‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ delves into the history of collectors and their stunning, strange acquisitionsHistorians in the News
tags: books, historians, book reviews, collectors
Many of us keep a tchotchke of some kind on a mantelpiece or dresser in our houses — a stone from a vacation beach, a dime-store gift from a grandchild now in college, a folk sculpture picked up in Mexico, a thing that embodies a memory of a place or a time in our lives. In “Cabinets of Curiosities,” Patrick Mauriès tells the story of some truly awesome collectors.
Precursors of such collections were the relics amassed by medieval churches — a piece of the True Cross, a bone from a saint, a vial of the Virgin’s milk — items that were believed to have miraculous properties. “Something of the atmosphere of the supernatural that belonged to them passed to the cabinets of curiosities, so that alchemy, the occult and magic were never very far way,” Mauriès writes. Indeed, some of the earliest known collectors of curiosities were alchemists or apothecaries, very similar professions in those days. They never knew when a piece of a mummy or a chip of unicorn’s horn, pulled out of a dusty drawer, might prove useful in a concoction.
By the 16th century, the rage for collecting curiosities had spread to the ruling class, and part of the history of such collecting is the shift from private to public display. In Florence, Francesco de’ Medici kept his collection in a windowless room about the size of a modern living room, and items were stored in closed cupboards without any form of identification. Francesco knew what each thing was, and he could explain it to visitors.
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