Worlds of Wonder

It is true enough to say that at some point in the middle ages, taxidermy came about to preserve wonders of the natural world. Among the more common items to be found in cabinets of curiosity, as collections of wonders were known – were crocodiles, dried chameleons, insects in amber, pelicans, salamanders, flying fish, unusual reptiles or amphibious sea creatures, armadillos, and albino animals and any creature with an abnormal number of legs, heads, or tails. To collect is not to mirror the world, but to remake it. Cabinets of curiosity didn’t create mundane, ordinary worlds, but worlds filled with fantastic creatures and infinite possibility. The collections exposed their creators’ their yearning for wonder: wonder at the diversity of nature, wonder at the shapes and colours of exotic creatures, and wonder aroused by the secret workings of the natural world, only ever half revealed.

image: etching of Francesco Calzolari's collection published in an inventory of his cabinet from 1622. The image's inscription: "Viewers, insert your eyes. Contemplate the wonders of Calzolari's museum and pleasurably serve your mind." 

For medieval and Renaissance Europeans, natural wonders included all strange phenomena – some real, some mythical. Although wonders frequently sprung up in Europe itself – for example abnormal births such conjoined twin or the hermaphroditic monster born in Italy in 1512 with wings instead of arms, a horn growing from its head - medieval chroniclers imagined nature had played more wontedly at the edges of the world. Before Columbus opened up the south seas for European explorers and marauders and initiated the flow of birds of paradise, hummingbirds, and opossums and, in time, wombats, kangaroos, and platypus, the wonders which cluttered up the antechambers of princes and cabinets of curious collectors had been mainly of Asian origin. The East was surrounded by an exotic romance, and medieval writers envisioned a topography of wonders along the fringe of known world in which races of men with heads in the chests and exotic creatures roamed among potent spices, drugs, and gems with magical properties. The claws and eggs of the mythical beasts known as Griffins (part lion, part eagle), unicorn horns, ivory tusks perhaps ornately carved into a beautiful drinking horn, shark’s teeth, lion skins, and serpents’ tongues.

Exotic curiosities functioned like portals to distant lands, offering enticingly fragmented visions of worlds filled with untold marvels. Medieval rhetoric of the marvellous, as Katherine Parks and Lorraine Datson remind us in Wonders was “first elaborated in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century literature of romance – in its rhapsodic descriptions of Eastern luxuries, its emphasis on quest and adventure, its exploitation of the unexpected, its taste for exotic settings, its reliance on magical natural objects, its constant invocation of wonder and wonders, described in terms of diversity, and its association of those wonders with wealth and power.” The fabulous tales of Marco Polo’s (1254-1324) took the romance of exotic travel writing to new heights. During his twenty-four years through Asia, he travelled the Silk Road, became the confidant of the Kublai Khan, and amazed his readers with tales of wonder. Describing the kingdom of Quilon, Marco Polo writes:

“The country produces a diversity of beasts different from those of the rest of the world. There are black lions with no other visible colour or marks. There are parrots of many kinds. Some are entirely white – as white as snow – with feet and beaks of scarlet. Other are scarlet and blue – there is no lovelier sight than these in the world. And there are some very tiny ones, which are also object of great beauty. Then there are peacocks of another sort than ours and much bigger and handsomer, and hen too that are unlike ours. What more need I say? Everything there is different from what it is with us and excels both in size and beauty. They have no fruit the same as our, no beast, no bird.”

Bigger, more beautiful, strange coloured and patterns, the marvels of the East streamed, it seemed, in an endless current of wonder.  Exotic curiosities were hung from the rafters in Christian churches to evoke awe in the faithful at the wondrous variety of God’s creations. In 1260 a crocodile was given to King Alfonso X by the Sultan of Egypt. When the animal died, its body was dried and hung in the Portal of the Lizard (named for the reptile) which leads from the cloister to the Cathedral of Seville. The crocodile eventually decayed, however, and was replaced by a wooden replica. The French royal abbey of Saint-Denis housed an unparalleled collection of natural wonders, accumulated over generations by the royal family. Along with relics of saints, finely crafted vessels and bejeweled broaches, the hundreds of objects in the collection included a griffin claw and a unicorn horn, which measured no less than six and a half feet long. The Bishop Guillaume Durant noted that “in some churches they are accustomed to hand two ostrich eggs and other things of this sort, things that prompt wonder and are rarely seen, so that by them the people are drawn into church and are more affect.” Strange and rare parts of God’s creation were sign left on earth to transport the faithful from the material world to a higher spiritual plane, from which to contemplate the divine.

Many collections of curiosities were housed in the private antechamber of aristocrats and urban patricians. In fact, a lmost every aristocratic court in the sixteenth century had a cabinet of curiosities, which rapidly became an essential status symbol of the time. Most cabinets contained marvels of human construction as well, blending automatons, clockworks, beautiful sculptures, and tapestries - in other words, anything that was rare or impossibly intricate or otherwise spectacular - with fabulous pieces of nature's creation. rudulph-ostrich
Ostrich Egg Goblet crafted by Clement Kicklinger
in 1561 for Emperor Rudolph in Prague.  See more
objects of the collection here.
Famous examples were the cabinets of the Dukes Albrecht V of Bavaria (1528 – 1579) in Munich and Fer­dinand II of Habsburg (1529 – 1595) in Innsbruck, as well as that of Ferdinand's nephew Emperor Rudolf II (1552 – 1612) in Prague Castle which contained a cassowary, over twenty birds of paradise, an embalmed hen with three legs, and the pelt of a white vulture from India. Within the economy of wonders during in late medieval and Renaissance period, the ultimate value of such exotic items rested in their ability to provoke the audience’s admiration and wonder, an awed appraisal which was then transferred to the owner’s connoisseurship and wealth. Eliciting amazement and awe from an audience was a means of endowing oneself with power and social prestige.

Private or individual collections of wonders were extremely rare before 1500 – almost all of cabinets of curiosity – as the came to be called – were religious or dynastic collections. One notable exception was that of Jean, Duc de Berry (1340-1416) which included dried fish, polar bear skins, and ostrich eggs among other objects. Perhaps it was due to the sheer number of exotic and wonderful things which were spilling out of European ports from all the corners of the globe, but by the mid-sixteenth century anyone who could afford curiosities established a collection. Among the more common items to be found in most cabinets of curiosity were crocodiles, dried chameleons, insects in amber, pelicans, salamanders, flying fish, unusual reptiles or amphibious sea creatures, armadillos, and albino animals and any creature with an abnormal number of legs, heads, or tails.

Apothecaries, as early pharmacists were known, were also among the first collectors of marvels. Among the curiosities in the collection of the Veronese apothecary Francesco Calzolari (c. 1521-1606) were a mummified deformed human head, a bat, a flying fish, and a spotted creature with a long tail and enormous claws. The museum of Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625), an apothecary in Naples, contained a male and female chameleon, a large crocodile, a salamander, an armadillo, what appears to be a small walrus, and a vast selection of frogs, serpents, and marine creatures.

Keen naturalists, apothecaries were focused on accumulating the rarest and most potent pharmaceutics from the farthest reaches of the world, the materia medica of medical practice were known, and on discovering their virtues and properties. While the ultimate purpose driving apothecaries’ collecting habits was to extend medical knowledge and expertise, their cabinets were in no way limited in breadth or scope. Nothing in nature was without some medicinal virtue, no plant, minerals, byproduct of humans, fish, birds, or four-footed beast didn’t have at least some use in curing some ailment, itch, or fever.

Many collections were established by universities and centers of learning. At the entrance of the Leiden anatomical hall were displayed an elephant’s head, the skin and horn of a rhinoceros, a pair of breeches from Lapland, a dog’s skeleton, a heron, a pair of stilts from Finland, the snout of an unknown fish, and the bristly skin of a Brazilian beast. Another notable early collection was established by the English father and son gardeners – both named John Tredescant – which a contained a flying squirrel, the skin, teeth, and testicles of a beaver, a pelican, a dodo, a wild cat from Virginia, and a egg that was suspected to be from a dragon. The collection was affectionately known as “the Ark” and was to become the core of the natural history museum at Oxford University.