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.

Beside the two paintings in the central room, glass-fronted cases offer another, quite different vision of early modern collection—that of the Wunderkammer, the collection of objects and specimens. Statues and castings of shellfish, a limewood statue of a flayed Death and a coconut-shell cup carved with scenes from the life of Jacob, meticulously sketched and painted images of animal life from insect to lion, musical and scientific instruments, neat books of emblems with Latin captions, rough printed broadsides which interpreted the birth of deformed pigs and calves as signs of God’s intention to change the course of history, fold-out images of Italian museums, as crowded as the vitrines themselves—all flank one another, dazzlingly busy, as they would have in the museum of Aldrovandi in Bologna or that of Paludanus in Enkhuisen. One wonderful series of juxtapositions includes Dürer’s print of a rhinoceros along with a rhinoceros horn and a rhinoceros horn cup—art transforming nature in every direction. Elsewhere a single particularly witty object—a gilt ewer, made from an ostrich egg, in the shape of an ostrich with open beak—makes the same joke in another form. The eye skids, rebounds, slides from the wonderful curves of a seashell to the graceful lines of a medal, itself artfully spilling out, with others, from a lovely jewelbox.

Wunderkammer and Kunstkammer are related, often in charmingly witty ways. The cases hold sculptures, images of which appear in the two imaginary collections painted by the Brueghels. The landscapes and still lifes in the two rooms dedicated to painting capture the most minute details of the living creation as vividly as any naturalist’s racks of butterflies or moths. Seeing this, groups of visitors form involuntarily; glances are exchanged; polite conversations break out—just as they did in the lost rooms that A Collector’s Cabinet evokes. The visual wit that places a Van Dyck sketch for a portrait by a door through which the finished painting can be seen enlivens the entire show—and reveals how well the erudite curator, Arthur Wheelock, understands the sensibility of the Dutch collectors whose lost world he has called back to partial life.

What did Dutch visitors—and others—make of these richly decorated spaces and the objects they contained? Wheelock’s learned catalog essay suggests an answer. Collectors, he argues, were self-conscious and thoughtful: they had a formal name, liefhebbers, or art lovers, and even belonged to the painters’ guild. They built and visited rooms like these in search of a particular experience: that of totality. They hoped, that is, to encounter the universe, in all its richness and variety, artfully compressed into the microscopic form of a single room that showed all the elements, all the humors, all the musical intervals, all the planets, and all the varieties of plant and animal creation—like the ideal museum, a plan for which was drawn up by Samuel Quiccheberg.3 Sometimes they found totality in miniature, in the shape, itself a microcosm of the microcosm, of a single complex shell or gem refashioned into a vessel, adorned with the adventures of a biblical or classical hero, and mounted in a setting which referred to the structure of the cosmos as a whole. True, the liefhebbers knew that the curiosity which motivated them could lead them astray, as it had led sinful humans in the past. Images of monkeys playing with objets d’art and tableaux of Actaeon, turned into a stag and torn to death by dogs for the sin of seeing Diana naked, warned against the abuses into which the power of sight could lead the curious. For the most part, however, they turned to the museum in the hope of seeing the whole system of nature laid out more vividly, and more thrillingly, than in any textbook.

The Kunstkammer held ancient doctrines and the results of modern voyages of exploration, works of nature and of art, in a tenuous synthesis which would, by the end of the eighteenth century, give way to a dry and austere new world of hard science. The museum, becoming out of date as a locus of universal knowledge, reinvented itself as a record of the development of art or society or nature. The encyclopedia became a history; and the closed space of the connoisseur opened itself to a larger national public. But in the seventeenth century, as textbooks put Copernicus next to Ptolemy, explorers still looked for strange races in Africa and Asia, and artists still collaborated with scientists to represent the real world more precisely and fully, the museum still offered its intended public a stable, coherent experience.


Some primary texts describe collections as abridgements of the physical universe. Around 1600 the radical Calabrian Dominican Tommaso Campanella, for example, imagined the walls of a Utopian City of the Sun on which citizens would see specimens of every imaginable plant and animal, with their properties explained. The visual “signatures” that linked them to one another, and to the internal organs of the humans who consumed them, would be neatly docketed and classified. Thus the city itself would become a guide to all forms of legitimate knowledge of nature, one which educated its inhabitants in subject after subject as they passed through its concentric rings of walls.

But not all the objects and images in Kunst- und Wunderkammer neatly illustrated natural sympathies and coherent cosmologies. In fact, nothing fascinated collectors more than apparent exceptions to the regularities of nature. Strange animal and human fetuses, fossils, kidney stones, dwarves and giants (or at least their clothing)—these and other apparently unique objects also found their places in every rich collection. So did those forerunners of the supermarket press, the illustrated broadsides and pamphlets which recorded falls of meteors, rains of blood, and births of monsters for a public that at times—particularly in the seventeenth century—spanned all of Europe. Poor people tacked these images to the walls of their cottages. Well-to-do scholars bound them into their world chronicles or copied them into systematic notebooks. And pretty much everybody took them as the signs of upcoming transformations in world history, physical hieroglyphs in which God spoke his mind to man. What did this fascination with the unusual, the portentous, and the grandiose have to do with the same collectors’ effort to contemplate the universal in material form?

Seventeen years ago, two young historians of science, Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston, sketched an answer to this question. Monsters, they argued in a brilliant article, began the Renaissance as portents, objects of awe and horror. For decades erudite humanists and semiliterate bookpeddlers shivered at the same images of monstrous calves and the same tales of women who gave birth to pigs. But while popular forms of literature continued for centuries to highlight prodigious beings and the predictions they embodied, the learned and their media gradually began to shy away from them. By the early seventeenth century, the same aborted fetuses and Siamese twins had taken on a new and different significance: they provided evidence not of God’s plans for life, the universe, and everything, but for the operation—and occasional failure—of nature’s laws. To Bacon and the members of the Royal Society, monstrous violations of nature’s normal processes seemed interesting only because they promised knowledge of those processes. The disenchantment of the monster—which took place in the age of the Kunst- und Wunderkammer, though Park and Daston did not say much about that—formed one chapter in the longer story of the disenchantment of the world.4

Now songs of innocence have become songs of experience. Park and Daston have returned to the world of wonders, this time as internationally famous historians—and as the authors of a sumptuous and wide-ranging book, Wonders and the Order of Nature, the illustrations to which form a Kunst- und Wunderkammer all their own. They treat the Kunst- und Wunderkammer in detail: not as an effort to produce a stable, material encyclopedia of nature, but as one stage in the larger history of wonder, which they trace from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. And they argue that only a long-term treatment, attentive to local context, variation, and survivals, can do justice to the controlled experience of wonder that the early museum afforded.

Wonders of nature, Park and Daston point out, have existed since ancient times: for example, in the form of the monstrous peoples, dog-headed, one-footed, or faceless, that geographers from Hellenistic times onward located at the edges of the inhabited world, and that—depending on the context in which they appeared—could inspire horror, admiration, or a lust for conquest. Medieval travel accounts described the wonderful automata of Eastern courts and the diabolical tricks of Eastern magicians. But wonder had no clear place in philosophy. The philosopher in the medieval university sought to explain the causes of phenomena (and thereby to allay, not stimulate, wonder). Wonder indicated not a just appreciation of the rich and strange, but a failure to understand the reasons why things happened as they did.

In the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, however, practices and attitudes underwent a sweeping transformation. This was powered to some extent by material changes in the European economy. As trade routes reestablished themselves in the Later Middle Ages and courts began to consume luxury goods more and more intensively, collections of natural wonders and religious relics spilled out from the churches which had been their primary site for centuries. Royal and princely courts—like the very rich and sophisticated one of Burgundy—began to make public displays of spectacular objects into one of the ways they emphasized their power and wealth. Medical men began to seek out luxurious therapies, from spa waters to precious ointments and astrologically propitious gems, with which they could safeguard the always precarious health of suspicious rulers precariously balanced above crowds of jealous, knife-wielding courtiers. The new collections—and the new forms of research—demanded a new kind of visitor with a trained eye, one sensitive to the very qualities of shock and surprise which earlier philosophers had rejected as not fit for their analytical purposes. Gradually, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Marsilio Ficino, Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Girolamo Cardano, and others developed a new philosophy of nature—one in which the amazing powers of healing springs, stones that moved of their own volition, and ever-burning torches claimed as much attention, or more, as the normal laws that all natural objects obeyed.

The Kunst- und Wunderkammer, Park and Daston argue, played a central role in the further transformation of wonder. But they no longer believe in the relatively neat tale of progress that they told a generation ago. The museum, they argue, was a highly varied enterprise: “Given the very different social identities and budgets of early modern collectors, there can be no single answer to the riddle of the contents of the collections.” Museums had certain policies in common: for example, the intense competition among collectors, who desperately strove to outdo their rivals and astonish blasé visitors. But museums also offered many kinds of objects and experiences: older and newer, theological and empirical ways of responding to strange exhibits coexisted and competed.

In some contexts, natural monsters still inspired traditional emotions. A fetus that resembled the lobster its mother saw before it was born could still inspire a frisson of pleasure in 1680. Siamese twins, human or animal, could still terrify the credulous as a sign of the wrath to come. But a new sense of horror at departures from the norms of nature was also cultivated—naturally enough, in a court society whose members were intent on mastering and enforcing new standards of behavior in all spheres. The imaginative, playful side of nature—which had been much emphasized and admired in the sixteenth-century museum—was eventually discarded in favor of a belief that nature is sensible, rigorous, uniform. But this change itself took place over a long time, and it was carried out at very different paces in different parts of Europe. The museum, in other words, encompassed a whole range of approaches to the monsters that were among its standard contents; these changed only gradually, older and newer ones coexisting, and struggling against each other, for decades. Even Wheelock’s rich catalog essay for A Collector’s Cabinet does not do justice to the range of owners and users’ experiences, as Park and Daston reconstruct them.

In another respect, however, Park and Daston argue, the museum, in many cases, played a more dramatic role: it showed nature not as a whole, but nature at its most intense and creative, nature at play. Following Horst Bredekamp and others, they maintain that the Kunst- und Wunderkammer became the first and most important place where boundaries between art and nature were effaced: where it became possible to think, as Bacon and Descartes would fiercely argue, that man could emulate, and even change, natural processes.5 The essay for A Collector’s Cabinet rightly points out that many of the exhibits in a Kunstkammer challenged the distinction between art and nature: magnificent ewers and vessels made from ostrich eggs and rhinoceros horns, for example, offered the visitor not only a visual puzzle but a powerful demonstration of the transformative power of craft.

Park and Daston argue—perhaps a little more strongly than the evidence allows—that such vessels were in fact relatively easy to decode, the joins between nature and craft readily visible. But other works of human ingenuity—like automata that mimicked the actions of human musicians and grottos where stones with natural figures emulated letters, numbers, and animals—powerfully challenged the distinction between art and nature, human powers and natural laws. And when the prophets of the New Philosophy, Bacon and Descartes, tried to make the same argument—that nature and art used the same tools and techniques—they tended to take their examples, as Park and Daston show, from the Wunderkammer, as Descartes did with the automaton that he took as a model for the human body.

To that extent, Park and Daston argue, the museum formed not so much a locus of resistance to the New Philosophy of Bacon and Descartes in favor of an original holism, as the place where the New Philosophy found that its effort to bring art and nature together had already been carried out. This radical change took place, moreover, centuries before intellectuals redefined wonder as vulgar, and the contemplation of the learned and curious was redirected to the regular order of the universe. As the science wars of the seventeenth century raged, moreover, the kind of “natural particulars,” sheer brute facts of the Creation, that the museum owners first collected, took on a special role in the development of early modern science. Theoretical arguments created divergent schools, arguments without end; on precise facts attested by reliable observers, however, all could agree. The museum had been a place of civility in a political world at war. The fossils and kidney stones that filled them became, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the foundations of civility in an intellectual world at war.

Park and Daston’s splendid book opens up a whole new perspective, not only on the modern aspects of the collections whose light and color have been restored by Wheelock, but on the larger history to which they belong. Their rich illustrations and detailed, learned captions, ingeniously laid out in dialogue with the erudite text, bring the reader into a series of spaces where natural objects were laid out for display and study, from the court banquet to the early laboratory. And their searching inquiry into the categories by which pre-modern intellectuals described what they experienced as they came into contact with the strange, the monstrous, and the inexplicable challenges existing histories of the study of nature in the West. This history recreates both the intellectual pigeonholes into which philosophers and collectors sorted natural particulars, and the precise emotions they felt as they did so: it conjures up not only the substance, but the very feel of forgotten ways of studying nature and art. In Park and Daston’s view, the museum had a special role in the experience of nature; it provided not an encyclopedic tally of the universe but a highly particular path through it—one which helped to inspire the New Philosophers with their own iconoclastic belief that the powers of human ingenuity and creation were the same as those of nature itself.

At a recent Princeton seminar on the history of museums, an undergraduate asked a sharp question, somewhat in the style of the little boy observing the emperor’s new clothes: Why have museums suddenly become so interesting to scholars? For decades, the only substantial treatment of the Kunst- und Wunderkammer was a pioneering and erudite essay by the Viennese art historian Julius von Schlosser. He brought together a staggering amount of textual and visual material, but treated the collections in an unnecessarily negative way, as showing a childish and primitive understanding of nature.6 In the last twenty years, however, the field has burgeoned. Thomas DaCosta Kaufman and others have focused attention on the collections of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, stirring an active debate about their political functions as well as the nature of the interests that brought them into being.7 Giuseppe Olmi and Paula Findlen have recreated the magnificent Bolognese museum of Ulisse Aldrovandi, perhaps the most friendly, and one of the most heavily visited of these institutions. Findlen’s richly documented book—which serves, in many ways, as a complement to that of Park and Daston—gives a particularly vivid sense of the Italian museums, their contents, and their creators.8

Others have investigated the greatest of all seventeenth-century virtual collections: the immense paper museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo, with its dazzling images of everything from antiquities to citrus fruits, each bump, seed, contour, and hue of the latter rendered with dreamlike brilliance by artists and accounted for, as David Freedberg has shown, with an even more dazzling range of explanations, from the botanical to the mythological.9 Still others have begun to follow the story down to more recent times. Why this sudden interest in a place and a story that scholars had ignored for so long?

The historian to whom this question was addressed replied, plausibly, that museums made a fascinating place in which to observe social processes that German historical and social thinkers identified, a generation or two ago, as central to the creation of the modern world: the development, in the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century private museum, of “civility,” and, in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collections, of a public sphere of learning and appreciation of the arts. This historiographical explanation certainly helps to account for the new scholarly interest in the spaces where collectors circulated and conversed. So, perhaps, does the widespread public interest in museums which has developed over the last twenty years or so, as blockbuster shows have become the most dramatic public cultural events in many cities, and the politics of collecting have caught the attention not only of patrons, but of politicians. And then the visual qualities of the early modern museum—its combination of the natural and the human, its emphasis on the striking and bizarre—are also strangely fascinating. Rosamond Purcell, who arranged an exhibition on monsters at the Getty Research Institute in 1994, has now devoted an entire book, Special Cases, to them—one in which period illustrations and Purcell’s own glowing, golden photographs of hydrocephalic skeletons (see illustration on page 16) and Siamese twins achieve a macabre beauty: Diane Arbus visits Aldrovandi.

But one might also see the rise of scholarly interest in museums as evidence of a general change in the methods of cultural history. A generation ago, historians made a “linguistic turn,” seeking in the analysis of what they often called “discourses” the keys to many interpretative problems. Now, they seem to have made a second, material turn, interpreting collections of objects as they once interpreted texts—and insisting that the experience of living, working, and thinking in a particular economy and workplace had as deep an impact on intellectuals as reading any given earlier text. This new history emphasizes three-dimensional spaces more than two-dimensional texts, working practices more than formal arguments, experience more than ideas—sometimes, indeed, to the point of exaggeration.10

Park and Daston’s book—which includes many precise exegeses of texts of many kinds—exhibits this new approach at its most sophisticated and provocative. One wonders how other historians of the Scientific Revolution—those concerned, for example, with the collection of facts of a kind that do not play much of a part in Park’s and Daston’s story, like astronomical observations and alchemical experiments—will marry their own narratives with this one. Will they wed the story of the museum to those of the observatory and the alchemical laboratory—two other places of collective intellectual work that flourished in the same period? Certainly no one will be able to ignore the challenge presented by this powerful book to prevailing ways of doing the history of science.11


p class=”initial”>In one respect, Park and Daston might have given even more weight then they do to the work of the hand as a transforming factor in the work of the intellect: they might, that is, have said more about the role of artists in producing wonders that challenged the existing order of nature.12 At the very beginning of the Italian Renaissance, the painter Cennino Cennini wrote a handbook of his craft. He began this with a powerful invocation of the painter’s status as the practitioner of a high art. Like the poet, he pointed out, the painter had the liberty to make up a completely new and fantastic creature: to put, as Horace had remarked, a human head on a horse’s body. Some years later Leon Battista Alberti would take Brunelleschi’s dome for the Florentine Cathedral—the greatest technological achievement of the fifteenth century—as evidence that nature’s powers were not exhausted. The rivalry between human and natural energies that exploded in the Scientific Revolution seems to have begun in the artists’ ateliers of the Renaissance. In this respect above all, A Collector’s Cabinet, with its juxtaposition of natural wonders and wonderful naturalistic paintings, offers not only a delightful experience for visitors, but a good place to think about modernity and tradition, monsters and wonders, the slow death of an old world and the painful, even slower rise of a new one.13

This Issue

November 5, 1998