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Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy

Paula Findlen
Copyright Date: 1994
Edition: 1
Pages: 449
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  • Book Info
    Possessing Nature
    Book Description:

    In 1500 few Europeans regarded nature as a subject worthy of inquiry. Yet fifty years later the first museums of natural history had appeared in Italy, dedicated to the marvels of nature. Italian patricians, their curiosity fueled by new voyages of exploration and the humanist rediscovery of nature, created vast collections as a means of knowing the world and used this knowledge to their greater glory. Drawing on extensive archives of visitors' books, letters, travel journals, memoirs, and pleas for patronage, Paula Findlen reconstructs the lost social world of Renaissance and Baroque museums. She follows the new study of natural history as it moved out of the universities and into sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scientific societies, religious orders, and princely courts. Findlen argues convincingly that natural history as a discipline blurred the border between the ancients and the moderns, between collecting in order to recover ancient wisdom and the development of new textual and experimental scholarship. Her vivid account reveals how the scientific revolution grew from the constant mediation between the old forms of knowledge and the new.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91778-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xvii)
  6. [Map]
    (pp. xviii-xviii)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    This book recounts two overlapping histories. The first details the appearance of museums in early modern Europe, particularly collections whose purpose was to bring all of nature into one space. The second offers a reading of the development of natural history as a discipline. Both stories take Italy as their case study. There collecting first became a widespread practice, among an elite desirous to know the past, in all its forms, through the possession of its remnants. The collecting of antiquities and the passion for natural objects appeared in Italy before any other part of Western Europe; in both instances,...


    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 15-16)

      Part I locates the museum in time as well as space. It considers three main issues: the linguistic, epistemological, and social sites of collecting. Beginning with the layers of definition that helped to shape the Renaissance idea of collecting, the study explores the various intellectual structures that situated the museum firmly within the encyclopedic tradition and social structures that aligned it with patrician culture. Chapter 1 describes the emergence of the museum through an analysis of the first museum catalogues and earliest images of museums as well as through a reading of representative events that connected the activities of the...

    • ONE “A World of Wonders in One Closet Shut”
      (pp. 17-47)

      On 13 May 1572, the very day that Ugo Buoncompagni had chosen to return to his hometown to be invested as Gregory XIII (1572–1585), a fearsome dragon appeared in the countryside near Bologna, an omen of terrible times to come. Soon word of its presence spread, and a party was sent out to overtake it. The captured portent was duly carried inside the walls of the city for its citizens to inspect. Entrusted with its disposal, the senator Orazio Fontana consigned the large serpent to his brother-in-law Ulisse Aldrovandi, a collector of strange and wonderful things and an expert...

    • TWO Searching for Paradigms
      (pp. 48-96)

      “Museum,” wrote the Jesuit Claude Clemens, “most accurately is the place where the Muses dwell.”¹ Early modern collectors were obsessively preoccupied with their ability to define the activities in which they engaged and the location in which they pursued them. As humanists, they celebrated the power of words, spinning elaborate etymologies and genealogies to acknowledge their indebtedness to the past. Knowing the origins of a word did not narrow its scope. If anything, it highlighted its complexity. As a category that expressed a pattern of activity transcending the strict confines of the museum itself, the idea of musaeum was an...

    • THREE Sites of Knowledge
      (pp. 97-150)

      In a classic study of the relationship between humanism and space, Alfonse Dupront queried, “If humanism is most characteristic of [Renaissance values], where then does one find the humanists?”¹ Collectors, the embodiment of humanist culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not only shaped the intellectual paradigms that governed their activities, they also defined the space they inhabited. Humanists, natural philosophers, and collectors were not just found anywhere in society. They inspected nature in a precisely demarcated setting, the museum, that took its place alongside the courts and academies of late Renaissance and Baroque Italy as a space in which...


    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 153-154)

      A site of encyclopedic dreams and humanist sociability, the museum also was a setting in which to examine nature. Nature, in its broadest sense, was the object that collectors strove to contain and display; through their actions, they created new ways of perceiving nature that marked the emergence of natural history as a discipline. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, natural history was hardly distinguishable from other subjects worthy of humanist inquiry. “Nature” was not the initial point of departure for the humanists who discussed the merits of Pliny’s Natural History in the 1490s, inspecting it like any other...

    • FOUR Pilgrimages of Science
      (pp. 155-193)

      Collecting did not begin in the museum. Rather than seeing the museum as a point of departure, we should imagine it as an end: the resolution of a long and complex voyage beginning at the moment an object was possessed by human hands, continuing to the point at which it was designated a collectible specimen, and ending with its arrival and display in the museum. In the interim stages, a variety of different activities resulted in the domestication of nature. This chapter is concerned with the means by which nature was collected. What impulses led Renaissance naturalists to experience nature...

    • FIVE Fare Esperienza
      (pp. 194-240)

      In the illustration adorning the 1671 Latin edition of the Tuscan court naturalist Francesco Redi’s Experiments on the Generation of Insects (1668), nature is represented within the laboratory¹ (fig. 15). Atthe top, a reclining muse—possibly Nature herself—enjoys the attention of two putti, who playfully collect the bees, butterflies, and other winged creatures that she contemplates. In the philosophical and cultural universe that Redi inhabited, these bits of nature have now become objects of experimental worth, their generative mysteries—and Redi’s disavowal of their spontaneous generation—unraveled within the pages of the text. At the bottom, Minerva, the embodiment...

    • SIX Museums of Medicine
      (pp. 241-288)

      Like the dragons dissected in Aldrovandi’s studio in 1572 and Barberini’s studio in 1660, or the loadstone that Kircher gave special prominence, vipers enjoyed the status of favored objects among collectors. They appeared frequently in the museums of physicians and apothecaries, whose possession of nature was predicated upon the idea of medical utility, and in the museums of Italian patricians, who perceived medical knowledge to be socially advantageous. Like many of the artifacts in early museums of natural history, vipers were essential ingredients for the most popular and costly medicines then in use. “And these vipers are the foundation of...


    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 291-292)

      While the appearance of museums significantly reoriented the study of nature, they also redefined the identity of the naturalist. “Natural history” had not been a distinctive enterprise before the mid-sixteenth century, in part because the image of the “naturalist” had not yet crystallized. The revival of natural history and its growing popularity in the courts, academies, and universities, and more generally in the patrician culture of early modern Italy, made the men who studied nature more self-conscious about the uniqueness and potential appeal of their work. They responded by paying greater attention to their presentation of self. Autobiographies and portraits...

    • SEVEN Inventing the Collector
      (pp. 293-345)

      In his 1595 will, the Venetian senator, mathematician, and instrument collector Jacomo Contarini included a bequest “for the perpetual conservation of his study and books” that began with the following statement: “One of the most dear things I have had, and have, is my studio, from which have come all the honors and esteem for my person.”¹ Contarini’s special affection for his museum as the font of his good reputation reflected a sentiment common to most collectors. The detailed instructions of Aldrovandi’s will of 1603 and of Alfonso Donnino’s bequest to the Roman College in 1651, for example, reveal a...

    • EIGHT Patrons, Brokers, and Strategies
      (pp. 346-392)

      The museum was the quintessential product of the patronage culture of early modern Europe. Its appearance in Renaissance Italy coincided with the rise of court culture and attendant forms of behavior; its entrenchment in Baroque Italy testified to the importance of such cultural institutions in the absolutist states.¹ As humanist learning increasingly found its home in the courts and the academies, the museum became a visible expression of the new ties between the worlds of learning and politics. The prince, as Machiavelli wrote in his famous treatise on this subject, was a “lover of ability” who valued all forms of...

  11. Epilogue: The Old and the New
    (pp. 393-408)

    Despite the valiant attempts of Renaissance and Baroque naturalists to preserve their vision of the world by guaranteeing the immortality of their museums, their worst fears were confirmed (though not for the reasons they had imagined). Within a century of Kircher’s death in 1680, a new generation of scholars invalidated the premise of the humanist encyclopedia of nature and, with it, the museums that contained this knowledge. The technological mirabilia that animated the experimental life of Kircher’s and Settala’s museums, replaced by better microscopes, bigger telescopes, and Leiden jars, were no longer the tools of a working collection but historical...

    (pp. 409-432)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 433-449)