Collectors and Collections

This is from Patrick Mauries’ wonderful, richly illustrated book ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ which is brilliant:

“The story of cabinets of curiosities is above all that of a handful of figures scattered throughout the length and breadth of Europe in the age of the Baroque. John Tradescant and Elias Ashmole in Oxford, Addrovandi and Manfredo Settala in Milan, Ludovico Moscardo in Verona, Ferdinandino Cospi in Bologna, Pere Molinet in Paris, Nicholas Peisc in aix-en-Provence, Olaeus Worms in Copenhagen, Leonhard Fuchs and Conrad Gessner in Basle, and Zurich and one or to others, each in turn emerging from the arcane recesses of history to form a shadowy procession, wreathed in mists and attended by a deluge of miscellaneous objects. Several of their numbers have left us their portraits, proudly positioned as the frontispieces to their catalogues, but these images are more effigies than likenesses of living features, they conceal more than they reveal, offering only clumsy approximations of the idiosyncrasies of the flesh, or of other quirks or eccentricities of expression now lost forever.

It is hardly a matter of controversy to suggest that the majority of these enlightened collector s preferred the immutable and unmoving nature of objects to the illusions of a world in a constant state of flux and the turbulence of human passions. And it is this predilection for things devoid of life that – paradoxically – now brings them back to life again for us, and n far more vivid fashion than any portrait, however convincing. Amid the eclectic profusion of objects that the have bequeathed to us we may still discern their visions and desires; we can still touch with our own fingers the objects- scarcely any dustier now than then – that they once held, and we too can take pleasure in the symmetries and the variations in shape and colour that they coveted, classified, added to and modified with such obsessive devotion, day after day, year after year.

Obsessed by the cares of the world and by the fleeting nature of things and of the laws that govern them, these exceptional characters were possessed by an unattainable desire for perfect completeness, and united by a dogged and undeviating determination to compress the contents of an entire library into a single volume. And in the end they have indeed succeeded in defying time, setting against it a reality that is as incongruous as it is enduring.”

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