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For the 1992 novel A Case of Curiosities, see Allen Kurzweil. For the 2002 novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, see The Cabinet of Curiosities. For the 2009 Jane's Addiction box set, see A Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinets of curiosities (also known as Kunstkammer, Wunderkammer, Cabinets of Wonder, or wonder-rooms) were encyclopedic collections of types of objects whose categorical boundaries were, in Renaissance Europe, yet to be defined. 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." Of Charles I of England's collection, Peter Thomas has succinctly stated, "The Kunstkabinett itself was a form of propaganda" Besides the most famous, best documented cabinets of rulers and aristocrats, members of the merchant class and early practitioners of science in Europe, 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 Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (ruled 1576-1612), housed in the Hradschinmarker at Prague was unrivalled north of the Alps; it provided a solace and retreat for contemplation that also served to demonstrate his imperial magnificence and power in symbolic arrangement of their display, ceremoniously presented to visiting diplomats and magnates. 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 Art and Curiosities at Ambras Castlemarker in Austria.
The earliest pictorial record of a natural history cabinet is the engraving in Ferrante Imperato's Dell'Historia Naturale (Naples 1599) (illustration, left). 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 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. 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) (illustration, above right), and Athanasius Kircher (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.

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 1587 Gabriel Kaltemarckt advised Christian I of Saxony that three types of item were indispensable in forming a "Kunstkammer" or art collection: firstly sculptures and paintings; secondly "curious items from home or abroad"; and thirdly "antlers, horns, claws, feathers and other things belonging to strange and curious animals" When Albrecht Dürer visited the Netherlandsmarker in 1521, apart from artworks he sent back to Nurembergmarker various animal horns, a piece of coral, some large fish fins and a wooden weapon from the East Indies. The highly characteristic range of interests represented in Frans II Francken's painting of 1636 (illustration, left) shows paintings on the wall that range from landscapes, including a moonlit scene— a genre in itself— to a portrait and a religious picture (the Adoration of the Magi) intermixed with preserved tropical marine fishes and a string of carved beads, most likely amber, which is both precious and a natural curiosity. Sculpture both classical and secular (the sacrificing Libera)Her base is inscibed LIBER[A] and modern and religious (Christ at the Column) are represented, while on the table are ranged, among the exotic shells (including some tropical ones and a shark's tooth): portrait miniatures, gem-stones mounted with pearls in a curious quatrefoil box, a set of sepia chiaroscuro woodcuts or drawings, and a small still-life painting leaning against a flower-piece, coins and medals — presumably Greek and Roman — and Roman terracotta oil-lamps, curious flasks, and a blue-and-white Ming porcelain bowl.
"Male Narwhal or Unicorn"
The Ashmolean Museummarker in Oxford inherited the collection of Elias Ashmole, itself largely derived from John Tradescant the elder and his son John the younger. Parts of this are still displayed together, giving a good sense of the diversity of these collections. What was left of the famous and unique complete stuffed Dodo was passed to the new Pitt Rivers Museummarker in the nineteenth century. An important Native American artifact, Chief Powhatan's Mantle, the cloak of the father of Pocohontas, remains in the collection.
Obviously cabinets of curiosities were limited to those who could afford to create and maintain them. Many monarchs, in particular, developed large collections. A rather under-used example, stronger in art than other areas, was the Studiolo of Francesco Imarker, the first Medici Grand-Duke of Tuscany. Frederick III of Denmark, who added Worm's collection to his own after Worm's death, was another such monarch. A third example is the Kunstkameramarker founded by Peter the Great in Saint Petersburgmarker in 1727. Many items were bought in Amsterdam from Albertus Seba and Frederik Ruysch. The fabulous Habsburg Imperial collection, included important Aztec artifacts, including the feather head-dress or crown of Montezuma now in the Museum of Ethnology, Viennamarker.

Similar collections on a smaller scale were the complex Kunstschränke produced in the early 17th century by the Augsburgmarker merchant, diplomat and collector Philipp Hainhofer. These were cabinets in the sense of pieces of furniture, made from all imaginable exotic and expensive materials and filled with contents and ornamental details intended to reflect the entire cosmos on a miniature scale. The best preserved example is the one given by the city of Augsburg to King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in 1632, which is kept in the Museum Gustavianummarker in Uppsalamarker.

The juxtaposition of such disparate objects, according to Bredekamp's analysis (Bredekamp 1995) encouraged comparisons, finding analogies and parallels and favoured the cultural change from a world viewed as static to a dynamic view of endlessly transforming natural history and a historical perspective that led in the seventeenth century to the germs of a scientific view of reality.

A late example of the juxtaposition of natural materials with richly-worked artifice is provided by the Grünes Gewölbemarker, the "Green Vaults" formed by Augustus the Strong in Dresdenmarker to display his chamber of wonders. The "Enlightenment Gallery" in the British Museummarker, installed in the former "Kings Library" room in 2003 to celebrate the 250th anniverary of the museum, aims to recreate the abundance and diversity that still characterized museums in the mid-18th century, mixing shells, rock samples and botanical specimens with a great variety of artworks and other man-made objects from all over the world.

Notable collections started in this way

Modern interpretation of a Wunderkammer

In contemporary culture

In Los Angelesmarker, the modern-day Museum of Jurassic Technologymarker anachronistically seeks to recreate the sense of wonder that the old cabinets of curiosity once aroused. In Spring Green Wisconsin, the home and museum of Alex Jordan known as House on the Rockmarker, can also be interpreted as a modern day curiosity cabinet, especially in the collection and display of automatons. The idea of a cabinet of curiosities has also appeared in recent publications and performances: Cabinet magazine is a quarterly magazine that juxtaposes apparently unrelated cultural artifacts and phenomena in order to show their interconnectedness in ways that encourage curiosity about the world. The Italian cultural association Wunderkammern uses the theme of historical cabinets of curiosities to explore how such "amazement" is manifested within today's artistic discourse. The May 2008 The University of Leeds Fine Art BA programme entitled 'Wunder Kammer'—the culmination of research and practice from the students of Leeds University's Fine Art programme—allows viewers to encounter work from across all disciplines; ranging from intimate installation to thought-provoking video and highly skilled drawing, punctuated with live performances.[97060]

Several internet bloggers describe their sites as a wunderkammer, either because they are comprised primarily of links to things that are interesting, or because they inspire wonder in a similar manner to the original wunderkammer (see External Links, below). Cabinet of Natural Curiosities , a Brooklyn-based folk/experimental music and art collective named after Albertus Seba's collection of oddities, has released eclectic folk and improvisational albums based on the idea of the wunderkammer, as well as staging a performance of the Theater of Natural Curiosities at P.S.marker 1 Contemporary Art Centermarker in Long Island City, New Yorkmarker. Playwright Jordan Harrison's Museum Play is structurally based around the cabinets, habitats and hallways of a natural history museum.


  1. Francesaco 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 emphasised by R.J.W. Evans, Rudolf II and His World: A Study in Intellectual History (Oxford) 1973.
  4. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, "Remarks on the Collections of Rudolf II: The Kunstkammer as a Form of Representatio", Art Journal 38.1 (Autumn 1978:22-28.
  5. The small retreats in the palaces of Urbino and Gubbio were inlaid with intarsia that figured 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. 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.
  7. Gutfleish B and Menzhausen J, "How a Kunstkammer should be formed", Journal of the History of Collections, 1989 Vol I: p. 11.
  8. A Hyatt Mayor, Prints and People, Metropolitan Museum of Art/Princeton, 1971, nos 48.ISBN 0-691-00326-2
  9. It appears to represent a reduction of a well-known sculpture by Alessandro Algardi.
  10. Still life was considered a lesser genre than those represented as hanging on the wall.
  11. Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum
  12. Weschler.

Further reading

  • Under the Sign: John Bargrave as Collector, Traveler, and Witness, Stephen Bann, Michigan, 1995
  • The Origins of Museums: The Cabinets of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe, ed. Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor, 2001, paperback, 431 pages, ISBN 1-84232-132-3
  • Cabinets for the curious: looking back at early English museums, Ken Arnold, Ashgate, 2006, ISBN 0-7546-0506-X.
  • Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, Lawrence Weschler, 1996, trade paperback, 192 pages, ISBN 0-679-76489-5 (see website link above)
  • The Cabinet of Curiosities (novel), Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Warner Books, 2003, paperback, ISBN 0-446-61123-9.
  • Helmar Schramm et al. (ed.). Collection, Laboratory, Theater. Scenes of Knowledge in the 17th Century, Berlin/New York 2005, ISBN 978-3110177367
  • The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine: The Kunstkammer and the Evolution of Nature, Art and Technology Horst Bredekamp (Allison Brown, translator) (Princeton: Marcus Weiner) 1995.

See also

External links

Historic cabinets

Modern "cabinets"

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