Why would an early modern individual collect and display natural and artistic objects in a cabinet of curiosities?


Traditionally, collecting was an exclusively male practice, occurring in their space reserved for scholarly activity.[1] Cabinets of curiosities were early modern private repositories for objects considered extraordinary, which ultimately set the foundations for the concept of the modern, institutionalised museum.[2] During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, natural objects were collected, studied, sold, and consumed all over Europe. Artwork claiming to portray nature also became a desired fashion sought by princes and scholars to house in their cabinets.[3] Naturalia and art, whilst at first seem unrelated, were highly valued sources during the seventeenth century which is why they take precedence in these display cabinets; scholars generally believed that objects were narrative witnesses of the past and understood that art could document historic events – sometimes more accurately than textual sources which rely upon the reader’s interpretation of a description.[4]

Art and natural objects were often acquired through travelling and the generosity of other scholars, however items could also be purchased from overseas merchants.[5] For the purpose of this essay, cabinets of curiosities refers to not only physical cabinets with draws and cupboards as the English name suggests, but also small gallery rooms as the German equivalent, the ‘kunstkammer’, translates as ‘room of wonder’, and the Italian ‘studiolo’, meaning ‘little studio’; gardens will also be considered where necessary as collections of seeds and plants were more suited to being stored outside.[6]

In 1932, a student named Durost’s reasoned that the contents of these cabinets can be referred to as a collection the items appear to have no use or purpose, and are instead only visual representations; the notion that these objects belong to a series (of which the completion is the end goal) also determines the contents of cabinets of curiosities to be considered a collection.[7] These collections would often be linked to a specific interest of the owner, such as documenting nature or imperial expansion, therefore there are many different reasons why individuals would firstly collect natural and artistic objects in a cabinet of curiosities, and varying motives for then displaying these depending on the desired audience.[8] The general public were not admitted to view these collections due to the risk of theft with the high number of removeable valuables on display, however fellow scholars, foreign rulers and the elite would have received invitations.[9]

My essay will firstly consider how the new scientific equipment encouraged naturalists to collect and identify natural specimens, hoping to gain greater understanding of the land in which they lived. This desire to classify nature expanded overseas to the New World after voyagers had brought back wondrous specimens that had not been seen by Europeans before. Here it is also important to consider the rediscovery of antiquity which influenced a new approach to the scientific investigation of collections. I will then argue that whilst these objects were collected initially out of curiosity and a desire to understand different cultures, those in possession of these rare objects soon realised that they had not only harvested the power of knowledge but had acquired material possessions which were valued more highly than money, thus turning collecting and displaying into a greed-driven and reputation building hobby. I will finally examine how collectors used their cabinets to succeed in the political arena which ultimately motivated rulers to collect expensive artworks and natural rarities.

Main Text

Claudia Swan considers the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to be a period of observation and description through which “nature became more systematically encountered, catalogued, published, collected and studied”.[10]  This “burgeoning discipline of natural history” and “enquiry into the workings of nature” was most likely triggered by the creation of new scientific technology, namely the microscope (1595), telescope (1608), and camera obscura (1685) which made observation beyond the naked eye possible.[11] Naturalists encyclopaedic impulses to classify the natural world required fresh evidence, and thus new objects for empirical investigation, that led to the collection of natural specimens.[12] Ultimately, naturalists were driven by their belief that collecting and understanding of the world God had given to man would bring them closer to reaching the sublime.[13] Underlying religious motivation was certainly present in the collection of naturalia,by the author of The History of Four-footed Beasts (1607), Edward Topsell, who stressed his desire to identify all of the beasts in the Bible.[14] Furthermore, Ulisse Aldrovandi, an Italian naturalist who died at the age of eighty-three in 1605, went to great efforts to contain an “infinite manifestation of nature in a single space”, highlighting a disposition to collect.[15] He stated that:

“in my microcosm you can see more than 18,000 things, among which 7000 in 15 volumes, dried and pasted, 3000 which I have painted as if alive. The rest – animals terrestrial, aerial and aquatic, and other subterranean things such as earths, petrified sap, stones, marbles, rocks and metals – amount to as many pieces again. I have paintings made of a further 5000 natural objects – such as plants, curios sorts of animal, and stones…These can be seen in 14 cupboards, which I call the Pinacoteca”.[16]

Naturalists, like Aldrovandi, often referred to their illustrations as done as ‘ad vivum’, meaning they were a true portrait of nature which linked the arts and sciences. Aldrovandi’s documentation of having produced paintings of natural specimens which he kept with the rest of his extensive collection, suggests that he collected them in order to imitate them which would result in further understanding of their properties.[17] It is evident that he was attempting to classify his specimens as he groups animals based on the terrain they inhabit. This practice had been carried out earlier by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner, who’s collections manifested into five volumes of Historiae Animalism (1551-1621) which divided the animal world into fishes, birds, insects in fashion of Aristotle, which were then alphabetised.[18]

Garcia d’Orta on the other hand, a Portuguese physician of the sixteenth century, collected natural specimens with the intention of identifying their pharmaceutical uses. His collection included plants in use by native physicians and a botanical garden in which he grew aloes, camphor, sandalwood and betel.[19] This further emphasises the climate of investigation, observation, and comparison in which displays of collections were formed by those whose professions necessitated such activities.[20]

Ultimately, cabinets of curiosities and their contents functioned as a space for naturalists in which their knowledge could develop.[21] The problem they faced after obtaining this knowledge, was communicating the appearance and properties of the naturalia they possessed to other naturalists, scholars and other interested persons. It is likely that cabinets of curiosity transformed from personal storage into display features to allow for others to participate in the sensory experience involved in learning about nature which would eradicate the potential of the misinterpretation of written or verbal description.[22]

This interest in collecting flora and fauna extended to those inhabiting the newly discovered parts of the world, exposing early modern European travellers to species they had never seen before.[23] Ferrante Imperato’s drawing, “Dell’historia Naturale”, shows that collecting was curiosity driven as a group of elites are pointing up at a large crocodile from originating from another continent, suggesting that these men have never seen such a specimen before. We can presume therefore, that the collector had a similar initial reaction which is why he sought to house it within his collection which also included creatures from the sea and exotic birds. The fact that books can also be seen to inhabit this space, reinforces the idea that early modern collectors were interested in learning about the unusual species they had collected.[24]

Italian and German princely collectors were particularly interested in objects such as Rhino horns, coconuts and feather paintings from Asia and the New World; India in particular was construed as a “land of marvels”, “monsters” and “fanatical animals”.[25] European collectors of the sixteenth century, in early modern historian Paula Findlen’s opinion, had a “love affair with the marvellous” which would account for the wide variety of either the actual specimens or artistic representations of these, that were housed in cabinets of curiosities; collectors were intrigued by the unusual, as opposed to the familiar which they had  already developed an understanding of.[26] The period between 1480-1530 belonged to the first generation with knowledge of the New World.[27] Voyages of exploration and imperial conquest undertaken during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were intellectual as well as navigational exercises conducted out of burgeoning curiosity.[28] The majority of collectors during this period were well travelled, for example Cantebury canon, John Bargrave, who filled his cabinet with items procured from four journeys between London, Rome and Naples. Similarly, William Charleton spent fourteen years travelling and collecting on the continent.[29] Ken Arnold, a museum specialist, suggests that collecting and travel had a reciprocal relationship, “one travelled in order to collect, but one also collected in order to travel”.[30] The latter assumption could be interpreted to mean that those who were interested the newly discovered lands but were not active in voyages or colonisation could, through the acquisition of foreign treasures from merchants, experience other worlds.[31] The artefacts and marvellous treasures brought back from the Americas by Columbus certainly helped to form an early assimilation of America.[32] Alternatively, Arnold’s statement could also mean that the collecting and studying of creatures and artwork from overseas made travelling a more inviting prospect as the collector had obtained knowledge of foreign lands from the acquisition of a small fraction of their culture and therefore, would not be entering a strange new world completely ignorant. Both interpretations show that it was this new emphasis on cross-cultural encounters and exchange of ideas and the concept of cultural differentiation which inspired collectors.[33] Researchers Isabel Yaya and Adrian Turpin argue that collectors were not primarily interested in the information that could be obtained from their collections, however acknowledge that the novelty of newly discovered plants, animals, objects ‘cannot be disentangled from the knowledge-producing capabilities of wonder’.[34] This statement assumes that collectors’ curiosity of wondrous specimens naturally inclines one to fit the novel into the familiar through making points of comparison, and reorganise the familiar through new knowledge acquired from the novel stimulus.[35]

Explorers collected and brought back specimens rather than writing descriptions of what they had seen words could not accurately represent the marvels of the New World, this can be proved by the inaccuracies in Albrecht Dürer’s rhino woodcut which was most likely produced from his interpretation of a written source as he was yet to see this ‘marvel’ with his own eyes.[36] Paintings and written records were therefore considered insufficient sources during a period that desired to obtain and communicate truth, not only with regards to their reliability.[37] Commenting on a cabinet he visited in Uppsala, Mihály Bethlen said there were “many beautiful rarities which it would be too long to describe” because they were just “too strange”. This suggests that collectors believed that descriptive language was limited and would prove difficult to believe even if verbally expressed, a problem Bethlen found also after visiting the Carlstein collection in Stockholm, that included “many different shells…such beautiful flowery ones, dappled, and of diverse colours that one could not describe or paint them”.[38] Foreign curiosities were therefore, collected impulsively by travellers to document their experience, much like souvenirs are bought today, and displayed in cabinets in order to show people evidence of what existed in the rest of the world.[39]  Essentially, collecting occurred in order to provide proof and substantiate the marvels they had observed overseas.[40]

In addition to finding marvellous curiosities from overseas, early modern Europeans were rediscovering antiquity from ca.1450, particularly in Rome where there was a surplus of sculpted masonry being uncovered during the renovation of the city walls.[41] Since the rediscovery of writers and philosophers, Pliny, Ovid and Aristotle, scholars of the Renaissance had developed an interest in antiquity.[42] They were particularly eager to preserve, gather and study relics of the classical past as they believed that the physical remains were more immediate and valuable than the textual sources on the period.[43] It is also likely that scholars  were subconsciously aware that  the promotion of their distinctive classical pasts would enhance the city’s present standing.[44]

Cabinets of curiosity were an ultimately an early form of museum which became the standard feature of a learned person’s household. The owners of such valuable artefacts were therefore charged with the preservation and display of the knowledge they were in possession of.[45] Eva Shulz argues that these collections have been used to transmit information by means of systematic arrangements of objects since the sixteenth-century.[46] Salas contests that these early modern collections were as systematic as Shulz believes as unlike the institutionalised museums of today, they lacked a specific focus and instead collections tended to reflect the personal interests of the collector.[47] Often scholars proposed to classify their collections, but ended up gathering them as a cornucopia rather than organised museum.[48] This does not mean that the collectors neglected to consider presentation as material was observed and arranged in such a way that would enhance learning.[49] Furthermore, this opinion is biased by our highly developed standards of organisation and classification. British writer John Evelyn, (1620-1706) considered it the highest compliment if one believed their collection to be well ordered, according to chronology and antiquity.[50] This suggests that collectors did in fact consider the presentation of their collections and wished to display objects from the past in order to show off their proud heritage. Pride in possessing historic objects is reinforced by the opinion of the author of the preface to the City Statutes (1531) who believed it “a crime to remain silent about the many traces of nobility and antiquity, unknown before and recently discovered”.[51] This statement also implies that cabinets of curiosity and their contents served not  just as a way of protecting artefacts from the past, but also as a way of communicating knowledge during a period of change and developing intellectual movements.[52]

The rediscovery of ancient texts encouraged early modern individuals to follow in their footsteps and investigate the world around them. Dutch collectors in particular were motivated by their belief that God had given man the means to achieve unlimited knowledge.[53] These cabinets therefore became a symbol of scholarship as collecting was particularly conducted by intellectuals as it was a logical way of gathering primary materials necessary for the writing of historic and philosophic texts.[54] The spaces in which collections were housed, typically a study with a free-standing cabinet or a studiolo, became sociable places in which scholars could meet, reflect and dispute over the objects housed in the collection. The host would be at liberty to guide the discussions by being selective about which items he had at the forefront of the display and through censoring the information his guests received.[55] It can be assumed that the procuring of knowledge was the primary drive for collecting during the early modern period through examining inventories which provide us with context about the collector. The inventory of moveable marital property, made on the occasion of the death of Isabel da Vega, wife of Emmanuel Ximenez details the contents of the “room above the sitting room facing the courtyard” to contain: three bookcases,  two globes, an assortment of shells, three dried Indian animals including a salamander, crocodile and another unknown species, maps of Africa, Europe and Germany, mathematical sundials, a wooden instrument for measuring landscapes, instruments for perspective and a copper astrolabe.[56] From the evident taste in intellectual goods present, we can assume that Ximenez was interested in developing his knowledge of the natural world and foreign lands. The presence of studious objects such as globes, quills and papers can be seen in Domenico Remps painting of a “Cabinet of Curiosities“.[57]

Text Box: Figure 2: Domenico Remps, “Cabinet of Curiosities", (Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence: 1690’s).

Both this painting and Ximenez’s inventory suggest that these cabinets were active spaces of learning as opposed to pretentious display cases. This crossover between ‘museum’ and ‘library’ was not an uncommon as the Renaissance is linked with the development of these cultural institutions and museums often had libraries attached to them.[58] The Barberini family possessed twenty-five thousand prints, five thousand manuscripts and collections of art amongst an assortment of natural objects which further reinforces the purpose of collecting and displaying these objects was primarily, for scholars, to conduct personal study.[59]

Whilst the initial desire to acquire and display natural and artistic objects, for some early modern collectors, was a genuine scholarly interest in developing knowledge through first hand investigation, collecting could not be entirely disentangled from ulterior motives. This point is highlighted by the unspoken reciprocity that was understood between scholars who sent each other plant seeds and other curiosities, as although they were given freely, they held a monetary value which fused together economics and a culture of curiosity.[60] This link was only aided by the discovery of material abundance from all over the world which extended the culture of buying and selling. Merchants realised they could sell natural specimens to those who wished to collect them for the purpose of studying, including ingredients for physicians and apothecaries such as herbs and bezoar stones.[61] This factor has been noted by historians such as Findlen who argues that “collecting was not just a recreational practice for sixteenth and seventeenth century virtuosi; but also a precise mechanism for transforming knowledge into power”; [62]  the notion of power here refers to both wealth and social status as the possession of knowledge and property became intertwined and thus provided a means for early modern collectors to achieve social mobility.[63]

As previously discussed, a lack of sufficient descriptive vocabulary required collectors to exhibit their marvels in cabinets of curiosities in order to convey truth and accuracy. Therefore, to allow for guests to compare the extravagance of a collection, a value would be attributed to the individual items, often written down, in order to impress visitors who were perhaps visiting several studiolos and making inferences and comparisons about the status of hosts.[64] During the seventeenth century, shells for example would vary in price depending on their rarity, shape and colour and would thus indicate the wealth of collector to the onlooker.[65] A visitor of the Andrea Della Valle palaces wrote that they saw “an infinite number of most beautiful and varied statues of marble and bronze…which gave notice that the owner…had to be a most noble and generous man”.[66] Similarly, François Oglier who visited the Wiequefort collection in 1644, praised the collector’s exquisite taste and recalled the most esteemed piece to be a wooden sculpture “so beautiful and perfect” of Adam and Eve, and takes note that “it is valued at 20.000 Francs”.[67]

Willem van Haecht’s painting of “The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest” provides us with a visual representation of a room which has been decorated from floor to ceiling with artwork in a public display of conspicuous consumption; this is emphasised by the fact that the room is clearly overflowing which implies that Cornelis van der Geest wanted to give his visitors (who are clearly elite from studying their clothing which includes ruffs) the impression that he owned more pieces of art than he had space to mount upon a wall. Presumably van der Geest has the capacity to hang this artwork in an alternative room or corridor, however this would potentially be inaccessible to the public and would therefore it would not be in the interest of self-promotion to do so.[68]

Not only do these accounts prove that visitors did in fact make these inferences about collectors from their displays, but they very fact that visitors were admitted in a tourist-like fashion, rather than purposefully invited for scholarly debate over the workings of nature, implies that collectors were aware of the value of their items and wanted to advertise this. We can assume the latter over the former as these collections lacked the scientific classification of those owned by scholars, and instead prioritised artistry, rarity, beauty and displayed arrogant superiority.[69]

Text Box: Figure 3: Willem van Haecht, “The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest” (1628).

The author of Itinerarium Italiae Totius, wrote of his visit to Villa de Medici, Rome in 1601, that the collection was “simply magnificent, and the garden sufficiently beautiful to inspire envy; inside there were an infinite number of monuments from antiquity, most certainly worth being seen”.[70] The fact that the experience of visiting an individual’s collection provoked the creation of a written reaction implies that it was not only in the owner’s interest to advertise their collection, but also the city as a collective body, as recommendation of numerous extravagant studiolos would promote the city’s wealth and increase the “status of Rome as a remarkable destination” to travellers.[71]

The attribution of an economic value to natural and artistic objects shifted the motivation of collectors from scholarly enquiry to conspicuous consumption. The act of collecting was gradually transforming into a business in which it became possible to buy individual items or even, by the eighteenth century, purchase completed cabinets.[72]  Findlen goes so far as to say that “no collector could entirely remove himself from the marketplace”. Certainly, individuals such as Philipp Hainhefer who remarked that “when someone presents me with a foreign object for my Kunstkammer, I experience more pleasure than if he had given me cash”, collected objects as they recognised the potential of a good investment.[73] However I would argue that this statement is not applicable to the initial scholarly collectors who were motivated by a thirst for knowledge rather than money.[74] Instead, it would be more appropriate to state an intrinsic link between collecting and power as this better illustrates the early modern collector’s desire to progress in society through the acquisition of knowledge producing goods that have been attributed a trade value within an early capitalist context.

This “commercial revolution” as labelled by British historian Ralph Davis, encouraged the royal court and prominent professional classes to take part in competitive “habits of voracious and unashamedly conspicuous consumption”.[75] The early modern period saw a change in standards of living, with a new emphasis on extravagance, luxury and happiness; men strived to be “so rich as to be the envy of the whole world” which encouraged them to become industrious in order to  “excel [their] fellow”.[76] The contemporary Houten, writing in 1677, acknowledged that “every neighbour and every artist [was] endeavouring to outvy each other”, and considered this “the great advantage of the nation” as people grew rich and improved their living standards as a result of this possessive competition.[77] J H Plumb compares the participators to “consuming animals with boundless appetites, to follow fashion, to emulate his betters, to seek social advantage through spending, [and] to achieve vertical and social mobility through possessions”.[78] Despite this, there is little evidence to suggest that there was pronounced rivalry between private collectors. On the contrary, instead of showing jealousy over possession, Gabriel de Laube praised Florimond de Raemond who collecting antiquities to display for local intellectuals in Bordeux, as this saved the objects from oblivion.[79] Laube’s evident gratitude for the existence of these items implies that in some cases, the collector’s commitment to protecting the past ultimately outweighed any economic advantage possession of the item in question might have, however this attitude was not universal.

Where there were economic incentives to collect, politics were not far behind; it was not merely enough for only citizens of the city to be made aware of their elites’ wealth. As collecting was conducted by the princely or the wealthy, their cabinets and contents were manipulated to become devices in which to establish a reputation overseas. On the most simplistic level, a cabinet would be brought out for banquets, which would guarantee its viewing by the most important members at court as a display of conspicuous consumption.[80] Amsterdam merchant, Joachim de Wiequefort, recognised the potential to exploit political bonds by using his house which was brimming with collections of art, curiosities and books, as a meeting place for international elites, artists, scholars and poets who were loosely connected by a shared language of cultural pursuits.[81] It is within this informal arena of socialising that political players were introduced, current affairs were discussed and political favours brokered, making the home an “entrepôt” for the cultural and intellectual transfer of ideas and objects.[82] Given the admittance of artists, scholars and elites into Wiequefort’s home, we can infer that he possessed a genuine interest in the arts which was most likely his initial motivation for collecting. However, we can assume that once the potential to form political alliances was recognised, this became his primary motivation to continue collecting, as rather than investing solely for his personal appreciation of the piece, he opened his home to frequent groups of visitors.

Margaret of Austria, regent to her nephew Charles (who later became Emperor Charles V) and governor general of the Netherlands, fused together her important role in sixteenth century politics with her patronage of the arts.[83] An inventory conducted in 1516 showed her possessions to include an assortment natural and artistic objects including paintings, statues, gold, ivory work and coral. Furthermore, in August 1523, Margaret received Aztec treasures from Charles the V which had originally been given to him by King Montezuma in 1519.[84] Much like scholars, Margaret kept these items on display in her library along with manuscripts and maps. On the one hand, these foreign items would be on display to diplomats and official visitors and would evoke a physical manifestation of the concept of universal power and exhibit a propagandistic claim on territory and allegiances.[85] However, given the more intimate quarters these objects were housed in, we can assume that rulers and their families collected natural and handcrafted objects from different cultures in order to learn about them and thus give them political advantage in negotiations by making them aware, for example, of the types of goods available for trade.

Cabinets of curiosity and their contents could also to be used more directly in creating a “powerful web of alliances”.[86] The Habsburgs in particular were aware of the value of natural and artistic objects, and so used them in diplomatic exchanges and as presents to royalty. Margaret for instance, gave the Duke of Lorraine several of the most precious pieces from her collection to ensure his loyalty to the Empire.[87] Conquistador Cortés made similar offerings from his collection across his lifetime in order to secure his position in society. In July 1519, he, and the municipal council of Rica Villa de Veracruz, devised a list of 180 precious objects to send to the Queen Juana and her son Charles in order to present a welcoming attitude after his recent arrival to New Spain.[88] The Conquistador used items from his collection in more obvious forms of political bribery, which is evident in the litigation between Cortés and Velázquez over the credit of Mexico’s conquest in 1522. Knowing that all affairs regarding the Indies were dependent on the Bishop, the Cortés tried to earn his favour by sending eleven magnificent pieces and ensuring they were exactly right for him. Commander Hernando de la Vega, signatory Don Garcia de Padilla, secretary Francisco de Cobos, and Lorenzo Galindez, the officials who judged the case and countersigned the final judgement in favour of Cortés also received two or three feather shields each.[89] This implies that Cortés collected in order to have the power to reward those who served him well. The fact that these objects were accepted with gratitude (which can be assumed from their eventual favouring of him over Velázquez), also highlights that these precious items carried a substantial value to the officials. This illustrates the circle of gift giving which formed the basis of collecting during the early modern European period.[90]


This essay has proved that there are multiple reasons why an early modern individual would collect natural and artistic objects in a cabinet of curiosities. This is because the motivation for collecting was largely tied to their profession which determined the use of the collection, and so incentives varied depending on whether one was a scholar, member of the elite, or ruler. Regardless, the reasons for collecting cannot be isolated for example curiosity and learning, and economics and politics, as these are the contextual grounds under which the collecting and displaying of such items has taken place.

It is however evident that the initial collectors, typically naturalists and scholars were motivated by a genuine desire to learn about their surroundings, following in the footsteps of their predecessors. The act of privately collecting, rather than simply documenting or observing in an external environment, is thus due to the lack of knowledge at the time of curiosity. This extended with voyages to the new world which sparked an interest in new cultures; collecting natural and handcrafted objects from overseas thus provided with collectors with a source of comparison in which to progress with their studies. However, the discovery of new territory brought with it a surplus of products ripe for consumption. Merchants saw the potential in the trade of naturalia, particularly those sought by physicians to study and use in medicines. The construction of a natural goods market under the context of capitalism and rising in living standards and expectations of luxury, initiated competition between the wealthy who wanted to appear to possess the rarest or furthest travelled goods. Therefore, collecting had transformed from an intellectual process into a greed-hungry display of conspicuous consumption in order to show off wealth. As these items had now been given an economic value, they were considered worthy of being used to manipulate matters of politics, particularly regarding foreign alliances. The recognition that parts of curious animals, such as feathers, could be used in such a way, provided a very strong incentive for rulers and diplomats to collect rare specimens, so that they had the power to reward, bribe and negotiate within the political arena.


The acquisition and utilisation of items that provoked the undertaking of scholarly activity gave the collector a sense of intellectual superiority. This would seem particularly advantageous for those wishing to engage in cross-cultural communications, as one had the opportunity to obtain a degree of knowledge through making comparisons between items from a foreign land and his own territory. Alternatively, for the elite, power meant wealth, therefore the possession of a decorative cabinet that contained expensive artwork and natural rarities would convey the extent of the owner’s wealth to his fellow equals, and thus automatically rivals. Even the collecting of antiquity can be seen under the context of displaying power, as these artefacts, such as roman masonry, provide a narrative of Rome evoking pride in the city’s history which was used to shape the contemporary view of the city. Therefore, the collecting and display of naturalia and artwork in cabinets of curiosities ultimately functioned a physical and visual manifestation of power, although this takes on alternative forms and suits differing agendas depending on the individual’s context.




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Figure1: Imperato, Ferrante. “Dell’historia naturale” (Naples:1599)

Figure 2: Remps, Domenico. “Cabinet of Curiosities“, (Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence: 1690’s).

Figure 3: Haecht, Willem van. “The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest” (1628).

Online Resources:

Inventory of Moveable Marital Property, Made on the Occasion of the Death of Isabel da Vega, Wife of Emmanuel Ximenez, Antwerp, (June 13-28, 1617) (Antwerp, Stadsarchief (FelixArchief), N 1489 (1615-1617), fols. 1-31, available at: http://ximenez.unibe.ch/inventory/reading/ [accessed: 19/03/18].

[1] Paula Findlen, ‘The Museum: Its Classical Etymology and Renaissance Genealogy’, Journal of the History of Collections, Vol.1 (1989), p.69.

[2] Eva Schulz, ‘Notes on the History of Collecting and of Museums’ in Interpreting Objects and Collections, ed. by Susan M. Pearce (London: Routledge, 1994), p.178.

[3] Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen, ‘Introduction’ in Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen (London; New York: Routledge, 2002), p.9.

[4] Susan M. Pearce, On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition, (London; New York: Routledge 1994), pp.114-116.

[5] Paula Findlen, ‘Inventing Nature’ in Merchants and Marvels, p.299.

[6]Pearce, On Collecting, p.109.

[7] Susan M. Pearce, ‘The Urge to Collect’, in Interpreting Objects and Collections, p157.

[8] Jessica Keating and Lia Markey, ‘Indian’ Objects in Medici and Austrian-Habsburg Inventories: A Case Study of the 16th-Century Term’, Journal of the History of Collections, Vol.23(2) (November 2011), p.285.

[9] William Stenhouse, ‘Visitors, Display, and Reception in the Antiquity Collections of Late-Renaissance Rome’, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol.58(2) (June 2005), p.409.

[10] Smith and Findlen, p.10.

[11] Alexander Marr, ‘Picturing Collections in Early Modern Europe’, Intellectual History Review, Vol.20(1) (01 March 2010), p.2; Smith, Findlen, ‘Introduction’, p.13.

[12] Maria Zytaruk, ‘Cabinets of Curiosities and the Organisation of Knowledge’, University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol.80(1) (2011), p.2.

[13] Schulz, p.180.

[14] Allen G. Debus, Man and Nature in the Renaissance, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), p.37.

[15]Claudia Swan, ‘From Blowfish to Flower Still Life Painting’ in Merchants and Marvels, p.111.

[16] Swan, p.110.

[17] Smith and Findlen, p.3.

[18] Debus, p.35.

[19] Debus, p.47.

[20] Smith and Findlen, p.14.

[21] Zytaruk, p.1.

[22] Marr, p.1.

[23] Debus, p.52.

[24] Ferrante Imperato, “Dell’historia naturale” (Naples: 1599).

[25] Keating and Markey, p.283.

[26] Findlen, ‘Inventing Nature’, p.297.

[27] Deanna MacDonald, ‘Collecting a New World: The Ethnographic Collections of Margaret of Austria’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol.33(3) (Autumn 2002), p.649.

[28] Ken Arnold, Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums, (Aldershot: Ashgate,2006), p.109.

[29] Arnold, p.111.

[30] Arnold, p.111.

[31] Keating and Markey, p.285.

[32] MacDonald, p.649.

[33] Keating and Markey, p.284.

[34] Keating and Markey, p.285.

[35] Alessandra Russo, ‘Cortésʼs Objects and the Idea of New Spain’, Journal of the History of Collections, Vol. 23(2) (2011), p.230.

[36] Smith and Findlen, p.2, p.7.

[37] Marr, p.4

[38] Dániel Margócsy, ‘The Fuzzy Metrics of Money: The Finances of Travel and the Reception of Curiosities in Early Modern Europe’, Annals of Science, Vol.70(3) (01 July 2013), p.390

[39] Margócsy, p.110.

[40] Pearce, On Collecting, p.117.

[41] Stenhouse, ‘Visitors, Display, and Reception’, p.399

[42] Angela M. Salas, ‘Talking Dirty to the Gods and the Infinitude of Language’, Callaloo, Vol.28(3) (2005), p.802.

[43] William Stenhouse, ‘Roman Antiquities and the Emergence of Renaissance Civil Collections’, Journal of The History of Collections, Vol. 26(2) (2014), p.134.

[44] Stenhouse, ‘Roman Antiquities’, p.132.

[45] Salas, p.802.

[46] Shulz, p.175.

[47] Salas, p.803.

[48] Marr, p.3.

[49] Pearce, On Collecting, p.111

[50] Arnold, p.69.

[51] Stenhouse, ‘Roman Antiquities’, p.136.

[52] Stenhouse, ‘Roman Antiquities’, p.131; Marr, p.4; Pearce, On Collecting, p.110.

[53] Salas, p.803.

[54] Findlen, ‘The Museum’, p.61.

[55] Stenhouse, ‘Visitors, Display, and Reception’, p.425.

[56] Inventory of Moveable Marital Property, Made on the Occasion of the Death of Isabel da Vega, Wife of Emmanuel Ximenez, Antwerp, (June 13-28, 1617) (Antwerp, Stadsarchief (FelixArchief), N 1489 (1615-1617), fol 1v, available at: http://ximenez.unibe.ch/inventory/reading/ [accessed: 19/03/18].

[57] Domenico Remps, “Cabinet of Curiosities“, (Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence: 1690’s).

[58] Paula Findlen, Possessing the Past: The Material World of the Italian Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p.85.

[59] Findlen, ‘The Museum’, p.67.

[60] Margócsy, p.402.

[61] Findlen, ‘Inventing Nature’, pp.301-2.

[62] Salas, p.801.

[63] Pearce, On Collecting, p.302.

[64] Margócsy, pp. 388-9.

[65] Smith and Findlen, p.5.

[66] William Stenhouse, ‘Visitors, Display, and Reception’, p.403.

[67] Marika Keblusek, “Merchants’ Homes and Collections as Cultural Entrepôts: The Case of Joachim de Wicquefort and Diego Duarte”, English Studies, Vol.92(5) (01 August 2011), p.501.

[68] Willem van Haecht, “The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest” (1628).

[69] MacDonald, p.663.

[70] Stenhouse, ‘Visitors, Display, and Reception’, p.424.

[71] Stenhouse, ‘Visitors, Display, and Reception’, p.424.

[72] Findlen, ‘Inventing Nature’, p.299.

[73] Findlen, ‘Inventing Nature’, p.300.

[74] Findlen, ‘Inventing Nature’, p.300.

[75] Arnold, p.114.

[76] Paul Slack, “The Politics of Consumption and England’s Happiness in the Later Seventeenth Century”, The English Historical Review, Vol. CXXII(497) (2007), p.611.

[77] Slack, p.629.

[78] Arnold, p.114.

[79] William Stenhouse, ‘Roman Antiquities’, p.136.

[80] Smith and Findlen, p.4.

[81] Keblusek, ‘Merchants’ Homes’, pp.496-8.

[82] Keblusek, ‘Merchants’ Homes’, p.498, p.502.

[83] MacDonald, p.651.

[84] MacDonald, pp.654-5.

[85] MacDonald, pp.655-6; Keating and Markey, p.285.

[86] Russo, p.232.

[87] Mac Donald, p.663.

[88] Russo, pp.231-233.

[89] Russo, p.242.

[90] Keating and Markey, p.286.

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