Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe

July 1–September 21, 2008

The Chamber of Curiosities and the Kunstschrank

Suetonius (d. A.D. 122) recalled that Emperor Augustus "had his villa embellished, not only with statues and pictures but also with objects which were curious by reason of their age and rarity, like the huge remains of colossal beasts which had been discovered on the Island of Capri, called giants' bones or heroes' weapons."

Thus the taste for the utterly abnormal—for bizarre oddities such as the unusually large or the unusually small, and for extravagant shapes—was an ancient invention. The collecting of such curiosities was, however, cultivated to an extreme degree during the Renaissance. Highly appreciated were veined hardstones with naturally grotesque patterns further enhanced by a decoration reflecting the artistic virtuosity of the craftsmen. Whether the Renaissance and Mannerist objects incorporating these natural wonders (naturalia) were horrid or strikingly beautiful, they frequently were given multiple symbolic meanings. If naturalia were of exotic origins or procured with much effort and risk—possibly harvested or mined under highly dangerous circumstances from domestic or foreign soil—their material value was equal to that of the most lavish luxury items of precious metal.

In this way, the Kunst- und Wunderkammer (chamber of art and curiosities) as well as the Kunstschrank (collector's cabinet), with its "collection of collections," embodied a symbolic image of the elements, of dimensions of time and space, and mirrored the place of man in the universe through compiled microcosms that summarized the unreachable macrocosms. They represented the multifarious, chaotic, and ungraspable world in the form of an intelligible, steady, and easily memorized order within chambers or single pieces of furniture.