Wunderkammer: The Cabinet of Curiosities

The term Wunderkammer, translating from German meaning ‘room of wonder’ or ‘cabinet of curiosities’, was born in 16th century Europe, being the collection of various items of interest to represent the physical embodiment of the wider world – natural and man-made. These collections started primarily in private rooms of rulers and monarchs. Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, collecting items in this way became a popular habit of nobility, merchants, and gentlemen; being used as a symbol of the owner’s social status, wealth, and intellectual prowess.

The collection would be housed in an entire room, or sometimes just a corner or cabinet of a room, and feature an arrangement of items of interest covering various fields including taxidermy, natural specimens, antiquities, art, and scientific instruments; a visual representation reflecting the owner’s broad scope of knowledge of the world. Each object and the vastness of the collection as a whole would enhance the collector’s status with his peers, showcasing educational curiosities, scientific advancements, and souvenirs from expedition voyages as intellectual stimuli for visitors of the Wunderkammer. 

Later examples would include blending naturally formed and man-made items, where nautilus shell, tortoise shell, amber, and ivory would be richly carved or elaborately applied into precious metal settings. An exemplary example of a large collection of this type still intact is the collection at the Green Vault in Dresden.

As an area of interest and discussion over its period of popularity, there is much literature about what components create a well-balanced Wunderkammer. The earliest work on this subject is by Belgian physician Samuel Quiccheberg, who served as scientific and artistic adviser to Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria, who in 1565 published the first treatise regarding the value of the Wunderkammer, titled Inscriptiones vel tituli theatre amplissimi. 

In Quiccheberg’s work, he details that the most important elements to feature can be defined by six categories: Naturalia (found in nature, naturally occurring, or artworks inspired by nature), Mirabilia (wonders of nature), Ethnographica (man-made items from the wider world, tribal artefacts), Artificialia (man-made items), Artefacta (historically interesting items, antiquities) and Scientifica (Scientific instruments and discoveries). 

Quiccheberg’s review of collections of this type focused on the importance of the collection in its entirety functioning as fundamental for research, eliciting thought, and scholastic value, and in fact the Wunderkammer was the precursor to the modern museum and was eventually superseded by public institutions in the 19th century.

For those who are curious, the Wunderkammer in the NGV’s current exhibition Rembrandt: True to Life, presents the artist’s very own Cabinet of Curiosities, recreated to show a time capsule of what a cultured 19th century gentleman would have collected. 

CHIARA CURCIO / Head of Decorative Arts, Design & Interiors

Banner Image: Frans Francken II, A Cabinet of Curiosities 1619

August 2023