Curios, Curious and Curiosity

“Out of Curiosity comes everything”.*

Adam and Eve, Painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder 1528

Curious? Well I am, and  I think we should start at the beginning, not in the garden of Eden, where curiosity first raised a woman’s hand, but in Renaisance Europe where the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ first appears. Here a new intellectual curiosity blazed a trail of desire to question the boundaries of accepted knowledge, to catalogue and arrange the known, to explore the bizarre and exotic  – and using these – both assert man’s place within this curious world and extend the boundaries of knowledge.

Holbein’s  The Ambassadors 1533,  places the sitters ‘cabinet of curiosity’ style : surrounded by a plethora of cutting edge scientific devices , with the popular curio ‘momenti mori’ skull anamorphically rendered, reminding the viewer that all this worldly splendour and knowledge –  shall  pass.  A ‘curio’ masterpiece.

The Cabinet is a architectural manifestation of an extraordinary era of curiosity/discovery:

The microscope reveals all is NOT as it seems

Man takes up his scalpel – revealing human anatomy and how we are physically closer to animals than the God-King-Man theses promoted by the Church

Artists discovered true perspective (and thus infinity -God’s domain)

The invention of the printing press enables a faster and wider transfer of knowledge and ideas.

The Reformation tears up the rule book of a God-fearing world

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and many others set forth too

The intellegentsia take a mighty intellectual leap-frog via the newly re-discovered texts and treasures of the ‘Classical world’.

Heady times.

1616  frontispiece – a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ with men in animated discussion inspired by the marvels on display

This desire to understand, learn and define man’s place  within earth and heaven – meant society’s heavy hitters: powerful rulers and intellectual leaders  were curious, and their response has left a ‘curio’ legacy  – that we enjoy each time we enter a museum, hang those ‘antlers’ on our wall or contemplate an Alexander McQueen ‘skull’ scarf (again).

Across Europe they variously created…

The Cabinet of Curiosties  –  see below.

Wunderkammen (wonder-room) – as above

Kunstkammer (art room)  – as it says.

Studioli – primarily a space for contemplation in marquetry woodwork designed to encapsulate  the owner’s cultural interests.

Detail from the studioli of the Duke of Urbino, 1476, Palazzo Ducale, Urbine

Grotto – Grottos were associated with the life-giving properties of water and the protective powers of classical nymphs, nature’s eccentricities and marvels were displayed in spaces decorated to emulate caves.  Inspired by the discovery of the the subterranean remains of Nero’s Golden House  , a grotta, where domed ceilings, mosaics, frescoes and classical statues were preserved.

Grotto created around 1500 for Villa Medici in Castello, Florence

Grotto, Temple of Leda’s Treasure, Chateau du Champ de Bataille, recently created with semi-preicous stones, detail below:

The Cabinet was in fact a room where a collection of ‘curious’ was spectacularly arranged  to ‘show off’ one’s wealth and knowledge, the collection was ‘limitless’: the arts, sciences, nature were all embraced. It provided a sanctuary for contemplation (if you were so inclined) with the muses ( the goddesses of knowledge and culture) – the origin of the term ‘museum’. It was a visual challenge – asserting your power and knowledge as the cabinet imposed a catalogued and arranged order on the natural world: a capacity unique to mankind, linking him to God.

 Fernando Cospi’s Cabinet of Curiosities in Bologna included a dwarf as both ‘curiosity’ and guide

A re-creation of Olaus Worm’s Cabinet at the LA Museum of Jurassic Technology which defines itself as a modern ‘wunderkammen’.  These images give us an overview of ‘the cabinet’.

So what was on display?

Well the star piece was the ‘crocodile’ which fascinated God-fearing Europeans, as it is not listed in the seried ranks of animals given board and lodging on the ark, they defined it as both animal and mineral.  He would be surrounded by specimens from the natural world, the more exotic the better: tropical fish, birds of paradise, ‘unicorn’ horns (narwhal tusks),  skeletons  and specimen jars, leading into corals and minerals.  

Viper Skeleton, Deyrolle Paris

Tropical birds and gossamer-winged butterflies in collections at  Strasbourg and France

Goliath beetles, Chateau du Champ de Bataille

Scientific equipment, clockwork devices, man-made objects, books:  celebrate man’s creationary force and scientific zeal, the cabinet presented man’s work as a continuation of God’s work and therefore ‘science’ as acceptable.

1690 ‘trompe l’oiel painting of a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ devised to amuse wealthy curio collectors, gives a great overview of their style and contents.

Note the ‘momenti mori’, reminders of death are very important in this era, from skulls to the pertinent hourglass.

18th C skull from the Lord Mayor’s tomb, Malplaquet House, London

Finally, I love this one,  the cabinet would frequently contain ‘fraudulent’ pieces: mythical creatures – to test the visitor’s knowledge and/or credulity.

Engraving from the 1573 publication ‘On Monsters and Marvels’ features an animal with a human face, typical of the mythical creatures celebrated in a Cabinet of Curiosities.   The Renaissance was fascinated by the bizarre and grotesque.

Leonardo da Vinci designed this ‘monstrous creature’.

On a more serious note published  catalogues of these Cabinets would often provide vital clues for scientific developments, there was so much unknown at that time, so much un-discovered, they were creating the building blocks for a scientific world. The cabinet was a ‘microcosm’ of the world usually with the owner’s heritage and family prominently displayed.

A family tree on vellum 1726 in a Paris ‘curio’ collection.

The Cabinet’s eccentricity lies in the fact they were highly flavoured by the creators personal interest, so while (1588-1654)  Olaus Worm’s catalogue show’s a fairly regular mix of natural history, science and mythical creatures.  Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria, specialized in paintings of interesting deformities,

‘The Wolfman’ born in 1556 painting chez Ferdinand.

The Trancesdants in Lambeth were botanists (who brought the Horse Chestnut tree to England) –  on their travels they added artificial curiosities, weapons, costumes and wonderful ‘mythical’ rarities – a mermaids hand, a dragon’s egg, feathers from a phoenix tail. The Cabinet  became known as ‘Tradescant’s Ark’ and opened to a wondrous public for a small entrance fee –  the first private museum?

Their neighbour Elias Ashmole  purchased this collection and added it to his collection focused on astrological, medical and historical manuscripts.  On his death they were donated to Oxford University, becoming in 1677 the first public museum in the UK.

So what about NOW? I could claim the internet is the ultimate ‘Cabinet of Curiousities’.  It is clear we all owe a debt to Olaus Wormius – the visual and intellectual stimuli of the Cabinet of Curiosities continues to be incredibly inspirational:  Look around – decorators, collectors, curators, artists, designers, magazine editors, retailers and us the home owners have all plundered the Cabinet of Curiosities.  My favourite examples are below:

Decorators and Collectors: Jacques Garcia has created a Cabinet of Curiosities in Chateau du Champ where ‘he has re-created the world according to his own rules’*.

The ‘Animal Gallery’ at the Chateau inspired by Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine’s creation for  Napoleon 1

   Stuffed birds displayed in front of a 19th C Chinese silk embroidered panels

Crocodiles roaming free over the ceiling

In London it seems fitting that the guardian of Sir John Soane’s ‘architectural cabinet of curiosities’ Tim Knox and his partner Todd  Londstaffe-Gowan have created a world apart in Malplaquet house inspired by Cabinets and a great love of collecting the extraordinary.

Cabinet devoted to Naturaliae topped by a skull

Casting of a moa egg, from a bird extinct since 1500 topped by  Peruvian reed boat – the first item Todd ‘collected’ as child.

Sample from the illustrated record of  the ever-growing collection

Retailers and Fashion: From the late Alexander Mcqueen to  ‘The Wonder Room’ at fashionable Selfridges, or retailers like Anthropologie and Rockett St George; ‘Curio’ inspired fashion and retailing raises it’s head.

Selfridges ‘Wonder Room’ 2009.

Anthropologie’s ‘stuffed’ Goose lays mythical golden eggs

Designer’s – the list is long, MOMA’s 2008 exhibition ‘Wunderkammer‘ is a good place to start, as is the Sur-Realist manifesto of 1924, which proclaimed: ‘The marvellous is always beautiful’. These designers challenge accepted norms and our visual certainties to make us think again about the world we inhabit.  The recent rise in taxidermy is attributed to a backlash against sterile good taste, it is also a curio-moment.  My favourite artist  is Polly Morgan.

‘Still Life After Death’ Rabbit

Does the Curiosity Cabinet have a role to play in today’s society past inspiration and imitation, YES.  The Gaurdian wrote ‘every school should have one’.

A Dr Matthew McFall has championed a new scheme creating 21st C ‘Wonder Rooms’, “stimulating curiosity through any number of apparently randomly assembled objects and organisms“.

McFall outside a ‘wonder-room’ installation

His most popular items – a pre-war typewriter, which amazes children with it’s satisfying clunks and ‘down-to-earth’ aspect. McFall explains, “To the digital native, analogue becomes wondrous” .

The other Favourite – an an African Voodoo Lilly which creates a stench of rotting meat – “Never under-estimate the yuk factor” –  our children sound disctintly Renaissance.

In fact I have rather a crush on Dr. Matthew McFall, so we shall end with his pearl of curio-wisdom:

“A room like this offers the opportunity to light upon things rather than be strictured into studying them. I want to use that same sense of wonder to empower children (me too please) rather than having them feel they are stupid because they don’t yet understand everything they encounter in life“.


*opening Curiosity quote from Steve Jobbs

Images of Cabinets, Grottos, Studioli from  ‘Cabinets of Wonder‘ by Christine Davenne.

Selfridges, Anthropologie and Polly Morgan from source.

Mc Fall form the BBC

8 thoughts on “Curios, Curious and Curiosity

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