Unicorns’ horns, mermaids’ skeletons, dragons and exotic plants, precious metals, magical mirrors, oddities and antiquities all arranged on shelves in “rooms of wonders” for the intellectually curious. The fascinating collections of the nobility, scholars, artists, scientists and eccentrics of 16th and 17th century Italy on the brink of a European age when exploration was beginning to discover exotic new lands with strange people and strange customs. A time when Italian intellectuals could easily imagine the far-fetched and unexpected and our inspiration for an Italian inspired Halloween.
The Mirabilia of Aldrovandi
Rare and precious things collected and displayed were called mirabilia in Italian. One of the earliest and most impressive collections was assembled by the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605). His cabinet of curiosities include more than 7,000 specimens including this illustration of a dragon he found lying dead in the countryside of bologna. Some actually existed but many were fakes that he apparently purchased in the belief they were real.
His observations of animals, plants and minerals lead to a professorship at the Università di Bologna in natural history studies. A ridge of the moon is named Dorsa Aldrovandi and the plant genus Aldrovanda is also named after him. A remnant of his collection is still on display in the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna.
A Duke’s Cabinet of Curiosities
The term “cabinent” originally referred to a room and one of the most elaborate in Italy was the Florentine Studiolo of Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. A small barrel-vaulted space near the duke’s bedroom in the Palazzo Vecchio it was completed from 1570-1572 by teams of scholars and artists under the supervision of the likes of Giorgio Vasari. A Renaissance Man-Cave with cabinet of curiosities housed in secret rooms hinted at by thematic wall canvases to indulge in his interest in the fine and decorative arts. After his death (natural or otherwise) the objects were dispersed and the studiolo was dismantled until the early 20th century when it was restored and reassembled although not exactly as it was originally.
A Room with a View
Ferrante Imperato’s cabinet of curiosities is said to have contained as many as 35,000 plant, animal and mineral specimens including a crocodile hanging from the ceiling and a cross between a walrus and a platypus. He collected fossils and stones believed to have magical properties and medical folklore such as the idea that wearing amethyst in the navel prevents drunkenness and sapphire cleans the eyes in such a way as to prevent lust.
Two Cabinets from Verona
Francesco Calceolari was the son of a pharmacist his cabinet was filled with specimens based on formulations for natural remedies. Cubby holes filled with unicorn horns, claws and nails, various dried and stuffed animals identified with scientific names like Canis pisces, Cicada marina and Cocodrili duo made up a curious pharmacopeia
Italian studioli filled with curiosities and mirabilia were part-collection, part-laboratory, part-retreat for many Italian and Europeans of the time. There were noted cabinets of curiosity in many Italian cities as well as famous collections in England, Austria, Sweden, Russia, Germany and Denmark and during the latter century in the United States. Many developed into legitimate scientific collections, many simply made for wonderment and maintained for their curiosity and observation of the odd.