STAFF BOOK REVIEW: OCTOBER 1964 BY DAVID HALBERSTAM
by Kevin O’Neill, IT Systems Manager In his 1954 book God’s Country […]
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This spectacular and ingenious book 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 and the Hapsburgs, via those of the Dane Ole Wurm and the Italian polymath Athanasius Kircher, to the cabinets of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientists Elias Ashmole and Levinas Vincent.
Much was genuinely scientific: minerals, fossils, stuffed and preserved animals and plants. Some items were merely curious, or even grotesque -- freaks of nature, monstrous births, insects in amber. The artificial or man-made was equally prominent -- wax effigies, death masks, specimens of almost incredible ingenuity (such as carvings on cherry-stones), or mechanical automata that imitated living things. The fascination of curiosities lies in their combination: they represent a stage of human inquiry in which imagination had not been divorced from reason.
Patrick Mauries reconstructs these rooms of wonders as they were in their heyday and illustrates many of the most exotic items they contained, as well as the fewcomplete interiors that survive. He begins with the totality of the collection, the "theater of the world, " the whole sum of human knowledge gathered together in one room. He then examines 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 looks at the personalities of the collectors themselves, from great princes to humble scholars, and finally at the modern revival of the cabinet of curiosity.
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