Beginning in the late fifteenth century, cabinets of curiosities—fiercely cherished, obsessively pursued private collections of natural rarities and man-made marvels—were created in the homes (or castles, as was often the case) of the upper echelons of European society. Ostrich eggs, Etruscan cutlery, mummified monkey paws, embalmed birds of paradise, giants’ footsteps, tiny teapots made from coral, oil paintings of paraplegic dwarves— these items would later form the basis for Europe's first museums.
With detailed illustration and eloquent narration throughout, Patrick Mauries’ compendium Cabinets of Curiosities (Thames & Hudson, 2002) presents an absorbing look at the history, meaning and personalities of Europe’s first curatorial movement, from its beginnings through to Joseph Cornell, the surrealist André Breton and contemporary art’s concern with “space, context and framing.” The most titillating stories in the book relate the eccentric passions of the wealthiest collectors. Near the castle of Ferdinand II lived a family with a rather socially challenging disease: each member was covered head to toe with hair. Ferdinand was delighted to have their portraits painted for his cabinet. The dwarf painting mentioned above belonged to Rudolf II of Bohemia, who was fascinated by the “little people.” Perhaps he developed the penchant while visiting the cabinet of Manfredo Settala in Italy, where dwarves were employed as tour guides. Settala’s cabinet followed its creator even to the grave—mourners in the funeral procession carried his most curious and beloved objects. This book is like a cabinet in miniature, full of whimsical enjoyment and serious contemplation.
At its most basic level, Mauries argues, the cabinet is an attempt to make the universe containable and comprehensible. By assembling “liminal objects on the margins of charted territory, from worlds unknown, defying classification,” the collector became master of a miniature world that defied time and space. He then imposed on that world his own system of meaning. In turbulent times, the collector could withdraw into his cabinet and find psychological relief in “the immutable order of his objects.”
A fascination with the no man’s land between life and death made taxidermy and similar preservative strategies highly popular: petrified bark, frog embryos in formaldehyde, long-dead jungle cats frozen in perpetual roar. Other items exhibited a fusion of artificialia and naturalia that we would call kitsch: lifelike human heads made entirely from seashells (a favoured material among the Medici), crucifixions carved out of coral, antelope busts sculpted from rocks. Mauries, always on hand with a psychological assessment, remarks that collectors were “never far from necromancy.” The collector was typically a “childlike old man,” or senex puerelis, elderly and erudite, attracted to the idea of rescuing rarities from the happenstance of time and turning them into objects of marvel.
First-hand observation supports Mauries’ take on the curatorial psyche. Architect Robert Le Gresley, a Montreal collector and artist, recently took me on a tour of his Outremont home. Every inch of tabletop and wall was covered with the sculptures, displays and three-dimensional collages he makes from objects he has collected: George Brassard EPs, Barbie doll heads, dinosaur fossils, bank notes from the French Revolution. Le Gresley—bushy white beard, a face more radiant than Santa’s—has 750 antique clothing irons, ranging from about five centimetres to life-size. His home is a giant cabinet, so overloaded that even a crammed spare room is not enough to keep his collection from leaking into his eleven-year-old son’s bedroom. “He likes this stuff,” Le Gresley assures me, gesturing to a box full of multicoloured magnetic letters, though “about this one … he’s not so sure,” he adds, pointing to a wheel of fortune adorned with a dozen miniature bleeding Jesus figurines.
As a modest postscript to Mauries’ spectacular tome, here are a few tips for the budding cabineteer in you. The simplest way to exhibit your rarities is in an old cigar box or jewellery case. Be inventive. (Le Gresley glued items to a cupcake tray and mounted it on the wall. Voila, le shelf.) Garage sales, church bazaars, waste bins in industrial areas, your local nature preserve (for natural specimens like rocks, foliage, bones, etc.) and, of course, flea markets—in Montreal, La Chute (Tuesdays) and Ville Saint Michel (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays)— provide ample ground for treasure hunting. And who knows? You may unearth a sixteenth-century elephant tusk or alligator-skin serving tray.