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The bizarre as a door to modern knowledge, the Cabinet of Curiosities

A conversation with Art History professor Giulia Carciotto – the Renaissance spirit for concentrating knowledge and the bizarre in one place

On November 25, 2019, thieves entered the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) museum in Dresden, stealing royal jewelry that was described as ‘priceless’ by the State of Saxony, and estimated of €1 billion of value, making it the largest museum heist in history. A few months prior to this event, Italian photographer Massimo Listri and his crew were among the last to witness the museum’s collection. A collector himself, Listri had gone to Dresden to make the Grünes Gewölbe part of his endeavor of gathering in photographs the cabinets of curiosities, the European real-life catalogs from Renaissance and Enlightenment that had the ambition to represent the entire world. This work, which took ten years in the thinking and at least two in the making, turned into the Taschen XXL book Cabinet of Curiosities, an extra-large format that allows the reader to experience, through a compromise close to the full scale, the rooms and the objects in them. 

Giulia Carciotto, Art History professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Palermo and at the Abadir Academy in Catania, cataloged every item depicted in the book, coordinating with museums to reconstruct their genealogy: «The source can be tracked when an object comes from a museum, as for the Rosenberg Castle in Denmark. We included a couple of French galleries owned by antiquaries that almost equal private museums. In that casing, tracing the origin of the items was, at times, impossible. Browsing the book, the attention of the reader is taken by many places at once. The extra-large format was chosen to convey such abundance», Carciotto explains. «As in the case of the Avori di Coburgo from the Treasure of the Archdukes in Florence: there is a pull-out where the pages open, showing 12 ivory vases preserved». The Wunderkammer, as it is called in German, is a place that yearns for containing all human knowledge; visitors wonder about what they cannot comprehend.

Antonio Paolucci, a specialist in Italian Renaissance Art and former Director of the Vatican Museums from 2007 to 2016, curated the introduction to the book: «The cabinet of curiosities of the Mannerist and Baroque periods originated in the Italian Renaissance studiolo, a central part in the life of a humanist intellectual but also the defining feature of a court, a space that was intended to reflect and illustrate the artistic, historical and philosophical interests of the lord, almost as a concrete representation of his spiritual self. The studiolo was a repository for the objects collected and cherished by its owner; these may include archaeological finds, rare metals, precious and semi-precious stones, gold artifacts, books, scientific instruments, paintings, and sculptures, along with exotica and naturalia». The studiolo expanded itself into the cabinet of curiosities, «synonymous with delight and surprise, the mirror of the world in its entirety, as Tommaso Campanella intended for his ideal museum».Confusion and amazement were supposed to be impressed upon the visitor: «The fastening and the mixture are the traits of the Wunderkammer, populated with objects to galvanize the collector’s and the visitor’s fantasy. They were an instrument of knowledge in a time when the humanist was both a scientist and an alchemist. The organization of the universe was to be made visible. From the chaos, human beings would bring order. The creator of this order was the collector, who would build and organize the cabinet in its own image», says Carciotto. 

Schermata 2021 01 13 alle 01.05.43 2
‘MONSTRO TRIBUS CAPITIS’ MONSTROUS CREATURE WITH THREE HEADS, VOL. V, F. 84 WATERCOLOUR, FROM CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, TASCHEN

Sometimes works of art from past ages would find new life among the artifacts, incomplete parts of statues such as heads, hands, and feet would find shelter bringing meaning by losing their element of singularity. Carciotto mentions Le Temps, ce grand sculpteur by Marguerite Yourcenar to explain how restoration worked overtime: «The need to refashion a complete statue with artificial members resulted from the desire to possess and exhibit an object in sharp conditions: it is inherent to all ages because of the vanity of the owners. That taste for restoration which all collectors from the time of the Renaissance down to our own day have possessed arises from causes which are deeper than ignorance, convention, and the vulgar bias in favor of a fair copy. The lovers of antiquities restored out of piety».

Restoration would not diminish the taste for the exotic and the marvelous, on the contrary, the old and the odd complete human knowledge. The voyages during the Age of Discovery exerted their influence, and the chapter covering the Treasure of the Archdukes «shows some anonymous statuettes, that some attribute to Buontalenti, with shells coming from exotic islands», says Carciotto. In its seven sections, the book shows cabinets of curiosities from Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, France, and England. «A kind of madness or sense of anguish manifested itself in the collecting taken up by European rulers. A case in point is Ambras Castle near Innsbruck», wrote Paolucci about this Habsburg tribute to their interest in collecting gigantic ostrich eggs or paintings of characters perceived as «wonders of nature», affected by an extreme form of hirsutism defined Ambras syndrome. The desire to contain, as an encyclopedia, all knowledge of the world, reaches its peak at Ambras: visitors to this Tyrolean castle, the residence of Archduke Ferdinand II of Habsburg, are greeted by Paul Reichel’s masterpiece, Death.

The Wunderkammer reached its golden age between the Fifteenth and the Sixteenth Century. By the Seventeenth, the interest for the bizarre had started to come under the influence of the scientific penchant for hoarding: «The Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Sassia, on the Lungotevere in Rome, is a cabinet of curiosities of the history of health: therapeutic practices, surgical instruments, pharmacopeia, and care for the sick are represented through five centuries’ worth of material, documents, and publications, preserved in the most medical history library in Italy». In this museum modern science lives side by side with «an alchemic cabinet, with all the objects used in attempts to turn vile metals into gold», adds Carciotto. The collection itself is ephemeral; the cabinet can exist and function if the collector keeps it alive and organized. By contrast, Listri pictured also abandonment: «The photographs taken in Château de Dampierre seem to show ruins. A long life of luxuries, changing owner after owner among collects, ending up sent to a private by the French state administration. Dusty armoires and cabinets, decadent and broken, pieces of sculptures leaning on the walls», recounts Carciotto. Paolucci explains that nowadays: «Overwhelmed by the clamor of advertising and the fickle trends of the market, the private collector struggles to achieve the mindset required for the patient, meticulous pursuit of things». It took a photographer such as Massimo Listri, with his «vast passion for collecting» in Carciotto’s words, to explore and catalog the cabinets of curiosities in Europe.


IMAGE GALLERY

Massimo Listri. Cabinet of Curiosities
Words: Giulia Carciotto, Antonio Paolucci
365 Pages
Taschen XXL

Giulia Carciotto, Art History professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Palermo and at the Abadir Academy in Catania

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