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Believe It or Not


In the summer and early fall of 1593, the Dutch scholar Joseph Scaliger made a triumphal progress north toward Leiden, the Dutch city where he would spend the years until he died in 1605. Leiden University was the Duke of its day: a hard-driving, ambitious institution, wealthy, aggressive, and dedicated to taking its place on the cutting edge of science and scholarship. Scaliger, for his part, was a great academic celebrity who made a splendid catch for the university’s dedicated, ambitious curators. The most erudite scholar in Europe’s great age of erudition, he had recreated the calendars and histories of ancient nations from Mesopotamia to Mexico, using both texts and astronomical evidence with dazzling virtuosity. A brilliant researcher, Scaliger detested both the pomposity of teachers and the drudgery their calling required. He accepted the professorship in Leiden only on condition that he would not have to teach. Amazingly, he received this unheard-of privilege, along with a huge salary and many other privileges: clear evidence of the esteem he enjoyed, his employer’s readiness to innovate, and the value of chutzpah in the academic life.

As Scaliger made his way from one northern Dutch city to another, meeting and greeting the local notables, he had one remarkable experience, which stayed with him for the rest of his life. In Enkhuisen, he visited the collection or “cabinet” of curiosities that belonged to the well-known doctor and traveler Bernardus Paludanus. Twelve years later, he vividly described what took place in Paludanus’ house to the young French students who lodged with him:

Paludanus in Enkhuisen has a complete mummy, the body of an Egyptian, that was buried more than 3000 years ago. Now that is a real antique. Someone persuaded Gourgues [Scaliger’s traveling companion] that it belonged to one of the kings of Egypt. He adored the mummy, and wrote about it to his father as if he had seen the relics of the body of a saint. Paludanus—who is half a Catholic—saw this, and showed Gourgues that it was false.1

Paludanus possessed one of the richest collections of natural specimens and human antiquities in Northern Europe. A visitor of gentle birth and learning like Scaliger, who turned up equipped with a proper letter of recommendation, could depend on being admitted and shown objects so old or strange that they had—as Scaliger remarked—something like the luster that had once clung to Catholic saints’ relics. Paludanus’ museum made an ideal scene for lively, learned conversation, with all its normal twists and turns—from serious discussion of ancient objects like the mummy to the teasing of the gullible young, like Scaliger’s friend.

Though fascinating, Scaliger’s adventure was not unusual. A network of museums like Paludanus’ grew up across Europe in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From Oxford to Vienna, from Naples to Nuremberg, kings and merchants, doctors and professors set spaces aside for collections of the wonderful works of nature and art. The rooms they devoted to their acquisitions often followed the existing pattern of the scholar’s study, as given ideal form in Dürer’s engraving of Saint Jerome: a harmonious little realm, with beamed ceiling and leaded windows, where the owner of the house and his guests could withdraw for quiet work or intimate conversation. But their contents could not have been in sharper contrast with the neat bookstand and shelves under which Jerome’s lion sleepily crouched.

Museums pullulated with things. Seashells and narwhal horns, busts of ancient heroes and shrunken heads, mounted blowfish and stuffed crocodiles, gems and medals, real animals and replicas jostled on their crowded walls and ceilings. Books and albums of hallucinatorily vivid drawings offered images of the strange plants and beasts that the collector had not been able to find or preserve. The sheer quantities of objects on display could stupefy a visitor. The Bolognese naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, describing his museum in 1595, wrote with pardonable pride of his “18,000 different things,” which included 7000 dried plants, 3000 of them painted as if alive, and 7000 “things from beneath the earth,” along with fruits, gums, and “other very beautiful things from the Indies,” arranged in 4500 pigeonholes.

Individual exhibits were sometimes breathtakingly weird. The bones of giants, a knife “taken from a drunken Dutchman’s guts,” a relief sculpture carved into a walnut, and the skeletons of flies and spiders—these and other curiosities beyond number might await the learned aristocrat who entered a northern or southern museum, guidebook in hand. Even the most blasé traveler might find himself murmuring—like General Gallieni inspecting the taxis that would take his men to the Marne—“At last, something out of the ordinary.” Even museum staffers were sometimes chosen to enhance the wonder inspired by the exhibits through which they guided visitors. In one well-known Italian case, the Bolognese museum of Fernando Cospi, a dwarf stood ready, pointer in hand, to show off ancient carvings and mounted bivalves to the curious.

Visits to museums of this kind formed a central feature of the Grand Tours by which the learned young of the day gained intellectual cultivation and social experience, while their elders gossiped and practiced lifemanship. The conversations staged in them were elaborate rituals of civility, highly formal games which afforded hosts and visitors the opportunity to show their skills at making clever social moves. One had to express the appropriate emotion in the appropriate way—as Scaliger did in the wry verses he inscribed in Paludanus’ album:

The other animals know not truth or right,
Man knows them both, and they fill him with spite.

He thus evoked the harmony and beauty of the natural world he encountered in miniature at Paludanus’ house in Enkhuisen, contrasting the little paradise of the museum, with its neat specimens exhibiting nature’s order, to the larger horror of a human world torn by religious war. No rooms in the buried cities of early modern Europe glow more alluringly in the mind’s eye of the historian than these lurid, wonder-filled spaces, pulsing with visual and intellectual energy, like Cornell boxes somehow enlarged to full human scale.

Since summer, an imaginative installation in the National Gallery at Washington has brought this lost world of learning back to brilliant life. In three small rooms, cunningly arranged paintings and objects confront the visitor with aesthetic and intellectual experiences ingeniously calculated to evoke what it was like to enter, appreciate, and converse in an early modern museum. At the heart of the exhibit, in the middle room, two spectacular visions of the early modern museum in the Low Countries face one another, creating a pictorial dialogue of great intricacy and interest. Jan Brueghel the Elder and Adriaen Stalbemt’s painting The Archduke Albert and the Archduchess Isabella in a Collector’s Cabinet offers a warm-toned, imaginary view of a great urban collection, chiefly but not exclusively composed of paintings. Archduke, archduchess, and host dominate the center of a busy scene.

The back wall of the room is hung with paintings, barely separate from one another: the toasty reddish brown of the wall is hardly visible around them. A row of medals, musical instruments, a splendid console, and the sculpture collection it holds complicate the picture further. When one tries to study the background, the eye moves restlessly, from miniature church interior to flute, from floral still life to mythological tableau. The foreground, however, calms the excited viewer, Couples deep in conversation, inspecting a picture, examining a globe or contemplating a single flower, give a sense of ease and peace. Concentration and conversation on a single object—rather than a painful effort to comprehend the whole—evidently formed one central purpose of a room like this.

On the facing wall, Jan Brueghel the Younger’s Venus and Cupid in a Collector’s Cabinet illustrates what seems to have been his family’s long-term obsession with images of collections. But it does so in a radically different key from that of the painting it faces. Cool rather than warm in coloring, it emphasizes three-dimensional objects more than flat images. In this imaginary room, statues and busts, spheres and vessels fashioned from great shells, books, and scientific instruments spill outward toward the viewer. The only visitors are Venus and Cupid—classical statues turned to warm pink flesh—and playing monkeys, perhaps a warning about the evils curiosity could cause. Images of things, rather than images of images, demand the viewer’s scrutiny, provoke him to reflect on the relation between representation and reality, and excite his greed and envy. The two images speak to each other and the viewer, suggesting something of the range of forms museums took and the different ways one could approach them.

Neither picture represents a single real collection. But both of them dramatize—as Scaliger did—the distance from the ideal material world of the museum to the real material world outside it.2 Brueghel the Elder and Stalbemt never let the onlooker forget that museums and their visitors formed islands of civility in a world at war. Beyond the open door of their museum, soldiers converse, holding their pikes. Inside it, at the center, a terrifying little painting within the painting, propped against a chair, makes the threat of destruction even clearer. It shows four figures with the heads of animals and the bodies of men, busily destroying paintings, a musical instrument, and furniture—half-men trashing the implements of art and contemplation, as Protestant radicals had literally destroyed vast quantities of ecclesiastical art in the 1560s.

Brueghel the Younger opens out a large window on one side of his imaginary gallery to reveal a wide prospect of the Scheldt. The river, crossed and recrossed by ships, brought Antwerp both the general prosperity that sustained its rich collectors and the particular material objects they coveted. The painters of these views did not aspire to literal realism; but they were grim realists nonetheless, articulately aware that collecting is never simple or innocent.

The rest of the exhibit plays, delightfully and effectively, with these two images—the museum and the world beyond it. The first and third rooms, their walls covered with paintings hung with the National Gallery’s usual meticulous attention to shape, size, and color, bring the visitor into real painting galleries like those of three and four centuries ago. Crowded, unlabeled images, as diverse in subject matter and style as those in Brueghel and Stalbemt’s painting, challenge and provoke the onlooker. Venerable Egyptian antiquities set in Italian landscapes jostle tall-hatted contemporary Dutchmen playing golf on a frozen river. Shellfish and flowers, caterpillars and butterflies glow on the walls as they would have in a naturalist’s cabinet. Vermeer, Sanraedam, and De Hooch offer sunlit images of the clean, domestic Dutch world. These are flanked by very different images, from lively scenes of Greek myth to stately, Baroque portraits of grandees.

Confused, overstimulated, fascinated, the visitor comes to appreciate the excitement of a way of encountering art that does not assume it should be divided into historical and aesthetic schools and labeled before it can be understood. The revived Kunstkammer makes a stimulatingly unfamiliar place to look at both new and familiar images. Instead of authorship or style, what matters—so it seems—is often wit: the intensely concentrated, microscopic wit with which Bosschaert the Elder, for example, could make a painting of flowers in a vase into a spectacular museum within the museum, a virtuoso display of blooms and leaves of every imaginable color and texture, pearled with drops of dew and visited by insects, their wings more glorious than the flowers themselves; the wit with which the varied images comment on one another.

  1. 1

    Scaligerana (1695), p. 295. On this episode see Henk de Jonge, “Josephus Scaliger in Leiden,” Jaarbockie voor geschiedenis en oudheidkunde van Leiden en omstreken 71 (1979), pp. 71-74, and on the larger context, see Jay Tribby, “Body/Building: Living the Museum Life in Early Modern Europe,” Rhetorica 10 (1992), pp. 139-163.

  2. 2

    On the Flemish tradition of paintings of galleries, see Zirka Zaremba Filipczak, Picturing Art in Antwerp (Princeton University Press, 1987). On collections in the Low Countries, see two collections of papers: De wereld binnen handbereik: Nederlandse kunst- en rariteitenverzamelingen, 1585-1735, edited by Ellinoor Bergvelt et al. (Amsterdams Historisch Museum, 1992), and Verzamelen: van rariteitenkabinet tot kunstmuseum, edited by Ellinoor Bergvelt et al. (Open Universiteit, Heerlen: Gaade Uitgevers, 1993), which ranges outside the Netherlands as well.

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