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Kunstkamer Van Manfredo Settala in Milaan Cesare Fiori

Collecting the World: A Beautiful Obsession


To Have and to Hold: An intimate History of Collectors and Collecting by Philipp Blom, illustrates the obsession of collecting as a way of making sense of the world.

There was a time when the wealthy, the curious, the powerful and the wise were obsessed with collections. It was an era in which collecting was different to what we are used to; among one collection there could be shells, puppets and skulls, objects made by humans or by nature, objects that, it would appear, had nothing in common.

The principal criterion of those collections, and what all those objects had in common, was that they inspired awe. They had to be rare, valuable and surprising objects. Between the 15th and 17th centuries those eccentric collections proliferated, as eccentric as their collectors themselves, obsessed with collecting the entire world and to end up with infinite collections.

Levinus Vincent’s Wondertooneel der Nature
Levinus Vincent’s Wondertooneel der Nature (source)

Philipp Blom’s book tells the story of collecting, from the kitsch collections of souvenirs to the collections of religious relics and even of lovers, by Casanova. Blom explores the hidden and intimate motives behind that need to accumulate and organize the world, and tells the stories of endearing and exotic characters that dedicated their lives to the art of collecting.

The first part of the book is dedicated to the collections of cabinets of curiosities and marvels that were abundant between the 15th and 17th centuries. He tells of a royal gardener in England who went to war in Africa with the aim of bringing back an exotic fruit tree for his collection of rare plants, and of a king who was so obsessed with his collection that he lost his grip on power.

At that time, all those who could afford it pursued rare objects for their collections and private museums. Sailors made money selling strange objects and animals that they encountered on their voyages, and even dolls’ houses had a cabinet for miniature collections.

Levinus Vincent’s Wondertooneel der Nature
*Levinus Vincent’s Wondertooneel der Nature (source)

Collections served as a kind of encyclopedia that would reach to the edges of knowledge. The obsession for collecting had to do with an alchemistic concept of the world according to which the pneuma or spiritus mundi was a substance that was in all objects, and that linked the body and the soul and gave meaning to the universe and chaos. The descriptions Blom writes of those collections appear to come from fantastic texts. Here we present a selection of the strangest objects he mentions in his book, and which in itself is a collection of collections, a cabinet of marvels:

The horseshoe of a three-legged moose, in the collection of John Tradescant.

The fleece of a Tartar ram that is born of the earth, from the Jan Jacobsz Swammerdam collection.

The automaton of a man who turns into a tree, from an episode of Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, from the Kunstschrank of Philipp Hainhofer.

A dissected dragon, from the museum of Ulisse Aldrovandi.

The jawbone of one of the sirens that Ulysses found during his Odyssey, from the Kunstkammer of Rudolph II of Vienna.

And lastly, a collection of 968 collections, by Hubert Goltzius.

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