During the Renaissance the imaginative interests of the collector were often arranged in an armadio di curiosita’, a cabinet of curiosity. Bits and pieces in as diverse fields as natural history, geology, religious or historical relics and works of art were categorized according to the whimsy of the collector. Depending on your station in life cabinets of curiosities could be quite elaborate. Wealthy merchants, scholars and princes sought out rarities that were kept in highly decorative cases or in palatial rooms with vaulted ceilings painted with priceless works of art.
Ferrante Imperato, a 16th century Italian farmacista from Naples, illustrated his own cabinet of curiosities in his book Dell’Historia Naturale published in 1599. An engraving in the book showing a roomful of collections of preserved fishes, shells, minerals, gem stones, specimen boxes and covered jars included a stuffed crocodile suspended from the ceiling. The Renaissance fascination with new ideas created “cabinets of wonder” that still engage collectors and inspire designers today.
This led me to look into other Italian/Italian inspired curiosity cabinets. Using Discovery Channel’s new show ODDITIES as a learning lab I set out to see what I could find. Although far from the contents of Nonna’s old curio cabinet here are a few you might find interesting.
A large collection of fossils, prehistoric tools and mineral formations overseen by Michele Mercati (1541-93) Director of the Vatican Botanical Gardens for Pope Sixtus V.
A collection of anatomical waxes and art developed in Florence in the 17th century for the purpose of teaching medicine housed in the Museum of Zoology and Natural History, known as La Specola, in Florence. Located next to the Pitti Palace, it is the oldest science museum in Europe with 34 rooms and contains a stuffed hippopotamus , a 17th-century Medici pet, which once lived in the Boboli Gardens.
An Italian inspired curiosity box from 1948 by Joseph Cornell.
My cabinet of curiosities is sure to include the food, wine, art and design of Italy, things from nature and science, Native American artifacts and religious relics, vintage collectables and a few more oddities from my days teaching biology. What’s in your curiosity cabinet?