Bravo Damien Hirst!
But why Florence and why that room?
They were my first thoughts after viewing Damien Hirst's diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God, in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. The more I thought about the dazzlingly beautiful object afterwards and it's location within the Camera of Cosimo de' Medici, which visitors reach by passing through the Studiolo of Francesco Ide' Medici, the more I admired Hirst and curator, Francesco Bonami, for reviving a long tradition of displaying rare and curious objects in traditional cabinets. "Cabinet", although originally designating a chest used to keep small and precious items, referred in the sixteenth century to intimately scaled rooms designed to display private collections.
I was one of six people on a bitterly cold January morning to enter the exhibition with great expectations. Public access to the small, barrel-vaulted Studiolo is normally restricted so we had a rare three-minute opportunity to admire its jewel box like interior before being ushered into a completely blackened and enclosed space. For three more minutes we bumped into one another as we walked around the central and only feature of the room – a brightly illuminated showcase containing the artwork. Crouching down to examine the diamond paved interior of the eye sockets, nasal passage and mandible or standing tall to take in the perfect covering of the crania with its central pear shaped pink diamond cluster it was over all too soon. But what an impression it left on the viewer and how long it remained in the mind's eye. It is surely evidence of nineteenth century curator John Parker's defense of the presence of curiosities in the Ashmolean Museum collection. Parker claimed curiosities "attract people, and when they are brought hither by curiosity, they may stop to learn something better; they may want to know something of the history of the curiosities they have come to see." My curiosity took me on such a journey.
The Studiolo was originally part of Cosimo de' Medici's private quarters and was accessible only from his bedroom. Inside the Studiolo two concealed doors lead, by way of secret staircases to his Treasury. Constructed before the Studiolo the Treasury protected his most precious objects and manuscripts in pietra serena closets located behind a series of carved walnut doors. When Cosimo began collecting classical manuscripts he unlocked a revival of interest in ancient Greece's pagan deities and myths. From his patronage grew the Platonic Academy that made Florence the keystone of Renaissance learning. Cosimo (1389-1464), his son Piero (1416-1469) and his grandson Lorenzo (1449-1492) were all collectors. The Medici family's walled garden on the Via Larga, contained sculptures, sarcophagi, funerary urns and tomb portraits, portrait busts, medallions, statues, columns, capitals, votive vessels, wall inscriptions and carvings in marble, terra cotta and bronze from Rome, Greece and Asia Minor. The estate inventories of 1464, 1469 and 1492 list the gold and silver coins, medals, antique carved gems and hard stone vessels collected by Cosimo; the marble portraits busts and gold, silver and bronze effigies collected by Piero and the paintings by Uccello, Fra Angelico and Masaccio collected by Lorenzo.
The Renaissance invented the concept of the Universal Man that made versatility in performance and breadth of interests the chief aim of education. Renaissance cabinets typically held the natural and artificial objects that fixed humans to the physical world: minerals, fossils, anatomical and botanical specimens, textiles, scientific and musical instruments, ethnographic objects, mechanical automata, gold and silverware, religious relics, wax effigies, death masks, books, coins, gems, medals, maps, miniatures, drawings, paintings, sculptures and manuscripts. The totality of these collections represented the 'theatres of the world' or the world in microcosm, the whole sum of human knowledge. Cabinets d'ignorance were created especially for those objects and products of nature, which could not be named or classified.
The Medici, however profligate, were not the only or the earliest collectors. Pliny in Historia Naturalis and Suetonius in his writings mention material preserved in temples by the Greeks and Romans. Achilles' spear was preserved in the sanctuary of Athena at Phaselis and the sword of Memnon in the temple of Æsculpius at Nicomedia. Pliny also records that the bones of two giants, kept as curiosities in the gardens belonging to the Emperor Augustus, were preserved in aconditorium, or sepulchral vault. Scaurus, the stepson of Sulla, started the Roman fashion for displaying dactyliotheca or precious stones. Pompey the Great dedicated King Mithridates dactyliotheca in the Capitol, Julius Casear consecrated six collections in the temple of Venus Genetrix and Marcellus, the nephew of Augustus, presented one to the temple of the Palantine Apollo. By the close of the Republic it was fashionable for wealthy citizens to display ancient art works and Vitruvius, writing in the time of Augustus, includes the pinacotheca amongst the apartments of a great house.
Medieval Christian churches and monasteries preserved relics, illuminated manuscripts, art works and curiosities acquired from pilgrims or travellers returning from the Holy Land. Objects acquired for reasons of piety and superstition (griffin eggs, tortoise shells, elephant tusk's, antelope and unicorn horn's, meteorites, antediluvian bones and thunderbolts or stone axes) were displayed in a reliquary, chest or cabinet with the dual intention of drawing people into the church and to ward off evil.
The founding of the Vatican Museums can be traced back to 1503 when Pope Julius II (1503-1513) placed a statue of Apollo, found in 1490, in the ruins of a Roman villa in the internal courtyard of the Belvedere Palace built by Innocent VIII (1484-1492). In 1506 the Laocöon, a legendary work of Greek art once owned by the Emperor Titus and described by Pliny, was added to the collection after its discovery on the Esquiline Hill. Cardinal Federigo Borromeo acquired Gian Vincenzo Pinelli's library and collection of globes, mathematical and philosophic instruments, fossils, natural objects and coins upon his death in 1601. The foundations of numismatics were formed by the detailed transcription of the inscriptions on the coins, rings, seals and gems.
During the 1600s the contents of the major European cabinets were published. The catalogues were the textual counterparts of the collections and they were carefully constructed. Material was sorted into paintings and sacred objects, objects made of inorganic material, organic materials (subdivided into earth, water and air), artefacts and material glorifying God.
To describe a natural collection was an attempt to reconstruct the world in all its encyclopaedic completeness and University of Bologna academic cleric, Ulisse Aldrovandi, (1522-1605) published thirteen folio volumes describing his collection in 1599. One volume, Musaeum Metallicum, included a description of rocks (including fossil plants, shells and fish, stone axes and flint arrowheads) and earths, minerals and metals. Michele Mercati of San Miniato (1541-1593), who formed a musaeum at the Vatican while he was keeper of Pope Pius V's botanic garden, organised the natural collection under ten headings: earths followed by salts and nitres, clays, stones, sands, semi-metals, metals, bitumens and sulphurs, volcanic productions, corals and marbles.
Supernatural powers were attributed to minerals,stones, metals and fossils. Flint arrowheads or glossopetrae were commonly thought to be either human tongues (Pliny), serpent's tongues (turned into stone by the preaching of St Paul), shark's teeth (Mercati, Olivus, Colonna), sea dogs teeth (Niels) or petrified teeth. Glossopetrae occupied a prominent place in the pharmacopoeia being principally used as a remedy for snakebite or ground for tooth powder. In 1554 German goldsmiths encased arrowheads in silver and sold them as serpent teeth charms. They were hung around babies' necks to assist dentition and to keep off the 'frights'. Belemnite was an accepted cure for nightmare and powdered stone axe a cure for jaundice.
A complete version of this article, with footnotes, can be downloaded by clicking here.