One of the ways people during the Renaissance tried to make sense of their world was through amassing collections of objects that were intended to represent all knowledge. These collections were called cabinets of curiosities or cabinets of wonders, the original meaning of cabinet being a chamber or room. However there were also smaller versions made to be contained in a piece of furniture closer to what we would call a cabinet nowadays. Either way, these collections might include specimens representing natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religion, and art, depending on the collectors' interests, and they demonstrated their owners' learning, power, and wealth.
Much like the Renaissance books of science that include references to mythical creatures, these cabinets of curiosities often included a mix of what we would consider truth and fiction, art and kitsch, and they represent that fascinating era when the lines between different modes of knowledge were still blurred. This makes them fertile ground for the imagination, and cabinets of curiosities are fashionable these days in fields as diverse as interior design and, of course, juvenile fantasy. It isn't hard to see why: the mix of wondrous, beautiful, mysterious, and sinister; priceless treasures side by side with all manner of hoaxes; tangible symbols of every realm of human and natural study… The possibility of magic is high indeed.
It's been noted that nowadays we can collect virtual cabinets of curiosities - some people use Pinterest in almost that way, or have blogs that they think of as cabinets of curiosities, collecting interesting tidbits from all different fields of knowledge. Indeed, my favorite magazine, Smithsonian, is very much a cabinet of wonders when you think of it in that broader sense.
However, the original cabinets of curiosities were not just collections of knowledge, but also of Things - often, rare, expensive, valuable Things that brought their owners tremendous bragging rights. Naturally, the owners of these cabinets of wonders liked to make records of their magnificent collections, and catalogues remain for many of them. There are also images of some of these proto-museums that I find wonderfully enticing. Most of these are engravings, which allows a high level of detail the better to show off all the fabulous Stuff that's been collected. My favorites of these prints are the ones with all the specimens visible higgelty-piggelty. They seem like the most fun to explore, like the first picture above, showing the sixteenth century collection of apothecary Francesco Calzeolari from Verona.
By contrast, the cabinet of curiosities depicted by Jacob von der Schley in the eighteenth century is so precisely arranged as to be almost mathematically abstract - no doubt why Schley felt the need to sprinkle about cherubic tots to add a little baroque interest. And in the opposite direction, the piece by Saint-Aubin seems downright Romantic. I'm surprised it has so early a date as it looks reminiscent of William Blake, to me. In this cabinet the curiosities loom mysteriously out of the haze. (But it has its gratuitous cherubs, too!)
Here's a really magnificent collection - not the sort of building anyone less than royalty is capable of providing for their hobbies. But I think my very favorite image is also the earliest, the cabinet of curiosities of Ferrante Imperato in Naples. (Ferrante's son Francesco is the one pointing out a specimen to some visitors, below.) I just love the big crocodile hanging from the ceiling, but if you look closely you'll notice some even more wonderful creatures, including a cross between a walrus and a platypus to the upper right and a couple of fluffy little lapdogs to the lower left.
Here are also links to two web sites with detailed tours of some furniture cabinets that reveal amazing craftsmanship: an Augsburg Display Cabinet (c. 1630) at the J. Paul Getty Museum
an Augsburg Art Cabinet (1625-1631) at Uppsala University (Just be warned, these inter-active sites do take a long time to load.)
I long to have a cabinet of curiosities of my own. I keep teasing D that we'll have to poke through the ceiling into the crawl space under the roof, add a balcony and a spiral staircase, and fill it with a library and cabinet of wonders. Well, I can dream, can't I?
[Pictures: Musaeum Calceolarianum, woodcut or engraving by G. Viscardi, 1622 (Image from Lexicon M);
Rariteitenkabinet, engraving by Jacob von der Schley, c. 1779;
Frontspiece from the Almanac Historico-physique, engraving by Gabriel Jacques de Saint-Aubin, 1762 (Images from the Rijksmuseum);
Frontspiece from Wondertooneel der natuur by Levinus Vincent, 1715 (Image from BibliOdyssey, alas, without any info);
Del Museo di Ferrant Imperato, woodcut from Dell'Historia Naturale by Ferrante Imperato, 1599 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]