Unicorns' horns, mermaids' skeletons, beautiful minerals, monstrous births, insects in amber, wax effigies, mysterious fossils, corals in fantastic shapes, death-masks, ivory carvings, automata that imitated living things, jewellery, work in precious metals, clocks, musical instruments, lenses, scientific instruments, terrestrial and celestial globes - all knowledge, the cosmos arranged on shelves, in cupboards, or hanging from the ceiling. Such were the cabinets of curiosities of the 17th century. This volume traces the history of these "rooms of wonders" from their first appearance in the inventories and engravings commissioned by Renaissance nobles such as the Medici or the Hapsburgs, via those of the Dane Ole Wurm and the Italian polymath Athanasius Kircher, to the serious 17th- and 18th-century scientists Elias Ashmole and Levinas Vincent. Patrick Mauries reconstructs these rooms as they were in their heyday and illustrates many of the most exotic items they contained, as well as the few complete interiors that survive. He begins with the totality of the collection, the cosmos in miniature, the whole sum of human knowledge gathered together in one room. He then looks at the cabinets that contained and categorized the objects. Next he opens them to reveal the extraordinary melange of curiosities, specimens and works of art. He also looks at the personalities of the collectors themselves, from great princes to humble scholars, and finally at the modern revival of the cabinet of curiosities among both artists and public, a strong current in contemporary culture. Looking back in time to the remarkable collections formed by the early museum creators, Patrick Mauries's illustrated study explains how the modern museum came to be.
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Patrick Mauriès is a Paris-based contributing editor to the Italian design magazine FMR and former literary editor of Liberation.
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