Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.
DAY 6 – THE ANIMALS OF THE EARTH
The well-known detail: A friend of yours posts alarming news on Facebook: due to overpopulation, the number of the living would now have exceeded that of the dead. It honestly seems an exaggeration, and yet you are curious: how many people have lived and died in the whole history of humanity?
The background: This is a rather controversial empirical calculation (1)An excellent study on the history of the calculation of the dead, and its socio-political implications, is How Many People Have Lived on Earth?, by Oded Carmeli, Haaretz, 11 October 2018., which might easily be interpreted for political purposes (or distorted—if necessary—to make more or less plausible predictions about the future of humanity). Furthermore, there are intrinsic methodological problems: the further one goes back in time, the more difficult it is to estimate the effective population size, population growth and life expectancy, not to mention the remotest prehistory in which the same concept of homo sapiens seems to vanish.
If we want a reference number anyway, we can refer to a study by the Population Reference Bureau published in 2018, according to which the number of living human beings (7 and a half billion at the time of the estimate) would constitute about 6.9% of the people born throughout history. The total number of human beings ever appeared on the Planet would therefore be 108.6 billion, of which 101 billion are already dead. The afterlife, it must be said, seems to be quite crowded and its ranks grow with every passing second. (2)If you want to know the data updated in real time, go and check worldometers.info.
But these figures fade if we think of how many animals and plants there are in the world.
Our planet has a radius of 6371 km; the portion that allows life, starting from the air (the lower layers of the atmosphere), passing through the surface and reaching the subsoil, is just 20 km high.
So the biosphere turns out to be just a very thin layer that covers the Earth, yet it houses an inconceivable number of living creatures.
It is estimated that the living species are approximately 8.7 million, of which 370,000 are plants, 23,000 fish, 8700 birds, 6300 reptiles, 4500 mammals, 3000 amphibians, 900,000 insects and 500,000 belong to other taxonomic groups.
We’ve managed to discover and catalogue only a small part of all these species: 86% of land creatures and 91% of marine creatures are still unknown. And many of these will be forever, because climate change is accelerating the process of extinction: many species are disappearing in this very moment, without our having ever noticed their existence.
If the sheer number of species is impressive, the figures become even more inconceivable if we consider the number of specimens for each species.
Let’s focus on animals, for example: how many are there? Once again, we cannot know for sure, but considering insects might give us a rough idea. Ants are about 10,000 quadrillion (that is, million billion). Based on this figure, some scientists estimate that the total number of insects amounts to 10 quintillion, or 10 billion billion.
These are just the insects, to which we must add all other animals—from eagles to squids, from men to reptiles—plants, fungi, protozoa, chromista, bacteria…
The numbers go beyond understanding and we are only ever considering living creatures.
Now try and imagine how many plants and animals have died from the moment life appeared on Earth… if you can.
The Sixth Lesson: Dismantling fake news on overpopulation is easy, but it opens up a dizzying amount of numbers. The biosphere in which we live is at the same time a ‘thanatosphere’: it almost takes your breath away to contemplate the immeasurable quantity of death that supports the swarm of life and melts with it. On the other hand, none of the creatures that have inhabited the planet in the past million years has ever really gone away, they are all still in circulation. This life is already an afterlife.
The hybrid anatomies created by Nunzio Paci,born in Bologna in 1977, encountered a growing success, and they granted him prestigious exhibitions in Europe, Asia and the US.
The true miracle this artist performs on his canvas is to turn what is still usually perceived as a taboo – the inside of our bodies – into something enchanting.
But his works are complex and multilayered: in his paintings the natural elements and creatures fuse together and as they do so, all boundaries lose their meaning, there is no more an inside and an outside; each body explodes and grows branches, becoming indefinable. Even if besides the figures there still are numbers, anatomical annotations and “keys”, these unthinkable flourishes of the flesh tend to checkmate our vision, sabotage all categories and even dismantle the concept of identity.
But rather than just writing about it, I thought it best to interview Nunzio and let our chat be an introduction to his art.
You began as a street artist, in a strictly urban environment; what was your relationship with nature back then? Did it evolve over the years?
I was born and raised in a small country town in the province of Bologna and I still live in a rural area. Nature has always been a faithful companion to me. I too did go through a rebellious phase: in those years, as I recall them, everything looked like a surface I could spray paint or write on. Now I feel more like a retired warrior, seeking a quiet and dimly lit corner where I can think and rest.
In the West, man wants to think himself separated from nature: if not a proper dominator, at least an external observer or investigator. This feeling of being outside or above natural laws, however, entails a feeling of exclusion, a sort of romantic longing for this “lost” connection with the rest of the natural world. Do you think your works express this melancholy, a need for communion with other creatures? Or are you suggesting that the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms have actually always been inertwined, and all barriers between them are a cultural construct, an illusion?
I think my work is about “longing for what we constantly lose” – voices, perfumes, memories… I often have the feeling I’m inventing those fragments of memories I had forgotten: I believe this is a form of self-defense on my part, to survive the melancholy you mention. For this reason, through my work, I try to translate what cannot be preserved through time into a visual form, so that I can retrieve these memories in my most nostalgic moments.
Yours are autoptic visions: why do you feel the need to dissect, to open the bodies you draw? As the inside of the body is still a taboo in many ways, how does the public react to the anatomical details in your works?
I need to be selfish. I never think about what the audience might feel, I don’t ask myself what others would or wouldn’t want to see. I am too busy taming my thoughts and turning my traumas into images.
I can’t recall exactly when I became interested in anatomy, but I will never forget the first time I saw somebody skin a rabbit. I was a very young child, and I was disturbed and at the same time fascinated – not by the violent scene in itself, but by what was hidden inside that animal. I immediately decided I would never harm a living being but I would try and understand their “engineering”, their inner design.
Later on, the desire to produce visionary artworks took over, and I started tracing subjects that could be expressive without offending any sensibility. But in the end what we feel when we look at something is also a product of our own background; so generally speaking I don’t think it’s possible to elicit am unambiguous sensation in the public.
You stated you’re not a big fan of colors, and in fact you often prefer earthy nuances, rusty browns, etc. Your latest woks, including those shown in the Manila exhibit entitled Mimesis, might suggest a progressive opening in that regard, as some floral arrangements are enriched by a whole palette of green, purple, blue, pink. Is this a way to add chromatic intricacy or, on the contrary, to make your images “lighter” and more pleasing?
I never looked at color as a “pleasing” or “light” element. Quite the opposite really. My use of color in the Mimesis cyle, just like in nature, is deceptive. In nature, color plays a fundamental role in survival. In my work, I make use of color to describe my subjects’ feelings when they are alone or in danger. Modifying their aspect is a necessity for them, a form of self-defense to protect themselves from the shallowness, arrogance and violence of society. A society which is only concerned with its own useless endurance.
In one of your exhibits, in 2013, you explicitly referenced the theory of “signatures”, the web of alleged correspondences among the different physical forms, the symptoms of illness, celestial mutations, etc. These analogies, for instance those found to exist between a tree, deer antlers and the artery system, were connected to palmistry, physiognomy and medicine, and were quite popular from Paracelsus to Gerolamo Cardano to Giambattista della Porta. In your works there’s always a reference to the origins of natural sciences, to Renaissance wunderkammern, to 15th-16th Century botanics. Even on a formal level, you have revisited some ancient techniques, such as the encaustic technique. What’s the appeal of that period?
I believe that was the beginning of it all, and all the following periods, including the one we live in, are but an evolution of that pioneering time. Man still studies plants, observes animal behavior, tries in vain to preserve the body, studies the mechanisms of outer space… Even if he does it in a different way, I don’t think much has really changed. What is lacking today is that crazy obsession with observation, the pleasure of discovery and the want to take care of one’s own time. In learning slowly, and deeply, lies the key to fix the emotions we feel when we discover something new.
A famous quote (attributed to Banksy, and inspired by a poem by Cesar A. Cruz) says: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. Are your paintings meant to comfort or disturb the viewer?
My way of life, and my way of being, are reflected in my work. I never felt the urge to shock or distrub the public with my images, nor did I ever try to seek attention. Though my work I wish to reach people’s heart. I want to do it tiptoe, silently, and by asking permission if necessary. If they let me in, that’s where I will grow my roots and reside forever.
Werner Herzog, a filmmaker who often addressed in his movies the difficult relationship between man and nature, claims in Grizzly Man (2006) that “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder”. Elsewhere, he describes the Amazon jungle as a never-ending “collective massacre”. As compared to Herzog’s pessimistic views, I have a feeling that you might see nature as a continuum, where any predator-pray relationship is eventually an act of “self-cannibalism”. Species fight and assault each other, but in the end this battle is won by life itself, who as an autopoietic system is capable of finding constant nourishment within itself. Decomposition itself is not bad, as it allows new germinations. What is death to you, and how does it relate to your work?
As far as I’m concerned, death plays a fundamental role, and I find myself constantly meditating on how all is slowly dying. A new sprout is already beginning to die, and that goes for all that’s living. One of the aspects of existence that most fascinate me is its decadence. I am drawn to it, both curious and scared, and my work is perhaps a way to exorcise all the slow dying that surrounds us.
In this post I would like to address three different discoveries I made over the years, and their peculiar relationship.
∼ 2009 ∼
I had just started this blog. During my nightly researches, I remember being impressed by the work of an Italian photographer who specialized in still life pictures: Guido Mocafico.
I was particularly struck – for obvious reasons of personal taste – by his photographs inspired by Dutch vanitas paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries: the pictures showed an outstanding, refined use of light and composition (they almost looked like paintings), but that was not all there was.
In this superb series, Mocafico represented many classic motifs used to symbolize transience (the homo bulla, man being like a soap bubble, but also the hourglass, the burning candle, etc.) with irreproachable taste and philologic attention; the smallest details betrayed a rigorous and deep preparation, a meticulous study which underpinned each of his photographs.
I went on to archive these fascinating photographs, promising myself I would talk about them sooner or later. I never kept that promise, until now.
∼ 2017 ∼
Last year Taschen published a somptuous, giant-size edition of Ernst Haeckel‘s works.
The German scientist, who lived between late 19th century and early 20th century, was an exceptional figure: marine biologist, naturalist, philosopher, he was among the major popularizers of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Germany. He discovered and classified thousands of new species, but above all he depicted them in hundreds of colorful illustrations.
Taschen’s luxurious volume is a neverending wonder, page after page. An immersion into an unknown and alien world – our world, inhabited by microorganisms of breathtaking beauty, graceful jellyfish, living creatures of every shape and structure.
It is a double aesthetic experience: one one hand we are in awe at nature’s imaginative skills, on the other at the artist’s mastery.
I’ll confess that going through the book, I often willingly forget to check the taxonomic labels: after a while, human categories and names seem to lose their meaning, and it’s best to just get lost in sheer contemplation of those perfect, intricate, unusual, exuberant forms.
∼ 2018 ∼
London, Natural History Museum, a couple of weeks ago.
There I am, bewildered for half an hour, looking at the model of a radiolarian, a single-celled organism found in zooplankton. In the darkened room, the light coming from above emphasizes the model’s intricate craftsmanship. The level of detail, the fragility of its thin pseudopods and the rendering of the protozoa’s translucid texture are mind-blowing.
This object’s peculiarity is that it’s made of glass. It’s one of the models created by 19th-century master glassmakers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka.
And this is just one among thousands and thousands of similar masterpieces created by the two artists from Dresden.
The Blaschkas were a Bohemian family of glass artisans, and when Leopold was born he inherited the genes of several generations of glassmakers. Being especially talented from an early age, he created decorations and glass eyes for many years, until in a short span of time he happened to lose his wife, his son and his father to cholera. Shattered by grief, he took sails towards America but the ship was stopped at sea for two week due to a lack of wind. During this forced arrest, in the darkest period of his life, Leopold was saved by wonder: one night he was looking at the dark ocean, when suddenly he noticed “a flashlike bundle of light beams, as if it is surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and of other bright lighting spots, and the seemingly mirrored stars”. He observed those sea creatures in awe, and took sketches of their structure. Since that night, the memory of the magical spectacle he had witnessed never left him.
Years later, back in Dresden and happily remarried, he began creating glass flowers, as a hobby; his orchids were so perfectly crafted that they caught the eye of prince Camille de Rohan first, and then of the director of the Natural History Museum. The latter commissioned twelve sea anemones models; and thus Leopold, remembering that night on the stranded ship, began to work on scientific models. Soon Blaschka’s sea animals – and glass flowers – became famous; Leopold, with the help of his son Rudolph, collaborated with all the most important museums. After his father’s death, Rudolph continued to work developing an even more refined technique, producing 4.400 plant models for Harvard University’s Herbarium.
Together, father and son crafted a total of around 10.000 glass models of sea creatures.
Their artistry attained such perfection that, after them, no glassmaker would ever be able replicate it. “Many people think – Leopold wrote in 1889 – that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation”.
∼ Convergence ∼
Some of our interests, at first glance independent from one another, sometimes turn out to be actually correlated. It is as if, on the map of our own passions, we suddenly discover a secret passage between two areas that we thought were distinct, a “B” spot connecting points “A” and “C”.
In this case, for me the “A” point was Guido Mocafico, the author of the evocative series of photographs entitled Vanités; whom I discovered years ago, and guiltily forgotten.
Haeckel was, in retrospect, my “C” point.
And I never would have thought of linking one to the other, before a “B” point, Blaschka’s glass models, appeared on my mind map
Because, here is the thing: to build their incredible glass invertebrates, Leopold and his son Rudolph were inspired, among other things, by Haeckel’s illustrations.
And you can imagine my surprise when I found out that all the best photographs of the Blaschka models, those you can see in this very article, were taken by… Guido Mocafico.
Unbeknownst to me, during the years I had lost sight of him, the photographer dedicated some amazing series of pictures to the Blaschka models, as you can see on his official website.
I always felt there was a tight connection between Haeckel’s fantastic microorganisms and my beloved vanitas. Their intimate bond, perhaps, was sensed by Mocafico too, in his aesthetic research.
A wonder for the creatures of the world is also the astonishment in regard to their impermanence.
At heart, we – human beings, animals, plants, ecosystems, maybe even reality itself – are but immensely beautiful, yet very fragile, glass masterpieces.
(Second and last part – you can find the first one here.)
In the Nineteenth Century, wunderkammern disappeared.
The collections ended up disassembled, sold to private citizens or integrated in the newly born modern museums. Scientists, whose discipline was already defined, lost interest for the ancient kind of baroque wonder, perhaps deemed child-like in respect to the more serious postitivism.
This type of collecting continued in sporadic and marginal ways during the first decades of the Twetieth Century. Some rare antique dealer, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands or Paris, still sold some occasional mirabilia, but the golden age of the trade was long gone.
Of the few collectors of this first half of the century the most famous is André Breton, whose cabinet of curiosities is now on permanent exhibit at the Centre Pompidou.
The interest of wunderkammern began to reawaken during the Eighties from two distinct fronts: academics and artists.
On one hand, museology scholars began to recognize the role of wunderkammern as precursors of today’s museal collections; on the other, some artists fell in love with the concept of the chamber of wonders and started using it in their work as a metaphor of Man’s relationship with objects.
But the real upswing came with the internet. The neo-wunderkammer “movement” developed via the web, which opened new possibilities not only for sharing the knowledge but also to revitalize the commerce of curiosities.
Let’s take a look, as we did for the classical collections, to some conceptual elements of neo-wunderkammern.
A Democratic Wunderkammer
The first macroscopic difference with the past is that collecting curiosities is no more an exclusive of wealthy billionaires. Sure, a very-high-profile market exists, one that the majority of enthusiasts will never access; but the good news is that today, anybody who can afford an internet conection already has the means to begin a little collection. Thanks to the web, even a teenager can create his/her own shelf of wonders. All that’s needed is good will and a little patience to comb through the many natural history collectibles websites or online auctions for some real bargain.
There are now children’s books, school activities and specific courses encouraging kids to start this form of exploration of natural wonders.
The result of all this is a more democratic wunderkammer, within the reach of almost any wallet.
We talked about the classic category of exotica, those objects that arrived from distant colonies and from mysterious cultures.
But today, what is really exotic – etymologically, “coming from the outside, from far away”? After all we live in a world where distances don’t matter any more, and we can travel without even moving: in a bunch of seconds and a few clicks, we can virtually explore any place, from a mule track on the Andes to the jungles of Borneo.
This is a fundamental issue for the collectors, because globalization runs the risk of annihilating an important part of the very concept of wonder. Their strategies, conscious or not, are numerous.
Some collectors have turned their eyes towards the only real “external space” that is left — the cosmos; they started looking for memorabilia from the heroic times of the Space Race. Spacesuits, gear and instruments from various space missions, and even fragments of the Moon.
Others push in the opposite direction, towards the most distant past; consequently the demand for dinosaur fossils is in constant growth.
But there are other kinds of new exotica that are closer to us – indeed, they pertain directly to our own society.
Internal exoticism: not really an oxymoron, if we consider that anthropologists have long turned the instruments of ethnology towards the modern Western worold (take for instance Marc Augé). To seek what is exotic within our own cultre is to investigate liminal zones, fringe realities of our time or of the recent past.
Thus we find a recent fascination for some “taboo” areas, related for example to crime (murder weapons, investigative items, serial killer memorabilia) or death (funerary objecs and Victorian mourning apparel); the medicalia sub-category of quack remedies, as for example electric shock terapies or radioactive pharamecutical products.
Building a wunderkammer today is an eminently artistic endeavour. The scientific or anthropological interest, no matter how relevant, cannot help but be strictly connected to aesthetics.
There is a greater general attention to the interplay between the objects than in the past. A painting can interact with an object placed in front of it; a tribal mask can be made to “dialogue” with an other similar item from a completely different tradition. There is undoubtedly a certain dose of postmodern irreverence in this approach; for when pop culture collectibles are allowed entrance to the wunderkammer, ending up exhibited along with precious and refined antiques, the self-righteous art critic is bound to shudder (see for instance Victor Wynd‘s peculiar iconoclasm).
An example I find paradigmatic of this search for a deeper interaction are the “adventurous” juxtapositions experimented by friend Luca Cableri (the man who brought to Moon to Italy); you can read the interview he gave me if you wish to know more about him.
Wearing A Wunderkammer
Fashion is always aware of new trends, and it intercepted some aspects of the world of wunerkammern. Thanks mainly to the goth and dark subcultures, one can find jewelry and necklaces made from naturalistic specimens: on Etsy, eBay or Craigslist, countless shops specialize in hand-crafted brooches, hair clips or other fashion accessories sporting skulls, small wearable taxidermies and so on.
Conceptual Art and Rogue Taxidermists
As we said, the renewed interest also came from the art world, which found in wunderkammern an effective theoretical frame to reflect about modernity.
The first name that comes to mind is of course Damien Hirst, who took advantage of the concept both in his iconic fluid-preserved animals and in his kaleidoscopic compositions of lepidoptera and butterflies; but even his For The Love of God, the well-known skull covered in diamonds, is an excessively precious curiosity that would not have been out of place in a Sixteenth Century treasure chamber.
Hirst is not the only artist taking inspiration from the wunderkammer aesthetics. Mark Dion, for instance, creates proper cabinets of wonders for the modern era: in his work, it’s not natural specimens that are put under formaldeyde, but rather their plastic replicas or even everyday objects, from push brooms to rubber dildos. Dion builds a sort of museum of consumerism in which – yet again – Nature and Culture collide and even at times fuse together, giving us no hope of telling them apart.
In 2013 Rosamund Purcell’s installation recreated a 3D version of the Seventeenth Century Ole Worm Museum: reinvention/replica, postmodern doppelgänger and hyperreal simulachrum which allows the public to step into one of the most famous etchings in the history of wunderkammern.
Besides the “high” art world – auction houses and prestigious galleries – we are also witnessing a rejuvenation of more artisanal sectors.
This is the case with the art of taxidermy, which is enjoying a new youth: today taxidermy courses and workshops are multiplying.
Remember that in the first post I talked about taxidermy as a domestication of the scariest aspects of Nature? Well, according to the participants, these workshops offer a way to exorcise their fear of death on a comfortably small scale, through direct contact and a creative activity. (We shall return on this tactile element.)
A further push towards innovation has come from yet another digital movement, called Rogue Taxidermy.
Initially born as a consortium of three artists – Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus e Robert Marbury – who were interested in taxidermy in the broadest sense (Marbury does not even use real animals for his creations, but plush toys), rogue taxidermy quickly became an international movement thanks to the web.
The fantastic chimeras produced by these artists are actually meta-taxidermies: by exhibiting their medium in such a manifest way, they seem to question our own relationship with animals. A relationship that has undergone profound changes and is now moving towards a greater respect and care for the environment. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is in fact the use of ethically sourced materials, and the animals used in preparations all died of natural causes. (Here’s a great book tracing the evolution and work of major rogue taxidermy artists.)
So we are left with the fundamental question: why are wunderkammern enjoying such a huge success right now, after five centuries? Is it just a retro, nostalgic trend, a vintage frivolous fashion like we find in many subcultures (yes I’m looking at you, my dear hipster friends) or does its attractiveness lie in deeper urgencies?
It is perhaps too soon to put forward a hypothesis, but I shall go out on a limb anyway: it is my belief that the rebirth of wunderkammern is to be sought in a dual necessity. On one hand the need to rethink death, and on the other the need to rethink art and narratives.
(And While We’re At It, Why Not Domesticate It)
Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz was among the first to voice the ever more widespread need to break the “tyrannical secrecy” regarding death, typical of the Twentieth Century: in 2004 he organized in Neuchâtel the first Café mortel, a free event in which participants could talk about grief, and discuss their fears but also their curiosities on the subject. Inspired by Crettaz’s works and ideas, Jon Underwood launched the first British Death Café in 2011. His model received an enthusiastic response, and today almost 5000 events have been held in 50 countries across the world.
Meanwhile, in the US, a real Death-Positive Movement was born.
Originated from the will to drastically change the American funeral industry, criticized by founder Caitlin Doughty, the movement aims at lifting the taboo regarding the subject of death, and promotes an open reflection on related topics and end-of-life issues. (You probably know my personal engagement in the project, to which I contributed now and then: you can read my interview to Caitlin and my report from the Death Salon in Philadelphia).
What has the taboo of death got to do with collecting wonders?
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking to many a collector. Almost all of them recall, “as if it were yesterday“, the emotion they felt while holding in their hands the first piece of their collection, that one piece that gave way to their obsession. And for the large majority of them it was a naturalistic specimen – an animal skeleton, a taxidermy, etc.: as a friend collector says, “you never forget your first skull“.
The tactile element is as essential today as it was in classical wunderkammern, where the public was invited to study, examine, touch the specimens firsthand.
Owning an animal skull (or even a human one) is a safe and harmless way to become familiar with the concreteness of death. This might be the reason why the macabre element of wunderkammern, which was marginal centuries ago, often becomes a prevalent aspect today.
Ryan Matthew Cohn collection – photo Dan Howell & Steve Prue, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)
Rethinking Art: The Aesthetics Of Wonder
After the decline of figurative arts, after the industrial reproducibility of pop art, after the advent of ready-made art, conceptual art reached its outer limit, giving a coup the grace to meaning. Many contemporary artists have de facto released art not just from manual skill, from artistry, but also from the old-fashioned idea that art should always deliver a message.
Pure form, pure signifier, the new conceptual artworks are problematic because they aspire to put a full stop to art history as we know it. They look impossible to understand, precisely because they are designed to escape any discourse.
It is therefore hard to imagine in what way artistic research will overcome this emptiness made of cold appearance, polished brilliance but mere surface nonetheless; hard to tell what new horizon might open up, beyond multi-million auctions, artistars and financial hikes planned beforehand by mega-dealers and mega-collectors.
To me, it seems that the passion for wunderkammern might be a way to go back to narratives, to meaning. An antidote to the overwhelming surface. Because an object is worth its place inside a chamber of marvels only by virtue of the story it tells, the awe it arises, the vertigo it entails.
I believe I recognize in this genre of collecting a profound desire to give back reality to its lost enchantment.
Lost? No, reality never ceased to be wonderous, it is our gaze that needs to be reeducated.
Eventually, a wunderkammer is just a collection of objects, and we already live submerged in an ocean of objects.
But it is also an instrument (as it once was, as it has always been) – a magnifying glass to inspect the world and ourselves. In these bizarre and strange items, the collector seeks a magical-narrative dimension against the homologation and seriality of mass production. Whether he knows it or not, by being sensitive to the stories concealed within the objects, the emotions they convey, their unicity, the wunderkammer collector is carrying out an act of resistence: because placing value in the exception, in the exotic, is a way to seek new perspectives in spite of the Unanimous Vision.
Why has the new millennium seen the awakening of a huge interest in “cabinets of wonder”? Why does such an ancient kind of collecting, typical of the period between the 1500s and the 1700s, still fascinate us in the internet era? And what are the differences between the classical wunderkammern and the contemporary neo-wunderkammern?
I have recently found myself tackling these subjects in two diametrically opposed contexts.
The first was dead serious conference on disciplines of knowledge in the Early Modern Period, at the University of PAdua; the second, a festival of magic and wonder created by a mentalist and a wonder injector. In this last occasion I prepared a small table with a micro-wunderkammer (really minimal, but that’s what I could fit into my suitcase!) so that after the talk the public could touch and see some curiosities first-hand.
Two traditionally quite separate scenarios – the academic milieu and the world of entertainment – both decided to dedicate some space to the discussion of this phenomenon, which strikes me as indicative of its relevance.
So I thought it might be interesting to resume, in very broad terms, my speech on the subject for the benefit of those who could not attend those meetings.
For practical purposes, I will divide the whole thing into two posts.
In this first one, I will trace what I believe are the key characteristics of historical wunderkammern – or, more precisely, the key concepts worth reflecting upon.
In the next post I will address XXI Century neo-wunderkammern, to try and pinpoint what might be the reasons of this peculiar “rebirth”.
Evidently, the fundamental concept for a wunderkammer, beginning from the name itself, was the idea of wonder; from the aristocratic cabinets of Ferdinand II of Austria or Rudolf II to the more science-oriented ones like Aldrovandi‘s, Cospi‘s, or Kircher‘s, the purpose of all ancient collections was first and foremost to amaze the visitor.
It was a way for the rich person who assembled the wunderkammer to impress his court guests, showing off his opulence and lavish wealth: cabinets of curiosities were actually an evolution of treasure chambers (schatzkammern) and of the great collections of artworks of the 1400s (kunstkammer).
This predilection of rare and expensive objects generated a thriving international commerce of naturalistic and ethnological items cominc from the Colonies.
The Theatre of the World
But wunderkammern were also meant as a sort of microcosm: they were supposed to represent the entirety of the known universe, or at least to hint at the incredibly vast number of creatures and natural shapes that are present in the world. Samuel Quiccheberg, in his treatise on the arrangement of a utopian museum, was the first to use the word “theatre”, but in reality – as we shall see later on – the idea of theatrical representation is one of the cardinal concepts in classical collections.
Because of its ability to represent the world, the wunderkammer was also understood as a true instrument of research, an investigation tool for natural philosophers.
The System of Knowledge
The organization of a huge array of materials did not initially follow any specific order, but rather proceeded from the collector’s own whims and taste. Little by little, though, the idea of cataloguing began to emerge, which at first entailed the distinction between three macro-categories known as naturalia, artificialia and mirabilia, later to be refined and expanded in different other classes (medicalia, exotica, scientifica, etc.).
Medicalia, exotica, scientifica
This ever growing need to distinguish, label and catalogue eventually led to Linnaeus’ taxonomy, to his dispute with Buffon, all the way to Lamarck, Cuvier and the foundation of the Louvre, which marks the birth of the modern museum as we know it.
The Aesthetics of Accumulation
Perhaps the most iconic and well-known aspect of wunderkammern is the cramming of objects, the horror vacui that prevented even the tiniest space from being left empty in the exposition of curiosities and bizarre artifacts gathered around the world.
This excessive aesthetic was not just, as we said in the beginning, a display of wealth, but aimed at astounding and baffling the visitor. And this stunned condition was an essential moment: the wonder at the Universe, that feeling called thauma, proceeds certainly from awe but it is inseparable from a sense of unease. To access this state of consciousness, from which philosophy is born, we need to step outof our comfort zone.
To be suddenly confronted with the incredible imagination of natural shapes, visually “assaulted” by the unthinkable moltitude of objects, was a disturbing experience. Aesthetics of the Sublime, rather than Beauty; this encyclopedic vertigo is the reason why Umberto Eco places wunderkammern among his examples of “visual lists”.
Conservation and Representation
One of the basic goals of collecting was (and still is) the preservation of specimens and objects for study purposes or for posterity. Yet any preservation is already a representation.
When we enter a museum, we cannot be fully aware of the upstream choices that have been made in regard to the exhibit; but these choices are what creates the narrative of the museum itself, the very “tale” we are told room after room.
Multiple options are involved: what specimens are to be preserved, which technique is to be used to preserve them (the result will vary if a biological specimen is dried, texidermied, or put in a preserving fluid), how to group them, how to arrange their exhibit?
It is just like casting the best actors, choosing the stage costumes, a particular set design, and the internal script of the museum.
The most illuminating example is without doubt taxidermy, the ultimate simulacrum: of the original animal nothing is left but the skin, stretched on a dummy which mimics the features and posture of the beast. Glass eyes are applied to make it more convincing. That is to say, stuffed animals are meant to play the part of living animals. And when you think about it, there is no more “reality” in them than in one of those modern animatronic props we see in Natural History Museums.
But why do we need all this theatre? The answer lies in the concept of domestication.
Domestication: Nature vs. Culture
Nature is opposed to Culture since the time of ancient Greeks. Western Man has always felt the urge to keep his distance from the part of himself he perceived as primordial, chaotic, uncontrollable, bestial. The walls of the polis locked Nature outside, keeping Culture inside; and it’s not by chance that barbarians – seen as half-men half-beasts – were etymologically “those who stutter”, who remained outside of the logos.
The theatre, an advanced form of representation, was born in Athens likely as a substitute for previous ancient human sacrifices (cf. Réné Girard), and it served the same sacred purposes: to sublimate the animal desire of cruelty and violence. The tragic hero takes on the role of the sacrificial victim, and in fact the evidence of the sacred value of tragedies is in the fact that originally attending the theatrical plays was mandatory by law for all citizens.
Theatre is therefore the first attempt to domesticate natural instincts, to bring them literally “inside one’s home” (domus), to comprehend them within the logos in order to defuse their antisocial power. Nature only becomes pleasant and harmless once we narrate it, when we turn it into a scenic design.
And here’s why a stuffed lion (which is a narrated lion, the “image” of a lion as told through the fiction of taxidermy) is something we can comfortably place in our living room without any worry. All study of Nature, as it was conceived in the wunderkammern, was essentially the study of its representation.
By staging it, it was possible to exert a kind of control over Nature that would have been impossible otherwise. Accordingly, the symbol of the wunderkammern, that piece that no collection could do without, was the chained crocodile — bound and incapable of causing harm thanks to the ties of Reason, of logos, of knowledge.
It is worth noting, in closing this first part, that the symbology of the crocodile was also borrowed from the world of the sacred. These reptiles in chains first made their apparition in churches, and several examples can still be seen in Europe: in that instance, of course, they were meant as a reminder of the power and glory of Christ defeating Satan (and at the same time they impressed the believers, who in all probability had never seen such a beast).
A perfect example of sacred taxidermy; domestication as a bulwark against the wild, sinful unconscious; barrier bewteen natural and social instincts.
Stone appears to be still, unchangeable, untouched by the tribulations of living beings.
Being outside of time, it always pointed back to the concept fo Creation.
Nestled, inaccessible, closed inside the natural chest of rock, those anomalies we called treasures lie waiting to be discovered: minerals of the strangest shape, unexpected colors, otherworldly transparency.
Upon breaking a stone, some designs may be uncovered which seem to be a work of intellect. One could recognize panoramas, human figures, cities, plants, cliffs, ocean waves.
Who is the artist that hides these fantasies inside the rock? Are they created by God’s hand? Or were these visions and landscapes dreamed by the stone itself, and engraved in its heart?
If during the Middle Ages these stone motifs were probably seen as an evidence of the anima mundi, at the beginning of the modern period they had already been relegated to the status of simple curiosities.
XVI and XVII Century naturalists, in their wunderkammern and in books devoted to the wonders of the world, classified the pictures discovered in stone as “jokes of Nature” (lusus naturæ). In fact, Roger Caillois writes (La scrittura delle pietre, Marietti, 1986):
The erudite scholars, Aldrovandi and Kircher among others, divided these wonders into genres and species according to the image they saw in them: Moors, bishops, shrimps or water streams, faces, plants, dogs or even fish, tortoises, dragons, skulls, crucifixes, anything a fervid imagination could recognize and identify. In reality there is no being, monster, monument, event or spectacle of nature, of history, of fairy tales or dreams, nothing that an enchanted gaze couldn’t see inside the spots, designs and profiles of these stones.
It is curious to note, incidentally, that these “caprices” were brought up many times during the long debate regarding the mystery of fossils. Leonardo Da Vinci had already guessed that sea creatures found petrified on mountain tops could be remnants of living organisms, but in the following centuries fossils came to be thought of as mere whims of Nature: if stone was able to reproduce a city skyline, it could well create imitations of seashells or living things. Only by the half of XVIII Century fossils were no longer considered lusus naturæ.
Among all kinds of pierre à images (“image stones”), there was one in which the miracle most often recurred. A specific kind of marble, found near Florence, was called pietra paesina (“landscape stone”, or “ruin marble”) because its veinings looked like landscapes and silhouettes of ruined cities. Maybe the fact that quarries of this particular marble were located in Tuscany was the reason why the first school of stone painting was established at the court of Medici Family; other workshops specializing in this minor genre arose in Rome, in France and the Netherlands.
Aside from the pietra paesina, which was perfect for conjuring marine landscapes or rugged desolation, other kinds of stone were used, such as alabaster (for celestial and angelic suggestions) and basanite, used to depict night views or to represent a burning city.
Perhaps it all started with Sebastiano del Piombo‘s experiments with oil on stone, which had the intent of creating paintings that would last as long as sculptures; but actually the colors did not pass the test of time on polished slates, and this technique proved to be far from eternal. Sebastiano del Piombo, who was interested in a refined and formally strict research, abandoned the practice, but the method had an unexpected success within the field of painted oddities — thanks to a “taste for rarities, for bizarre artifices, for the ambiguous, playful interchange of art and nature that was highly appreciated both during XVI Century Mannerism and the baroque period” (A. Pinelli on Repubblica, January 22, 2001).
Following the inspiration offered by the marble scenery, they added human figures, ships, trees and other details to the picture. Sometimes little was needed: it was enough to paint a small balcony, the outline of a door or a window, and the shape of a city immediately gained an outstanding realism.
Johann König, Matieu Dubus, Antonio Carracci and others used in this way the ribbon-like ornaments and profound brightness of the agate, the coils and curves of alabaster. In pious subjects, the painter drew the mystery of a milky supernatural flare from the deep, translucent hues; or, if he wanted to depict a Red Sea scene, he just had to crowd the vortex of waves, already suggested by the veinings of the stone, with frightened victims.
Especially well-versed in this eccentric genre, which between the XVI and XVIII Century was the object of extended trade, was Filippo Napoletano.
In 1619 the painter offered to Cosimo II de’ Medici seven stories of Saints painted on “polished stoned called alberese“, and some of his works still retain a powerful quality, on the account of their innovative composition and a vivid expressive intensity.
His extraordinary depiction of the Temptations of Saint Anthony, for instance, is a “little masterpiece [where] the artist’s intervention is minimal, and the Saint’s entire spiritual drama finds its echo in the melancholy of a landscape of Dantesque tone” (P. Gaglianò on ExibArt, December 11, 2000).
The charm of a stone that “mimicks” reality, giving the illusion of a secret theater, is unaltered still today, as Cailliois elegantly explains:
Such simulacra, hidden on the inside for a long time, appear when the stones are broken and polished. To an eager imagination, they evoke immortal miniature models of beings and things. Surely, chance alone is at the origin of the prodigy. All similarities are after all vague, uncertain, sometimes far from truth, decidedly gratuitous. But as soon as they are perceived, they become tyrannical and they offer more than they promised. Anyone who knows how to observe them, relentlessly discovers new details completing the alleged analogy. These kinds of images can miniaturize for the benefit of the person involved every object in the world, they always provide him with a copy which he can hold in his hand, position as he wishes, or stash inside a cabinet. […] He who possesses such a wonder, produced, extracted and fallen into his hands by an extraordinary series of coincidences, happily imagines that it could not have come to him without a special intervention of Fate.
Still, unchangeable, untouched by the tribulations of living beings: it is perhaps appropriate that when stones dream, they give birth to these abstract, metaphysical landscapes, endowed with a beauty as alien as the beauty of rock itself.
Several artworks from the Medici collections are visible in a wonderful and little-known museum in Florence, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.
The best photographic book on the subject is the catalogue Bizzarrie di pietre dipinte(2000), curate by M. Chiarini and C. Acidini Luchinat.