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.).
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.
(Continues in Part Two)