Ex Libris: Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

A few days ago I was at The Strand bookstore in Manhattan and a copy of "Cabinet of Natural Curiosities," caught my eye on the display table. The book had a rediscovery a few years back and understandably so. The original illustrations were hand painted, similar to J.Audubon's illustrations of birds, but even the printed versions in the modern copies of the book are so detailed they are still worth a picture frame.

The book dates back to 1731 when a man named Albertus Seba, (1665-1736) a pharmacist from Amsterdam, commissioned illustrations of his collection of insects, animals, plants, and other "curiosities," some real, some not so real. The result is a set of intriguing images that makes for a pretty strong contender for your next coffee table book, with the added bonus of not having to worry about feeling guilty for not reading the book too.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with my copy yet but designer Steven Gambrel did a good job with one in a powder room:

What I found most interesting about this book is the "cabinet" part of the title. 

Back in the day, WAY back in the day, cabinets of curiosities, or cabinets of wonder, were collections of things that were, well, curious to the beholder. Mostly rich men and royalty in Renaissance Europe had these cabinets but some merchant class men had them as well. Ferdinand II, the Archduke of Austria had a collection focused on paintings of people with deformities. John Sloane's collection of plants and artifacts became the basis of the British Museum. In America Thomas Dent Mutter's grotesque medical collection formed another museum. 

The word cabinet is also interesting to mention because it was not used to refer to a piece of furniture as we know it today, but rather a room. So a Renaissance man's cabinet of curiosities could literally be a room used to display his choice objects, another link to our modern day museums. 

Though I wish I had the space for a whole room, I'll just have to stick to finding a little corner somewhere to start my own collection of odd ball items, that is, my "cabinet of curiosities." (I'll have to have a fancy drink in my hand and a raised pinkie finger when I explain that one to my next house guests.)