] DE INSECTIS. [bound with] DE SERPENTIBUS. (Amsterdam: Johann Jacob Schipper, 1657, 1655). 375 x 241 mm (14 3/4 x 9 1/2"). 6, [2], 163, [1], 160, 158, [12], 160, [8], 147, [1] pp. Six separately published works bound in two volumes. Second Edition. 

First issued in Frankfort in 1650-57, this famous compendium of the animal kingdom was considered the standard zoological encyclopedia of its era, combining works on quadrupeds, birds, insects, aquatic life, and reptiles, bound here in two volumes containing 250 fine hand colored folio-sized plates, most of them with several figures each. Finely engraved, carefully detailed, and often featuring a touch of whimsy, these are among the most pleasing zoological plates produced in the 17th century. Mythical animals such as the griffin, the phoenix, and a variety of unicorns are pictured alongside real creatures, some of which no doubt seemed equally improbable to 17th century Europeans. Our copy contains one plate not recorded in Nissen: Plate XLVIII in the section on fish, with pictures of a narwhal, containing details of its skull and horn. 

For additional photos and information, please contact us at ccernoia@yahoo.com or visit our website: www.vasaribooks.com

Historiae Naturalis. De Exanguibus Aquaticis.

Thursday 29 August 2013

A Cabinet of Curiosities - Knorr's "Delight of the Eyes and the Mind/Soul"

Shells have always been considered "artifices of nature", and therefore a tangible reflection of the wonder and perfection of Creation. George Perry, in his introduction to the Natural History of Shells, reflected on how these objects, with their outstandingly complex architecture based on a logarithmic spiral, invite the viewer to contemplate divine excellence.
By the mid-18th century,  the fashion for conchology was widespread in Europe: the publication of important illustrated volumes (see Dezallier's d'Argenville La Conchyliologie) and a noticeable shift in collecting taste, attracted a growing number of amateurs from the European aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie. The beauty of shells, furthermore, was believed to possess no only the twin faculty of elevating the spirit and recreating the senses, but also the quality of refining the taste and creativity of artists. 
A precious contribute to the publication of books dedicated to the study of conchology was provided by the eclectic figure of Georg Wolfgang Knorr.
Georg Wolfgang Knorr was born on December 30th, 1705, in Nuremberg. At age 18, he learned engraving and became a copperplate engraver for Johann Leonhard Blanc, working under Martin Tyroff on the illustrations for Johann Jacob Scheuchzer’s “Copper-Bible” Physica sacra (1731–1735). As a result of that work he became interested in the natural sciences. His tutor Blanc passed away in 1725 and through his own studies, Knorr gained a wide knowledge in art history and the natural sciences. Two of his friends, probably Johann Christoph and Johann Sigmund Dietzsch, tutored him in engraving landscapes. Around 1730 he started a publishing firm, which was continued after his death by his heirs until 1765. From 1726 until 1760, he engraved portraits, landscapes, geological formations, and animal studies after Dürer and the Kilian family. He was a paleontologist, as well as a painter, draftsman, engraver, collector, publisher and art dealer. He published numerous engravings, some as single folios and some in books.
In the second half of the 18th century Nuremberg overtook Augsburg as the centre of production for fine natural history books in Germany, due to the stimulus of C,J. Trew (Wunschmann, 1894: 593-595), a wealthy physician at Nuremberg, who assembled a number of artists and scientists around him. This group included Knorr as well as J.C. Dietzsch, J.C. Keller, C.N. Kleemann, C. Leinberger, A. Hoffer, J.A. Eisenmann and J.F. Schmidt. They contributed to the drawing, engraving and hand-coloring of the plates of several natural history publications. Trew owned a natural his- tory collection and menagerie. Many animals and curiosities described and depicted in Knorr's Deliciae Naturae Selectae originated from his collection, as indicated by Ex. Museo Excell. D.D. Chris. Jac. Trew at the bottom of each plate. 

Deliciae Naturae Selectae. Tav.B.VI

The Deliciae Naturae Selectae oder auserlesenes Naturalien-Cabinet (Selected Cabinet of Objects from Nature) was first published in 1751 in German, showing a collection of samples from famous German ‘Naturalien’ cabinets, i.e. C. J. Trew, J. A. Beurer, P.L. Müller, D. Stedeling, A.M. Schadeloock, D. de Hagen, D. Rudolph, and J.P. Breyn(e). The 91 magnificent hand-colored plates stand out for their brightness, delicacy and vibrant coloring and depict zoological subjects and metals as follows: corals and seaweeds (15 plates), shells (7), butterflies (6), sea urchins (4), metals and sea anemones (6), crustaceans and spiders (7), starfishes (4), fishes (9), birds (7), mammals (14), reptiles and amphibians (12). The accompanying text is contemplative, anecdotal and unscientific.
The other major work published under the supervision of Knorr's was Vergnügen der Augen und des Gemüths (1757–1773) “Delight of the Eyes and the Mind/Soul”. The title and content of these volumes, exceedingly popular in amateur and aristocratic circles, exemplifies the contemporary aesthetization of zoology, especially the colorful molluscs. This famous work was first published in German and totally devoted to Mollusca in the style of Rumphius (1705). The last five Parts were published after Knorr’s death by his heirs.
The French edition (1760–1773) is titled Les delices des yeux et de l’esprit ou collection générale des différentes espèces de coquillages que la mer renferme (Delight of the eyes and of the mind or general collection of different species of shells, which the ocean holds).

Les Delices des Yeux. Frontispiece. Vol.II

The three editions (German, French, Dutch) of this work share most features. Often cited as a “3 volume” work as it is usually bound in three volumes, each edition was issued in six Parts with no mention of volumes. The presence of an index for each of the two parts makes the division into three volumes reasonable. Each Part (German: Theil; French: Partie; Dutch: Deel) consists of descriptive text and plates. The six Parts each contain 30 hand colored plates. The sixth part contains an additional ten black and white plates.
Knorr plates are often praised for their beauty and color. The delineation of the shells is generally very good and far superior to many other works of the time. Some of the plates are quite striking, especially those showing large shells. The color, as in any hand colored work, varies from copy to copy. In this case it also varies from edition to edition. A few plates in the French edition are poorly colored but this may not be true of all copies of the edition.

Les Delices de Yeux. Vo.II. Tab III

The last important volume on malacology published in the 18th century came out in Italy: this was the Testacea utriusque Siciliae of 1791 by giuseppe saverio Poli (1746-1825), bu the theme of the still life with shells nonetheless retained its appeal in a new artistic climate dominated by the Neoclassical style. Indeed we must not think that the fortune of conchiliomania would die with the advent of modern era: these extravagant artifices of nature continue, in fact to extort their undisputed fascination on contemporary collectors and amateurs, and there is no sign that the passion for shells will decline.

Les Delices des Yeux. Vol.II. TabVII

Friday 23 August 2013

A Cabinet of Curiosities - Dezallier d'Argenville "La Conchyliologie"

Shell collecting comes naturally to most people. The world is blessed with an abundance of striking beautiful specimens, which for the most part grace the shoreline of our white sandy beaches. Casual collectors are often content with acquiring a few uncommon specimens, for display purposes in their home. Even the tiniest shell awakens the soul and can be considered a gift of nature which reflects the marvels of creation and lifts the spirit to the most sublime contemplations.
Publications that dealt with mollusks and their shells have been of interest for centuries. Dating back to the fourth century B.C., we find writings by Aristotle on conchology. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries shells became an object of curiosity. European aristocrats kept such objects in their 'cabinets of curios'. A mixture of antiquities and natural wonders encouraged a focus on the marvels of nature rather than scientific observation.
Towards the end of the seventeenth century people began to regard shells as having scientific interest. It was at this time when curiosity merged with scientific study resulting in elaborate and richly illustrated books on the subject. Of worthy mention are celebrated authors such as Buonnani ("Recreatione dell 'Occhio e della Mente",1681), Lister ("Historia Conchyliorum", 1685-1692), and Rumphius ("D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer", 1705).
A new rational approach was applied to the examination of shells. Special attention was given to new systematic classification arrangement of the “Mollusca” (Mollusks) and the description and illustration of new species. Shell collecting and its scientific study defines Conchology.
While Linnaeus (1707-78) is famed for introducing a system of classification and naming species upon which the scientific world is based, his revolutionary work entitled “Systema Naturae” lacked the illustrations that were most desired by collectors and scientists of the time.

La Conchyliologie. Frontispiece

In 1742 Dezallier d'Argenville's interest in natural history resulted in three treatises, on shells and minerals, “L'histoire naturelle éclaircie dans deux de ses parties principales, la lithologie et la conchyliologie” (Paris 1742), “La Conchyliologie, ou Traité sur la nature des coquillages”, (1757) and “La Conchyliologie ou Histoire Naturelle des Coquilles de Mer, d'Eau Douce, Terrestres et Fossiles. Avec un Traité de la Zoomorphose, ou représentation des Animaux qui les habitent: Ouvrage dans lequel on trouve une nouvelle Méthode de les diviser”, 1780.
Under the name of “Conchyliologie”, originating from two Greek words, concha (shell) and sermo, (speech), his work emphasized a new method of classification and addressed the need for admirable illustrations.
Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville (Paris, 1 July 1680–29 November 1765), “avocat” to the Parliament of Paris and secretary to the king, was a connoisseur of gardening. He became well-known after the publication of his celebrated treatise on French Garden design entitled "La théorie et la pratique du jardinage" (published for the first time anonymously in 1709 and subsequently in 1713).
Dezailller d'Argenville was called upon to edit or contribute to more than 600 entries in the “Encyclopédie” of Diderot and d’Alembert, published in parts from 1751.
The cabinet (office) of Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d' Argenville, curious in and of itself, was especially renowned for his personal collections of works of art and shells. He maintained a correspondence with scholars from all over Europe which helped him to build his collection, resulting in a collection of natural history curiosities, far superior to any of his contemporaries.
In 1736 the "taste" for Natural history began to spread in Paris. D'Argenville profited from the eighteenth century's infatuation with the natural sciences and, indeed, contributed to the vogue by publishing descriptions of the most notable exhibits of natural history in Paris and the provinces. It was at this time that many shells from private collections were featured in publications intended for wealthy purchasers.

La Conchyliologie. Plate II

Famous illustrations of exotic seashells reflected and stimulated the great interest of 18th century Europeans in the arrival of elaborate specimens from increasingly distant shores. Shells were considered to be exotic treasures, objects of marvel and elegance.
New specimens were made available and acquired by European collectors though epic voyages, such as Captain Cooks Pacific Ocean Exploration.
This landmark work on conchology showcases an illustrated inventory of a comprehensive documentation of shells in Eighteenth century France.
First published in 1742, this work became very popular amongst private collectors of the time. The connoisseurship of shells and their most colorful and fantastic form was a gentleman's occupation and a worthy inclusion in a cabinet de curiosities before it became a science under the Linnaean system of classification.
The “Conchyliologie” was used by Carl Linnaeus for the organization of his own collection. Aimed at facilitating the determination and classification of shells, being marine, river or ground, fossil or current, D'Argenville used a binominal list (nomenclature) which precedes that of Linnaeus. The shells were classified in the same fashion that botanists used to identify plants, classes, families, genre and species.
The method that the author uses for this classification is very simple. The distinction is made between univalves, bivalves and multivalves. This encompasses all of the known shells. The examination of the general shape and sometimes of the mouth of the shell determines the family and the genre.
All that concerns the formation of shells and their geographical location, the manner in which they are collected and their placement and order in the Natural History Cabinets, the way to improve their surface appearance and the vivacity of their colors is presented in the most detailed format.
In 1757, during the publication of the second edition, Dezallier supplemented the text and plates by adding a description of the animals that inhabited the shells entitled "Zoomorphose". This part succeeds the section on the “Conchyliologie”. The word Zoomorphose derives from two Greek words: zoo (animal) and morphos (form). It is the representation of the animals which inhabit the shells and their descriptions. The illustrations have been drawn in the Indies and in many European harbors.
The present much enlarged third edition from which these color plates were meticulously recreated is superb. Published in 1780, it is rarer than the first edition and offers an additional selection of plates.
The first edition only contained 41 plates. It was published after the death of the author by Jacques de Favanne and his son Jacques Guillaume. The 1780 edition contains three emblematic hand colored copper engraved frontispieces, one of which was engraved after Boucher, one engraved portrait and 80 magnificent hand colored copper engraved plates. The third edition was divided in two volumes concerning sea shells, river shells and earth shells.

La Conchyliologie. Plate XIV

While portrayed in a conventional manner yet decoratively arranged, the “Conchyliologie” provides excellent illustrations. A work of a connoisseur of the fine arts, we are granted a deluxe production, portraying countless shells, arranged by their classification, on 80 plates.
Accurately drawn, hand colored and arranged in an eye-catching kaleidoscope composition, the marvelous detailed plates give us a pictorial reference illustrating a system or order to describe new species that were not yet recorded.
The original sketches for the copperplates were drawn from life by Dezallier himself.
He was able to record in fine detail all that he observed as a naturalist during his travels. Many of the shells illustrated throughout the work are life size.
Dezallier D'Argenville’s “Conchyliologie” had a huge impact on its own time, and is highly valued by present-day historians as a record of the unprecedented innovation of techniques and vocations of the pre-Industrial world. It is also a great resource for collectors, artists and scholars.

For more information on the original book, please contact us at the following e-mail address: ccernoia@yahoo.com

La Conchyliologie. Plate XVI

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 www.vasaribooks.com
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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