NEW YORK – Wunderkammers, perhaps better known today as cabinets of curiosities, are a phenomenon noted across history, from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance to the Victorian era. The creator of a wunderkammer, which literally means “wonder room” or “room of wonder,” generally wanted to showcase their wealth and knowledge by gathering and classifying a variety of naturalia (natural objects), arteficilia (man-made objects) and scientifica (scientific objects to control or order nature).
During the Age of Exploration, when the popularity of wunderkammers was at its height, they also became useful political tools. Often a prince or sovereign would feature odd and rare objects, such as dinosaur bones or exotic taxidermy, in a room or cabinet to show that he had paid for voyages to faraway lands (and maybe even conquered them). A portrait hall demonstrated a king’s power of patronage and his honourable lineage while a wunderkammer showcased the monarch’s intellect and the geographic scope of his kingdom. An organised display of the world’s knowledge was a political statement: the king controlled – and knew – everything. While these traditional wunderkammers were intimidating and impressive to contemporaneous audiences, today they often seem over the top and even comical. Ambitious collectors acquired what they claimed to be “unicorns,” “chimeras” and “mermaids” which, in reality, were actually different animals stitched together to make the mythical appear real and trick the viewer’s eye.
Some of the best-knonw wunderkammers were assembled by intellectual aristocrats. Ole Worm (1588–1654) was a Danish physician, linguist and antiquarian who craeted a cabinet in his own home and subsequently published the contents in a catalogue. While Worm had many exotic pieces from his travels, he debunked the authenticity of the more far-fetched objects in wunderkammers he saw. For example, Worm discovered that the “unicorn horns” popularly displayed in cabinets were actually just narwhal tusks. Worm’s collection, like many others, was eventually broken up, and now only exists as a single print made for this frontispiece (above) of his printed catalogue.
Today, we are fascinated by the eclecticism and the horror vacui of cabinets of curiosities such as Worm’s. While wunderkammers might have once signified power and intellect, we are now often more intrigued by the person who made them and their aesthetic.
In a recent interview with Sotheby’s, Federico de Vera, who owns an eponymous gallery in downtown New York, said, “When I place two objects together, I ask myself, what’s their relationship? It’s deliberate. It’s just like composing a picture.” That is the essence of a modern wunderkammer: the expression of one’s creative self. A wunderkammer is no longer about power, greed or ostentatious displays of knowledge; it’s about the creation of a new, singular, personal artwork out of many smaller objects. By purchasing objects that come with their own histories, modern visionaries, such as de Vera, can create fresh wunderkammers that appeal to contemporary audiences. Discover objects that speak to you in our fall sales Collections & Curiosities: Silver, Ceramics & Objects of Vertu and Collections: European Decorative Arts.