48. The Theater of Nature or Curiosity Filled the Cabinet – Trade Edition

Edition of 5000 copies
11.3″x11.3″; 26″x11.3″x24″ displayed upright
Boston, MA 2002

This work was inspired by the remnants of the most famous and extensive collection of artifacts, mostly natural, in 16th c. Europe. They were amassed by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), the first professor of natural history ever appointed in Italy, at the University of Bologna. A tiny fraction of Aldrovandi’s 18,000 items are still on display in today’s Aldrovandi Museum at the University of Bologna, but a few of the strangest pieces caused the artist to investigate the collection. Oddities, such as a frog with a lizard’s tail plastered on and fishes’ teeth inserted into the frog’s mouth, led to research that included not just Aldrovandi and his thousands of tempera paintings but the History of Museums in general. What was originally going to be a work about the fakes created for museums and natural history collections gave way to the broader topic of museology from Hellenistic Greece to the Enlightenment.

The Trade Edition of The Theater of Nature is a mechanical reproduction of a limited series of handmade books created in two slightly different versions. Both the original series and the Trade Edition contain the same imagery and text. In the first handmade series of nine copies, each book has nine original watercolors of completely different subjects based on manuscripts commissioned either by Aldrovandi or by Manfredo Settala (1600-1680) for their collections of curiosities. Settala’s museum was in Milan, but his manuscripts are housed today in the Biblioteca Estense of Modena, not far from Bologna. The artist spent a year making this cycle of 81 unique miniature paintings which were glued and sewn into the nine books. The Trade Edition more closely resembles the second handmade series, known as the Magic Lantern Edition. It contains the same black and white copperplate etchings as the first version, and looks identical when set upright and extended to make the “theater”, but the cover is entirely different. It is really a case as opposed to a cover. When the book is removed from it, the case may be set up to form a magic lantern, a sort of early slide projector from the 17th century.

The historical research for The Theater of Nature, both iconographic and textual, was boiled down to a 900-word rhyming poem that accompanies the color illustrations. The color images and text are hidden from view, however, when the book is viewed in the theater format. In this position, the 11 copper-plate etchings form a collection of curiosities or wunderkammer, receding into the distance. The etchings, hand-drawn and printed by the artist, are based on the images of six early museums in Europe, put together here to form one fictitious museum. Lorenz adapted the images from engravings commissioned by the founders of these early collections to depict their museum at the front of a published catalog. In most cases, these engravings and the lists of museum contents are all that is left of the early collections. The etchings demonstrate a goal of early museum founders: to shock the visitor into a state of wonder by trying to make the entire collection visible at once, through both open architecture and crowded displays on every surface.

In the handmade versions of the book, an effort was made to include the animal, vegetable and mineral worlds present in these cabinets of curiosities which were part natural history museum, part laboratory and part library. While the covers of both versions were die-cut to resemble the display cabinet in the first black and white image on the left, only one edition represents the mineral world, that with the purple mica inserted into the front cover. In place of glass, the artist split, cut and glued into the cover, sheets of lepidolite, a purple mineral of the mica family. Not only does the lepidolite create the idea of a cabinet, but it also reflects light as did the mirrors often incorporated into museums of curiosities. And while asbestos, a common item in these early collections (from which even museum souvenirs were made), is now known to be toxic, mica is not, yet magically resists heat as well. The animal world is represented with the vellum binding of each hand-bound book. The vegetable world is more subtle. The etching paper is composed of cotton rag; however, it was dyed in boiling calendula flowers before the etchings were printed. In this way, not just a plant is represented but one with medicinal value, known as a “simple”.

But a further element need to be included, also from the mineral world, one that inspired wonder: the magnet. The purple mica version of the book closes with magnets sewn into two leather straps, similar to ethnographic amulet cases, which automatically adhere to magnets inserted in the back cover when closing the book. The stitching of the straps forms the letter “u”, for Ulisse Aldrovandi, the wandering naturalist.

Stamperia Valdonega, one of the most prestigious art printers in Italy, printed the text of the handmade copies in moveable type without electricity, as it would have been printed centuries ago, in the typeface known as Centaur (a mythical beast). They also printed the images and text of the Trade Edition in 5,000 copies, but this time with photo-lithography, or offset. The handmade versions contain acid-free paper produced by the Italian paper manufacturer Cartiere Fedrigoni. The same luxurious Fedrigoni cardstock used for the Magic Lantern Edition cover was adopted for the body and cover of the Trade Edition.

I would like to acknowledge that the copperplate etchings could not have been printed without the expertise of Manuela Candini at the Laboratorio di Sperimentazioni Grafiche Leoni-Whitman, in Bologna, a stone’s throw from Aldrovandi’s Collection. Invaluable assistance with calendula dyeing, printing and mica cutting was provided by Kate Erb.

For Lucy R. Sprague
who loved the theater and
all things extraordinary

Questions you might have:
What is a magic lantern, and how does it relate to the history of museums?

A magic lantern was originally a room or booth with a window or opening in one wall created within a larger room. Someone inside the booth with a flame or lamp inside could project images painted on glass through the window and onto the wall of the larger room. That process was later recreated in miniature to make the portable magic lanterns used until modern slide projectors were invented. Along with the camera obscura it played an important role in the history of photography and cinematography.

It relates to cabinets of curiosities because a Jesuit named Athanasius Kircher in 17th century Rome experimented with with them in the Collegio Romano or Roman College mentioned in the poem(scroll down for the text of the book below). Many visitors flocked to the collection and laboratory of this early scientist.

What is vellum?

The term vellum is used interchangeably with parchment, as there is no commonly agreed upon distinction between them, even historically. Vellum and parchment are animal skin used nowadays mostly for bookbinding. It is generally cow, but could be sheep or goat. It ranges from white to tan in color, and was once the principal material for the pages of books in the Western world, until papermaking and the printing press changed books forever. Illuminated manuscript pages were made of vellum, and vellum was used as a painting surface for portrait miniatures, along with ivory, until photography on tin or glass plates became the vogue towards the end of the 19th century.

Why would Aldrovandi, or any other natural history professor or scientist display “fakes” in his museum?

Unfortunately, scientists and collectors weren’t always aware that the things people brought to them were fakes. The questionable items were usually for sale, offered by fishermen or anyone out to make some money. Aldrovandi also commissioned tempera paintings of dubious curiosities depicted in woodcuts that circulated in Europe. The Crakow man, featured on the Magic Lantern and trade edition cover, is an example of a black and white woodcut turned into a color manuscript image. Supposedly this man, who resembles a surrealistic super-hero, like the Green Lantern, only naked, was born in Crakow, Poland. The fact that he had animal heads on his joints was supposedly a sign of the devil. When unusual people or animals were born, with congenital aberrations real or faked, such an event was considered a bad omen for the town or country where the birth or discovery took place.

Also, early collectors still considered valid many things that the ancients, such as Pliny and Aristotle, wrote about. The image with the face on the torso, and a big red hat, was one such “foreign” race supposedly from Asia described by Pliny. The same “people” were depicted in Medieval manuscripts as well. Aldrovandi also displayed things he had doubts about. He was not sure all the things in his collection were real, but he wanted to represent as much as possible. Unfortunately, that led early scientists and collections to be discredited, with the advent of New Science in the Enlightenment.
Sources Consulted:

Possessing Nature – Museums, Collecting and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy .
University of California Press, 1994.
By Paula Findlen, Professor of Italian History and History of Science at Stanford University

Artificialia e Naturalia. Il collezionismo enciclopedico nelle Wunderkammern d’Europa.
Milan, 1983.
By Adalgisa Lugli

Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice 1500-1800.
Paris, 1987.
By Krzysztof Pomian

The Origins of Museums: Cabinets of Curiosities in 16th and 17th Century Europe.
Oxford University Press,1985.
By Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor

A great amount of information was culled directly studying the thousands of images commissioned by Aldrovandi and Settala, stored in the University of Bologna Library and the Biblioteca Estense of Modena, respectively, when the artist actively began reasearching the book in the fall of 1996. Also, guiding foreign visitors frequently over a period of 10 years to the Aldrovandi Museum at the University of Bologna(formerly installed in the University library) certainly furnished a great deal of information, as well as curiosity and inspiration.


Before the Renaissance was born
curiosity was scorned
as part of human pride.
But with the new age
curiosity raged
and the cabinets opened wide.

Upon unlocking the cabinet door
all was visible,
ceiling to floor.
Every inch a wonder
at a single gaze,
a collection of oddities
arranged to amaze.

Mermaid bones
and bezoar stones,
anthropomorphic roots
and asbestos suits,
celestial rocks
and vegetable clocks.

Fossils and simples
lined the walls,
mirrors on ceilings
pictured it all.
Including the viewer
within the grand scheme,
the universe presented
without a seam.

Through the tunnel-like halls
shewn the temples of knowledge,
from the Tyrolean Alps
to the Roman College.
Rows upon rows
of curios
into the infinite
perspective they go.
Layers on layers
of drawers and shelves
with a dwarf to guide us.
A wonder themselves
to pontificate for prelates,
illuminaries and scholars
with a pointer in hand
and a dainty collar.
The collectors esteemed
to awe and surprise,
to display “the world”
and all it comprised.

All was included
in an encylopedic theme,
a hall of wonders,
an impossible scheme.

No distinctions drawn,
no need to specialize.
The first public museums
were to dazzle the eyes.

The first wonder rooms
or eclectic museums
were of Hellenistic Greece,
though not in lyceums.
They did not appear
in secular spaces,
but arose in temples
or sacred places.

The oddities elencated
by Pliny and such
were grouped about
for all to touch.
Heroes’ bones
and meteorites,
natural wonders
and marvelous sights.
Animals embalmed
and ethnographic lore,
coconuts, relics,
trophies and more.

Spaces sacred in medieval times
also offered more than chimes.
Reptiles hanging from the vaults,
evil spirits to assault,
ornate cups of ostrich eggs
with griffins’ claws
as twisted legs.
Giants’ bones
and Roman jars
storing relics
from near and far.

The first collections
of Renaissance fame
were formed by individuals
hungry for names.
Curiosity and study drove the lot
of scientists and nobles
who collected and bought
rarities which they
labeled and slot
in the requisite categories
everyone sought.
Nature by numbers,
connect the dots,
a coloring book
not devoid of thought.
An exercise
in eclecticism
where art and nature
suffered no schism.

A garden of Eden,
art and nature united.
Not a notion neglected
nor exception oversighted.
Nature was a text
to collect and display
which differed but barely
from Aristotle’s day.

Faces and figures
in nature abounded,
on anthropomorphic forms
collections were grounded.
Contours of saints
were found in marble
(artists completed designs
which were garbled).
Nature provided
the inspiration
(artists just finished
the decoration).

But how could such
an enormous hall
come to be filled
floor, ceiling and wall?
A collector
could not
collect it all
without a voyage
spring, summer and fall.
Voyages were often
completed in youth
after which missionaries
conveyed the truth
of material culture
in foreign lands,
of footless birds
and ankle bands,
of feather capes
and instrument seeds.
Amateur satellites
fulfilled their needs.

It was not imperative
to travel far
to find an oddity
to fill a jar.
For even that
which did not exist
was fabricated
to complete the list.
Strange fruits of the sea
presented, eagerly
by local fishmongers
aware of the hunger
for odd new creatures
to specially feature.
Charlatans often
fooled the teacher.
Pieces were found
in various ways
through miners,
falconers and
Moorish galley slaves.
Apothecaries offered
insight as well
from items displayed
which they did not sell.
Theaters of nature
in this way created
were sideshow burlesques,
hotly debated.
Yet when reason prevailed
and curiosity sated
these otherworldly objects
were soon ill-fated.

But what became
of the mandrake roots,
the magic lanterns
and lobster claw flutes?
Coral, ivory
and carved cherry pits,
to tickle the wits?
Though collections of wonder
were broken asunder
some vestigial pieces
outlived the species.
Descecrated, desiccated,
dusty perhaps,
yet amusing artifacts
divorced from their past.
Now revealed
as doctored frogs
with lizards’ tails
and fishes jaws
or unicorn horns
in absence of proof
fashioned from
a narwhale tooth,
or prehistoric axes
as lightning stones.
And dinosaur bits
for giants’ bones
or antelope horns
for griffin claws.
What we see now
was not what it was.

All that we know
of this marvelous show
is its documentation
row by row.
Only in lists
do the collections exist,
inventories penned
by the sleight of wrist.
Catalogs published
and prints commissioned
were eternal guarantees
of such visual missions.
A world of wonders
in one closet shut
was shattered, dissected,
divided and cut
into other collections
based upon themes
most specialized.
Of schools and museums
the collections themselves
furthered scientific learning
in providing the samples
for the truly discerning.
New philosophers profited
from the material amassed
when ignoring the precepts
explained from the past.
Though not just for science
was knowledge gained forever more
but for those places
we now frequent,
based on wall, ceiling and floor.








%d bloggers like this: