Cabinets of Wonder
By the early 17th century, explorers had been travelling around for a couple of hundred years, sending back specimens and descriptions of absurd new discoveries – some genuine, some invented, all fabulous. And this stuffed wombat, or living dodo, or conch shell, or Inuit kayak (or whatever) would end up in the collection of some wealthy Dutch merchant. Or a fashionably forward-thinking French Aristocrat. Or an Emperor, of the Holy Roman variety.
And this specimen would represent far more than just an individual curiosity. It would represent a new world, a new order of things, a new register for understanding our place in the universe. And one for which you had utterly no context (Aristotle said nothing about Marsupials, nor did the Bible).
Pages from one of Rudolph II's many Tierbucher.
And so: the development of wunderkammern. Cabinets of wonder. You would enter, gaze about you at the assortment of oddities, perhaps pick a few up, turn them over in your hands, caress the fur or feather of some stuffed specimen, and…wonder. Probably say something like “Fascinating,” or just “huh.” And then walk away more bewildered than enlightened.
The discovery of these new worlds must’ve had a tremendously exciting, tremendously destabilizing effect. Imagine: there is life on Mars! Sentient, different, evolving wholly independently of us and all our Universalities.
Covered Bezoar Cup. Jan Vermeyen, 1600. [A bezoar is a solid mass found in the intestinal tract of certain animals, primarily ungulates. It was reputed to have magical and medicinal properties, and was hence extremely valuable. Prost!]
The chaotic, uncatalogued bounty of wunderkammern laid the groundwork for people like Carl Linnaeus to try and make sense of it all, inspiring the audaciously-titled System Natura and initiating all those grand 18th century efforts to classify and systematize our understanding of the world. (The Encyclopedia for example! An infinitely expandable book containing…everything. And all summarized, alphabetized and organized!)
Rudolph’s wunderkammern was unique – not only in it’s breadth and scope (and immense funding stream). It had a bit of a theme to it, whether deliberate or not. The goal of 17th century intellectual life was to find the hidden unity between oppositions: between the earthly and divine, between man and nature.
And thus the key to Rudolph’s wunderkammern was a fascination with products that show the unity of man and the cosmos, objects that blend nature and artifice. Mosaic landscapes made from precious stones; Automata; a chalice made from an ostrich’s egg; an emperor made from the abundance of Spring.