|Guests attend LANDMARK WEST!’s “A Wunderkammer Evening” at a private residence in the West 67th Street Artist’s Colony Historic District on December 4, 2012.|
During the European Renaissance, objects reflecting the genius of man as well as the caprice of nature were assembled into collections; they could be remains of huge, monstrous beasts or the sculpted virtuosity of an artistic master. These marvels and oddities were secured in what were referred to as a Wunderkammer, or “cabinet of wonder” or curiosity.
On December 4, 2012, LANDMARK WEST! had the rare opportunity to venture into a private collection of art featuring a period Renaissance artist studio filled with bronze sculptures, antique musical instruments, zoological and anatomical curiosities, or in more or less words, Wunderkammers. LW! shared cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and merriment with our most devoted of friends.
Top left: A crocodile image from an early Wunderkammer. Collection of the George Peabody Library of the Sheridan Library Special Collections, Johns Hopkins University.
Bottom left: Domenico Remps, A Cabinet of Curiosity (1690s), Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure.
Right: Guests attend LANDMARK WEST!’s “A Wunderkammer Evening.”
“Many exhibitions convey the propulsive force of human curiosity, but few manage to do so as engrossingly and with as much immediacy as “Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899,” a lavish repast of illustrated rare books and ephemera at the Grolier Club. The appetite for knowledge about foreign lands, unfamiliar animals and all the workings of the world — both natural and man-made — permeates this show, which delves into the origins of the modern museum.
Its story starts in 16th-century Europe, where intensely curious apothecaries, scholars and the odd nobleman or king began to amass hodgepodge collections of strange and beautiful objects that piqued their interest, inspired awe and demanded further study. These included shells and corals; animal horns and skeletons; natural specimens dried, stuffed or bottled; prints and paintings; antique sculptures and medals; ancient tools; new scientific instruments; and exotic plants and weaponry (and other accouterments) brought back from foreign climes by explorers and tradesmen. All these finds came to be displayed, along with much else, in crowded, claustrophobic rooms lined with shelves and drawers that were known as Wunderkammers, or cabinets of curiosities, and that eventually exerted an immense influence on Western culture and thought.
The show opens with the first illustration of a Wunderkammer, the woodcut frontispiece in a book about natural history that Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625), an Italian apothecary, published in Naples in 1599, illustrating it with birds, sea creatures, fossils and minerals from his own collection. The Imperato Wunderkammer included a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling — an item that became a fashionable feature of the cabinets, as did the black-and-white checkered floors visible in subsequent frontispiece images.” (Imperato’s own Wunderkammer seems to have lacked such a floor, but one was added to a nearly identical image for the book’s second edition in 1672.)
“Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899” runs through Feb. 2 at the Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, Manhattan; (212) 838-6690, grolierclub.org.