Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Wondertooneel der Nature

Vincent, Levinus (1715) Wondertooneel der natuur [Tome 1] 0030 frontispiece

18th century Dutch book engraving frontispiece

Levinus Vincent wunderkammer illustration, 1715

book engraving - collection culture of the 1700s

cabinet of curiosities - book engraving with coral species

18th c. wunderdammer illustration - Holland

Wondertooneel der nature book engraving

cabinet of wonders engraving

book engraving : collection cabinet of 1700s

The collection obsession of Early Modern Europe, that saw people stocking cabinets of curiosities ('wunderkammer' or 'rariteitenkabinet') with obscure and exotic trinkets and specimens from the worlds of 'artificialia' and 'naturalia', emerged in Holland under a local profile of influences.

Unlike most of their European counterparts, the Dutch republic lacked both a royal court or any sizeable aristocracy, so collecting was a hobby cultivated by regular citizens. We tend to regard the 17th and 18th century craze as being dominated by the well to do types [such as Levinus Vincent (images above) and Albertus Seba (images below)] because they were the enthusiasts who could afford to have their collections recorded for posterity in book engravings and warranted visitor books for their proto-museums or had their inventory itemised in sales documents.

But in 'The Travels of Zacharias Konrad von Uffenbach' from 1711, for instance, which outlined the author's assessment of a large number of cabinets in Lower Saxony, Holland and England, there are numerous descriptions of collections - often modest in size, of course, by comparison to those of the wealthy - developed by Dutch carpenters, merchants, tradesmen and artisans. The enthusiasm for collecting, in Holland at least, traversed all strata of society, but with the most notable collections owned by burghers and regents, in contrast to the kings, nobles and prelates of other European countries. And there is the rub. It was customary for families to sell off these 'rariteitenkabinets' and divide the spoils following the death of the collector. Accordingly, most Dutch collections of significance left the country, purchased by foreign nobility and no intact collections have survived; adding an interesting element of documentary detective work to scholarly assessments.

Amsterdam was a hub for commercial shipping - it was the chief domestic port of the Dutch East India Company - and had long established markets and auction houses that provided people with relatively easy access to exotic objects brought back by sailors from all corners of the globe. One can speculate that the sales themselves were an important means by which information about collecting was disseminated. Doubtless too (in my mind at least), Holland had already cultivated that collection mentality to some extent in the early 17th century with the enthusiastic (mania) appreciation and trading of tulips*.

The religious traditions of the various Protestant sects, with their inclination towards an austere lifestyle, circulated a distaste for the man-made novelties, ornaments and marvels of 'artificialia' while at the same time, paradoxically (perhaps), encouraging a passionate interest in collecting items from the world of 'naturalia' (the God-made novelties). The fact that curating and displaying the objects became an artform in itself, more properly ascribed to the motivations behind 'artificialia', was undoubtedly a moot point to the faithful.

It has only been in the last twenty years or so that any serious scholarship has been undertaken in relation to the the collecting history for Dutch 'rariteitenkabinets':

"[H]istorian Roelof van Gelder distinguishes five different motives which, [to] varying degrees, played a role in inspiring Dutch citizens to build up a collection. Firstly, the possessor of a rich and beautiful cabinet could acquire a good reputation, because he could be sure of important guests entering his house. Secondly, the collected valuables could serve simultaneously as merchandise and as investments. Thirdly, the collected objects, besides contributing to the collection, could generate a certain aesthetic satisfaction. Fourthly, the religious consideration that man could learn to know God better through the study of of his Creation played a substantial role for some Dutch collectors. As a fifth reason van Gelder mentions scientific curiosity, deriving from the humanistic ideal of the universal scholar."

Obviously I have hardly scratched the surface. The majority of information provided here was gleaned from the excellent 2004 journal article by Bert van der Roemer from the University of Amsterdam. The long-ish but very readable article is available online from Harvard University: 'Neat Nature: The Relation between Nature and Art in a Dutch Cabinet of Curiosities from the Early Eighteenth Century' IN: History of Science, vol. 42, p.47-84.

The images above come from a 2-volume work (1706-1715), 'Wondertooneel der Nature', by the Dutch cloth merchant, Levinus Vincent (1658-1727), whose spectacular 'rariteitenkabinet' was established in Amsterdam and later moved to Haarlem where it was subsequently auctioned off after Vincent's death and incorporated into other collections.

A pdf article - 'Scientific Symmetries' by EC Spary [IN: History of Science xlii (2004)] - gives a little more insight into the background:
"Rather than presenting himself as the author, Vincent sought to use the printed page as a way of displaying the authorship of the natural world. Descriptions of his remarkable collection and copper-plate engravings intervened between odes to God and His Creation — and to Levinus Vincent and his — written by visitors to the Cabinet numbering amongst Vincent’s friends. [..]

The first, 'Wondertooneel der Nature' (Theatre of Nature’s Marvels), appeared in 1706. Most of the subsequent descriptions of his collection differed largely in the number of eulogizing poems or the length and detail of the description of specimens, and are not clearly identifiable as separate books. [..]

For Vincent and his circle, these publications served a mediating function in the interpretation of the cabinet. No-one, gazing upon the multiplicity of natural productions, could fail to worship God in His Creation. The readership was divided into 'Liefhebbers', or lovers of natural productions and of God, and atheists, who were alternately bidden to “come before the light, and learn ... in all these works to observe the actions of the Supreme Artist” or to keep quiet: “Every animal has a tongue, to find out your guilt against you.”

As in other late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century natural histories, butterflies and other metamorphosing insects became analogies for the Christian transfiguration of the human body at the Resurrection; Vincent boasted that his cabinet contained every species described in Maria Sibylla Merian’s book on the subject."

Albertus Seba Cabinet of Curiosities

Albertus Seba Cabinet of Curiosities - kb.nl


Unknown said...

Thanks for another wonderful post, PK. I can never get enough of cabinets of curiosity, and these images are gorgeous. And I learned something about the particularities of Dutch collectors!

peacay said...

Oh hey Kristine. I knew you back on the wagon. I was expecting you to pick holes in the story here!

Ravenmn said...

Only the first image appears for me in the section above the type. The next 8 images show up as blue question mark boxes. I'm using Safari and Firefox on a Mac OS X.

peacay said...

ravenm I think you'll find that was a short-lasting glitch with the image host, webshots (the first image and the last two are on flickr). If it's not ok now then I wonder if you have the webshots address blocked perhaps?

Ravenmn said...

It's the webshots block. Thanks for explaining!

Really awesome blog here.

Linkmeister said...

Once I realized the collections were Dutch I did wonder if you'd mention tulips, that most famous of Dutch obsessions.

Heather McDougal said...

Stephen Jay Gould points out in Finders, Keepers how many of the great Dutch collections had been auctioned off, particularly that of Ruysch, who sold much of his collection to Peter the Great, and whose widow sold off the rest of it when he died. Most of it is lost, but Rosamond Purcell found, in photographing fetuses, that some of the ones in the Leiden Museum matched those in Peter's collection, and thus an attribution was able to be made.

Nice work! So interesting to know about the difference between the Dutch and the rest of Europe. Thanks much for the info.

Unknown said...

I received a tip to sign your guestbook and gaze upon the Wondertooneel der Nature array. Quite a magnificent collection I must say.

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