In my current research project I’m undertaking a typological analysis of 15th – 17th century books, which have as their subject cabinets of curiosities.
My proposed typology will by divided into five main classes:
- Who was the author, publisher and printer of the book? Where was the book published?
- Does the book contain a frontispiece? If yes, what is the frontispiece about?
- Has the book a dedication? If yes, to whom was it dedicated?
- Does the book contain illustrations at all?
- Are the illustrations (and also the frontispiece) woodcuts or engravings?
- What kind of illustrations are in the books?
Here I want to propose another subdivision into five groups of illustrations:
- Illustrations in the “style of Macrocosm in Microcosm”. What I mean by “style of Macrocosm in Microcosm” are illustrations that are depicting a whole cabinet of curiosities like the illustration in Museum Wormianum, or the illustration of Cospi’s Cabinet of curiosities in Lorenzo Legati’s book Mvseo Cospiano. This kind of illustration, with their weird ordering system and the juxtaposition of objects had as it goal to show the world that one could hold the whole world in one room or in the case of kings and emperors that one could rule over the whole world.
- Illustrations in tabular form – In order to describe or explain in more detail a cabinet of curiosities the illustration has to be in tabular form, so they can be numbered and a legend can be compiled like in Levinus Vincent’s book Elenchus tabularum.
- Illustration of singular objects or groups of objects in contrast to illustrations of whole cabinets. Why were the object chosen to be depicted by themselves or as a group?
- What is the purpose of the illustration? Has the illustration a teaching value or was it a piece of art?
An example for illustrations of points three and four can be found in the book Romani Collegii Societatis Jesu Musaeum celeberrimum about Kircher’s museum in Rome. The frontispiece of the book is an illustration of Kircher’s museum in Rome, with obelisks seen on the left and in the middle of the room. This is the only illustration of the museum as a whole, all further illustrations are of singular objects or groups of objects which many of them can be found on the frontispiece.
- Are there any indications of scale in the illustration or in the text itself?
- Are there several editions of the same book or several copies of the illustrations in different books. If yes, are the differences between the editions or copies of illustrations?
A typology of this sort is helpful in finding answer to different questions. For example the typology could helpful in finding answers how far the illustrations in the books on cabinets of curiosities conform to the “artistic naturalism” of the period (Gesner, Aldrovandi)?
Freedberg in his book The eye of the Lynx1 argues that there was a growing dichotomy between the confidence that images can teach people about natural philosophy and the disdain against these images. The tension between general and particular was a motor for the early modern debate about making knowledge. A case-study for Freedberg’s theory could be to analyze if there happened a change in the illustrations in books on cabinets between the 15th-16th century and the 17th century.
Pamela H. Smith argues in her article “Art, science and visual culture in early modern Europe”2 that illustrations were an important way of recording, collecting, cataloging and witnessing the curious, the marvelous and the particular. What kind of mechanisms did illustrators use in books on cabinets of curiosities, which by definition were collections of curious and marvelous object.
A last question which a typology could be helpful is connected to the “period eye” approach of Baxandall3 in which argues that historians should examine how artists and their works functioned in their original social, commercial and religious context. The concept attempts to reconstruct the mental and visual equipment brought to bear on works of art in a particular place and time and that social acts and cultural practices shape attention to visual form within a given culture. Based on this approach it will perhaps be possible to answer for whom were books on cabinets of curiosities produced? Were they manuals for collecting, was their purpose dissemination of knowledge or was their goal to show off the wealth of the cabinet’s owner? By answering those question one could also understand what the gain was for the publisher and printer in publishing these books because printers and publishers were only interested in publishing books which brought financial gains (for example the many editions of Sacrobosco’s text).
This kind of research can be very fluid and it could happen that during my research several points of my typology will be dropped and new ones will be added.
1David Freedberg, The Eye of the Lynx : Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), https://search.library.wisc.edu/catalog/999935161602121.
2Pamela H. Smith, “Art, Science, and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe,” Isis 97, no. 1 (2006): 83–100.
3Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy; a Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), https://search.library.wisc.edu/catalog/999698440202121.