Society of North America 31st Annual Conference
Wyndham Baltimore Inner Harbor, Baltimore, Maryland - March 20-26, 2003
Cabinets of Wonder
Earnest, The Bard Graduate Center
Stephen Van Dyk, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Dr. Arthur Wheelock, Jr. Curator of Northern Baroque Painting, National Gallery Of Art & Professor of Art History, University of Maryland
Andrew Morrall, Chair of Academic Studies & Associate Professor, The Bard Graduate Center
Leslie Overstreet, Curator of Natural History Rare Books, Special Collections Department, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
Richard Flint, former Curator of the Peale Museum.
C. Kaufmann, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Wunderkammer and Kunstkammer, private princely or noble
collections of natural history specimens, natural aberrations and art objects,
were amongst the predecessors of museums. Dr.
Arthur Wheelock, Jr. spoke on depictions of collector’ cabinets, such as one
pictured by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Adriaen Stalbent in The
Archduke Albert and the Archduchess Isabella in a Collectors’ Cabinet
(Walters Art Gallery). The probably
fictional interior is filled with the collector’s objects:
paintings, scientific instruments, books, sculpture, medals, decorative
glass, musical instruments, jewelry, shells, coral, exotic flowers and other
artifacts and natural marvels are displayed for the delectation of the invited
guests, in this case royalty whose presence recorded here probably elevated the
hosts’ social status. These
cabinets engendered great intellectual fervor and excitement, epitomizing the
ideals underlying the aesthetic and philosophical character of the age.
These objects, assembled during a period of scientific inquiry and
discovery to show both the taste and financial power of the collector, also
helped elucidate the mysteries of nature which intrigued them.
The settings, sometimes fanciful, had iconographic meanings that were
comments on the events and status. In
this painting, the depiction of 4 beasts who have stormed a collector’ cabinet
is a comment on iconoclastic outbreaks in the Netherlands around the time of the
painting. In Jan Brueghel the Younger’s Venus
and Cupid in a Collector’s Cabinet (Philadelphia Museum of Art), the
figure of Venus regarding herself in a mirror and the view from the windows of
Antwerp and the river Scheldt are both comments on the sense of sight, (the
painting becomes an allegory of sight) as well as a depiction of a beautiful
collection. In the sixteenth
century the publication by Samuel Quiccheberg of Inscriptiones
vel tituli theatri amplissimi Munich, 1565) presented the most significant
discussion of the ideal museum, positing that God had placed man at the center
of the world and had given him the means to achieve universal knowledge.
Assembling a collector’s cabinet was following this mandate to
understand the world through creating a theater of the universe.
Collector’s cabinets varied, from those assembled by doctors and
scientific men, collections mostly
of natural phenomena, to those of princes and nobles, filled as well with man
made wonders, including natural phenomena improved with luxurious settings and
mounts. Lavish vessels, for
instance, were created by artists
using such things as fantastic shells mounted in precious metals ornamented with
rare and costly stones. Rudolf II,
a great patron of the arts and of natural history, assembled one of the most
important cabinets including rare natural history and precious objets of all
types, paintings, and natural history manuscripts, such as The
Four Elements, which was illuminated by Joris Hoefnagel, whom he had brought
to Prague to work at his court. Hoefnagel
was only one of the artists whom Rudolf assembled to study the microcosm of the
world and to reveal it secrets. His
Wunderkammer was famous throughout Europe for the quality of its artworks and
for the extraordinary range of its naturalia.
building on Dr. Wheelock’s remarks, continued the session with further
discussion of Rudolf II’s Wunderkammer, concentrating on how the
objects were appreciated and used. Rudolf
II was not only a passionate collector and possessor of both natural and
man-made objects, but he wanted his collection to be a place where, in the
Baconian sense, one could search for nature’s secrets but where one could also
constrain nature in a way that would make it more marvelous, more revealing.
In a cup supposedly made from unicorn horn (Kunsthistorisches Museum,
Wien), the rarity of the horn is matched by the preciousness and rarity of the
materials used in the setting. It
becomes quasi-sacred, much like the Imperial regalia, its unique material a
symbol of princely virtue. The
belief that unicorn horn could purify water poisoned by serpent venom is the key
to the iconography of this wonderful object, and the various jewels used in the
mount each have iconographic relevance to poison through their association with
the virtues of prudence, purity, wisdom strength, which would aid the worthy
prince is avoiding the venom of the serpent.
There were other theories of the methods of fighting poison and the
efficacy of the various approaches. One
theory was that only poison could fight poison, as it was not antithetical but
sympathetic. This so-called unicorn
horn cup is a rare example of the illustration of occult forces.
Its use and desirability was not only in its beauty and rarity, but in
the practical uses it would have for Rudolf in surviving attempts on the
Leslie Overstreet used books in the Smithsonian’s Rare
Books Collection to demonstrate the types of objects found in scientific
Wunderkammer, most established by doctors, pharmacists and scientists.
These were not necessarily physically large cabinets, but were carefully
documented by publications, such as Ferrate Imperato, Dell’historia
naturale (1599), which shows a moderate room outfitted with shelves and
cupboards with bound volumes, preserved animals, shells, fish, etc., with a
crocodile on the ceiling. The Museo
Caspiano, which was also discussed by Dr. Wheelock, was another example of this
type of cabinet. Through the
1600’s this genre of cabinet had the largest number of examples of objects,
the availability of which was frequently controlled by ever-changing trade
relations with other countries. The
greatest change in types of objects in these scientific cabinets was caused by
the introduction of wet taxidermy. If
one sees illustrations of these cabinets over a long period of time, as we did,
one would see an increase in the number of natural history specimens which could
be preserved, usually in jars of alcohol. There
was thus a visual change in the appearance of the cabinets, with the
introduction of drawers of animal specimens such as butterflies and other animal
specimens and the inclusion of wet specimens in jars.
Richard Flint jumped to America with his discussion of the Peale Museum, an example of effects of both Renaissance humanism and 18th century Enlightenment. Peale established his museum of curiosities and paintings to be an instrument of learning, medicine to the emerging American mind. His systematic grouping of knowledge was the beginning of the museum exhibit as we know it today. A struggle developed,, however, between God, in the form of knowledge and science, and Mammon, in the guise of profits; Peale’s museum fell on hard times as it could not support itself P. T. Barnum bought it, making it more commercial as well as much less scientific. Americans were gullible, willing to look at the peculiar and sensational as well as the truly rare and educational. Barnum was an avid money-maker. We should not look too unkindly on his efforts to do this, though, as he at the same time brought some information, as well as entertainment to the willing and eager public, and he in also established, for instance, the auditorium as a usual adjunct to a museum. Peale had wanted his museum to be supported by the government, but it was, by default, a moneymaking undertaking, He was at the same time worried about its entertainment aspects and had as his goal “rational amusement”. Barnum was somewhat the opposite, but managed almost by accident to have an educational institution. Mr. Flint then segued into the subject of the Dime Museum in Baltimore, something of a museum of the Peale/Barnum type, inviting us to see it and giving the audience wooden dimes to be used for admission there. We hope that it will be more successful in terms of longevity than either of the museums of Peale and Barnum.