The cabinet and the gallery
Introspection and ostentation in early collection history
To a marked degree, historians of early collecting fall into one of two camps – they might be labelled respectively the aesthetic school, brought up in the classical tradition and focused on sculpture, painting and (to a lesser degree) the applied arts, and, on the other hand, the neo-natural philosophers, embracing a spectrum of inquiry fed by sources from Hermes Trismegistus through Francis Bacon to Descartes and Leibnitz. The two communities posited not-too-seriously in this conceit reflect in part a schism that had begun to manifest itself among collectors from the turn of the sixteenth century and which corresponded to the two very different kinds of collecting space of my title. The degree to which these were indeed antithetical or whether they fulfilled complementary roles – perhaps under the ownership of a single collector – may form the basis of the following essay, for in a sense, the differing architectural characters which they display provide persuasive corroboration of the broad division which suggested here.
As always, characterizations drawn from the extreme ends of the spectrum most easily allow some basic premises to be formulated. The gallery can be typified primarily by its expansiveness and by its openness to light and air. In its earliest treatment as an architectural entity, its conceptual ancestry was traced by Wolfram Prinz to the colonnaded loggias of classical antiquity – areas for easy socialization rather than formality and display. A more complex development has been traced in the forty years since Prinz’s study: the gallery’s emergence as an architectural space some one and a half centuries earlier than the point at which Prinz started his examination is now well established, and a greater focus is now placed on its relationship (or rather many relationships) to the other elements of the household. An early importance emerges for a recreational function, as well as for straightforward communication, long before the display function of the early gallery came to the fore. In France so-called ‘corridor galleries’ make their appearance by the early fourteenth century, linking disparate buildings or providing sheltered walkways around a courtyard. Their practical but essentially secondary character as architectural features can be seen to continue over the succeeding centuries: for example, Rosalys Coope notes that they proved popular features in the wave of rebuilding that followed the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England, as domestic considerations overtook monastic needs when the estates and their buildings were settled on secular owners and when new functions and relationships were imposed on existing building complexes.A second strand is detected in these developments with the emergence of ‘room galleries’, so called, as early as the mid-fourteenth century in France and by the late 1400s already considered part of the normal accommodation of the seigneurial residence and a mark of the Paris ‘hôtel’. These formed part of the private accommodation and functioned either as a form of common room where the family might take its exercise or where the master might choose to meet his guests; some achieved a considerable length and if there were negotiations to be carried out or business to be transacted, it was likely that it would take place while the parties paced up and down during their discussions rather than being locked face-to-face in a seated position. The inclusion of fireplaces (often more than one) serves to distinguish these recreational galleries from those that acted merely as corridors. Some examples of this kind terminate merely in a window looking over the gardens or with a broader view over the estate, although others might lead to a private study or a tribune overlooking the chapel. At Bussy-Rabutin (Côte-d'Or), the seigneur’s private chapel occupies the tower, while the arrangement of a first-floor gallery over an arcaded ground-floor cloister is one that was often repeated: Sebastiano Serlio introduced his Italian readers to the French idea with a description of just such a long narrow chamber over an open loggia, describing it as ‘una saletta che in Francia si dice galeria per spasseggiare’.
By the later sixteenth century a further development saw the gallery migrate from the domestic accommodation to form a kind of frontier area, still commonly communicating with the private accommodation of the master (whose chambers formerly might have provided the sole access), in which the private and public aspects of the household might intersect. In time it emerged as one of the principle state rooms or audience chambers of the house, while continuing to provide a recreational area for the family. By this time the last traces of the inward-looking defensive architecture of the medieval period had been definitively abandoned in favour of a more open and outward-looking character, providing a setting in which the gallery as we have come to study it would develop its definitive character.
François I was thought by Prinz to have been instrumental in spreading its popularity on a European scale with the formation of his grande galerie at Fontainebleau (completed 1540, ill. 1), and although the major impetus in gallery building took place as much as a century later, there must remain a large measure of truth in this assertion. Sumptuously decorated and hung with paintings, it quickly became perhaps the most famous secular interior in all of Europe – not least for the casts of antique sculptures in plaster and bronze which it housed, produced from moulds made in Rome by the court sculptor Francesco Primaticcio. Benvenuto Cellini’s famous description of the interior records that ‘among the pictures were arranged a great variety of sculptured works, partly in the round, and partly in bas-relief’, all placed ‘in a handsome row upon their pedestals’.
In Italy itself, the spread of the gallery has been attributed in particular to Francophile courtiers: those of the Palazzo Capodifero-Spada in Rome (1559) and of the Uffizi in Florence (c.1574, ills. 2-3) are singled out as amongst the earliest; by the end of the century Vincenzo I Gonzaga established his Galleria della Mostra at Mantova, filling it with paintings and sculpture, and Duke Vespasiano Gonzaga had similarly founded his Galleria degli Antichi at Sabbionetta. The fashion was soon manifested in northern Europe too, either with the owner’s paintings and sculptures rigorously separated, as in the (admittedly idealized) views of the Earl of Arundel’s galleries in London, as recorded by Daniel Mytens, or complementing each other, as favoured earlier at Fontainebleau and later by Cardinal Mazarin in Paris. On the walls of his Galerie des hommes illustres Mazarin hung portraits of twenty carefully chosen figures from the Abbé Suger to his own patron Cardinal Richelieu, all alluding to Mazarin’s own powerful position within the royal establishment; in addition to four antique sculptures, there were also many busts in the gallery, including several al antica representations of members of the House of Valois.
For the gallery owner of more modest means in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, paintings (and in the north, tapestries) would provide the principal means of ornamentation. Portraits constituted the vast majority of these, principally family members past and present. Commonly they would be augmented with the likenesses of noblemen and rulers to whom allegiance was owed, but often augmented by portraits of rulers and military heroes or other notables to whom association might be implied rather than demonstrated, and with history paintings in general. More informally, the display might allude to the circle of friends of the owner.
Given the scale of construction to which the aspirant gallery owner had to commit himself, it comes as little surprise to find that the gallery accommodation might, on occasion, run ahead of the collection which it was to house. Even the Medici family’s groundbreaking Uffizi galleries, instituted in 1574, must have been quite thinly populated until the acquisition ten years later of some 170 pieces from the Della Valle–Capranica collection and they would have been transformed entirely by the end of the century by which time Ferdinando de' Medici (by now Grand Duke of Tuscany), had more than doubled the size of the collection (Ill. 3).
These instances, though few in number, may serve to establish the broad character of the gallery as it had come to take shape by the seventeenth century; in the course of the 1700s, with the adoption of galleries as common features of the neo-classical mansion, it would become further ‘democratized’ to fulfil the growing ambitions of the landed gentry throughout Europe, for whom displays of works of art and the messages of wealth and connoisseurship which they conveyed became increasingly valued attributes.
Turning to the cabinet of curiosities, although the historical sources provide us with a range of observations on what it might contain and what its philosophical purposes should be, they are much less informative or prescriptive on matters of its accommodation and installation. For these aspects we receive almost no help from the theoreticians who proffered advice to potential or actual collectors and are instead largely reliant on chance accounts left by visitors to established collections. Popular conceptions (or misconceptions) of the cabinet merely as an undifferentiated omnium gatherum of miscellaneous material have done nothing to encourage the search for structure and pattern within collections of curiosities, while the interpretation of both pictorial views and contemporary inventories has been shown to be fraught with difficulty: the seemingly detailed record of Manfredo Settala’s collection in Milan, as provided by this image of its disposition, for example, has been shown to be flatly contradicted by the evidence provided by a series of detailed inventories of the collection, in which the exhibits are arranged quite differently again from the published account of the collection, indicating a readiness on the part of artists to sacrifice pictorial accuracy for a more comprehensive, synoptic view of the whole and of the authors of catalogues to construct their own idealized versions of reality.
Similarly, the diminutive figures in the foreground of the view of Athanasius Kircher’s museum in the Jesuit college in Rome (ill. 4) would have alerted us to its unreliability as a representation of the true scale of these apartments, but the rediscovery of the obelisks which tower over the scene has revealed that the tallest of them was no more than 1.40 m in height – persuasive proof of just how misleading some such images can be. None the less, an examination of all these sources can provide us with at least an outline view of the character and disposition of the early collection, and of the premises in which it might be housed.
There was no Vitruvius or Palladio to lay down an ideal blueprint for the cabinet: the concept had indeed no currency in the classical world and hence found no place in the vocabulary of later architects practising in the neo-classical style. Most of the cabinets known to us today evolved in their ultimate settings by virtue of the redesignation of existing spaces, especially those collections founded by scholars and merchants whose financial circumstances precluded the commissioning of grandiose new chambers. The essential requirements for the cabinet were simply that it should be withdrawn, secluded and inward-looking, just as the gallery came to embody the very opposite virtues: it might include a small window for convenience or, like the studiolo of Francesco I de’ Medici in the Palazzo Vecchio at Florence (ill. 5), it might have none at all.
While Francesco’s studiolo might stand as one of the archetypes of the cabinet of curiosities, the genre is distinguished from the galleria by the far wider social spectrum represented among its adherents. Holy Roman Emperors, kings, princes and noblemen of virtually every European nation may be numbered among the owners of cabinets, but so too are university professors, clerics, apothecaries, and merchants, whose more modest budgets ensured that cabinets came to be formed in a correspondingly wide range of formats. Even allowing for the exaggerated scale of the surviving view of the imperial Raritätkammer in Vienna, it would certainly have been of a different order from even such an ambitious installation as that recorded for the apothecary Basilius Besler in Nuremberg or the more domestic setting of the Dimpfel family in Regensburg, so that any search for common architectural features seems doomed to prove fruitless.
The natural companion apartments of the earliest cabinets were not grand and airy galleries but rather the more intimate and enclosed spaces of the private study and the library. Iconographical evidence for the emergence of the proto-cabinet within the space occupied by the study is now widely familiar and long after the cabinet developed an independent identity it remained common for these different functions to share either the same space or contiguous chambers. So closely were their functions intertwined that even the terminology identifying them becomes blurred at times, as in Jan Comenius’s equation of his book-lined study with the Latin Museum and the German Kunstzimmer. Some of the most prestigious cabinets were established in just such a close relationship: in that founded at Dresden by the Elector Augustus of Saxony in the mid-sixteenth century, for example, some 300 volumes relevant to subjects represented in the Kunstkammer were stored there rather than in the nearby library, with desks and writing paper provided so that maximum practical benefit could be reaped from close attention to both these resources. In the more modest establishment of Antonio Giganti in Bologna, work-space was similarly provided in the museum while natural specimens invaded the ceiling of the adjoining library. The cabinet formed at the abbey of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris by the librarian, Claude Du Molinet, played a similarly integral and complementary role, while Filippo Buonanni, in his 1709 publication of the Museo Kircheriano in Rome similarly stressed their close conceptual and physical relationship. A fully developed example of a complementary installation of library and cabinet is presented by Schloß Windhag, near Linz, founded by Count Joachim von Enzmilner in the third quarter of the seventeenth century (ills. 6-7): the two installations were linked via a door at the end of the library suite, while two of the library chambers also contained small collections of rarities, interspersed at appropriate points with bookshelves along the walls (adjacent to the section on medicine, for example, we find a case containing a human skeleton, a preserved embryo and various animals, while the books on mathematics were accompanied by a closed case containing instruments, magnets, etc.). The university library at Nuremberg shows a similar intermixture of rarities among the bookshelves, but in England, the cabinet of the Bodleian Library at Oxford seems to have functioned primarily as a means of diverting non-academic visitors: it played no detectable part in the primary role of the library and it was housed in one of the rooms entered directly from the central quadrangle which have no internal communication with the study areas.
This relationship with libraries, although close, was never an exclusive one and cabinets embracing a typically wide variety of natural and man-made exhibits might be formed in association with a range of other institutions such as anatomy schools and physic gardens – both of these examples being represented at Leiden university in the early seventeenth century; the giardino dei semplici at Pisa included a museum at the same period. In all of these garden-cabinets a dialogue was set up between the living rarities in the flower-beds and the contents of the museum. Perhaps the most perfectly integrated examples were those housed in grottoes lined with shells and mineral specimens, allowing a seamless relationship to develop between the collection and its accommodation.
Cabinets were frequently installed too in association with rooms where lathe-turning was practised – as it was in many European courts, providing training both in manual dexterity and in mathematics for its princely exponents, who struggled to design as well as produce the complex geometrical shapes that were so sought-after. The Danish royal Kunstkammer, founded by Frederik III, was first established in just such a close relationship, seemingly within an existing suite of rooms.
More diverse workshops and laboratories may be added to the list of facilities that flourished in a close relationship with the cabinet, even to the point of invading each other’s space. The princely cabinets at Dresden and at Prague already mentioned were noteworthy for the degree to which complex machines, tools and lenses within the collection were available for use by craftsmen at the court, who might equally be allowed access to gems, ivory, coral and other raw materials in the collection with a view to reworking or resetting them. Perhaps the most natural progression and the ultimate fulfilment of this tendency would occur in Florence, where a whole series of palace workshops would be established in the vicinity of the Tribuna of the Uffizi by Francesco de’ Medici and his son Ferdinando, to form the Galleria dei Lavori.
These examples serve only to underline the absence of any common format for the form of the cabinet, which never developed an independent architectural identity in the way that the gallery may be said to have done.
Even in terms of scale, the range encountered defies close categorization. Having touched on the intimate character of the prototype cabinet, it has to be acknowledged that the most elaborate examples far exceeded any such dimensions. Rudolf II’s Kunstkammer at Prague, for example, occupied three vaulted chambers each 60 m long and associated with a ‘mathematical tower’ containing his astronomical observatory, while that of Albrecht V of Bavaria at Munich filled the two upper floors of all four sides of a quadrangle, the longest of them 35 m in length; the whole installation was, moreover, lit by a continuous range of windows on either side, further denying any sense of shadowy intimacy. Perhaps the last great cabinet of curiosities founded in Europe, the Kunstkamera of Peter the Great in St Petersburg (ill. 8), founded in 1714 and officially inaugurated five years later, may be said to mark both the apotheosis of the cabinet and the point at which it had developed beyond the stage where it retained any relationship with its Renaissance predecessors – despite that fact that it incorporated a number of Dutch cabinets that were themselves formed in that spirit – and looked instead towards the novel forms of encyclopaedism that characterized the European Enlightenment.
Clearly such a broad range of collection spaces demanded a variety of solutions to matters of display, to which have to be added the personal foibles or intentions of the owner. Returning to Francesco de’ Medici’s studiolo (only 8.5 by 3.5 m in size), the first thing to note is that the sixteenth-century visitor would have been greeted by exactly what we see today, with no exhibits (save for half a dozen bronzes) on view whatsoever: everything was stored away out of sight in the wall cabinets, whose respective contents were signalled (to the few who might have understood them) by the allegorical paintings on the doors. Perhaps there was never a more perfect realization of the cabinet as a philosophical construct, its intricate arrangement designed to engage the speculative faculties of its founder but making no attempt to flaunt its contents.
Few cabinets were quite so chaste in appearance as Francesco’s: if it shows one way that a princely owner might demonstrate his indifference to the responses of the world at large, there were certainly others – for example contemporary descriptions of Rudolf II’s Kunstkammer, with materials strewn on or under the tables and with paintings piled up against the storage cupboards, suggest that it was intensively used by its intellectually curious owner but that there could have been little opportunity here for even supervised visits, other than by those courtiers, scholars and craftsmen who had business there. For most collectors, though, then as now (and including even those who used their materials for purposeful research), the pleasure of displaying their treasures was a natural concomitant of accumulating them and a variety of solutions quickly emerged. The installation adopted by the dukes of the Tirol at Schloß Ambras is remarkable for its almost modern use of glazed cabinets, placed back-to-back in the centre of the room, each painted in a particular colour carefully chosen to complement its contents (which were arranged on the basis of their raw materials). In essence, the arrangement works as well today as it did then. More commonly, cabinets would have lined the walls, as shown in a number of seventeenth-century interiors from Italy and surviving to form the standard arrangement as in, for example, the cabinet of the Archbishops of Salzburg of the 1670s and 1680s, in which the last vestiges of the early exuberance of the Kunstkammer have been utterly suppressed. At Munich, the reconstruction by Lorenz Seelig shows a variety of cabinets, tables and consoles, arranged athwart the whole circuit of the floor-space and all serving to support sumptuous displays piled on top of them but otherwise unprotected; access here was naturally strictly supervised, but even so a secure area was created in one corner where the most valuable exhibits could be protected under lock and key. Elsewhere compromise solutions were common: at Windhag, for example, cases housing the rarities lined the walls on either side, with an elaborate, free-standing cabinet of coins and medals occupying the central floor-space and a wall-case filled with religious relics at one end.Numismatic collections were almost invariably housed in this way, and those collectors who engaged in purposeful attempts to classify their natural rarities in particular were likely to house those too in chests with labelled drawers: the heavy representation of apothecaries and medical men among early collectors is thought to have promoted this practice, which would have been familiar to them from their professional practice. Ulisse Aldrovandi is reputed to have had chests with 4,500 such drawers in his museum at Bologna, Michele Mercati’s Museum Metallicum at the Vatican appears to have had separate cabinets for each class of his mineral collection (if we are to believe the surviving engraved views of the museum), while the well-known frontispiece to the catalogue of Ole Worm’s museum in Copenhagen shows a range of drawers and boxes with internal divisions for various categories of material. Open shelving, as is prominent in interiors such as that of Ferrante Imperato in Naples, would similarly have been well adapted to holding albums of drawings and herbaria containing dried plants.
What many of these displays had in common was that the ceiling space was extensively used for the display of the most eye-catching exhibits in what became almost a Leitmotif of the cabinet; these generally included particularly impressive specimens from the natural world but also large-scale man-made items such as canoes. It has been observed that even the owners of cabinets which were fundamentally study collections for personal research could be tempted into this form of ostentation in order to establish the social credentials of their collections and to attract recognition and perhaps patronage from their social betters, for whom such a form of display was a synonymous badge and guarantee of the collection’s status.
On the whole, and in contrast to galleries, cabinets seem not to have attracted large-scale painted decoration – perhaps because the dense displays which were particularly favoured would have been at odds with intricate ceiling and mural ornament. Francesco de’ Medici’s studiolo was exceptional in the degree to which, as we have seen, the programme of its painted ornament was linked to the contents of the individual cabinets. By contrast, the painted cabinets surviving from the early years of the eighteenth century in the Franckesche Stiftungen at Halle, while remarkable, seem merely to allude in a straightforwardly decorative manner to their contents, fully visible through glazed doors. At Schloß Windhag, as we have seen, painted decoration covered the ceilings of all the rooms in Enzmilner’s suite, with themes complementing in a general way their respective contents: the central fields of the Kunstkammer ceiling there featured the Seven Wonders of the World. Kircher’s museum in the Jesuit College at Rome was exceptional in having an elaborate programme of paintings and inscriptions on its multi-vaulted ceiling which alluded to the unity of knowledge sought after by the encyclopaedic Kircher and the school of learning which he promoted.
In other ways too Kircher’s collection was exceptional, even to the point of seeming to undermine the whole basis of my thesis, although personally I would prefer to regard it as the exception that proves the rule. Even with the caveats expressed earlier concerning the distortions of scale embodied here, the interior seems in fact to correspond to our characterization both of the gallery and the cabinet: the image is neatly divided down the middle as though to emphasize its two-sided nature, with an extensive and well-lit vista on the right populated by antique sculptures and with a smaller chamber (evidently one of several) on the left fitted out with typical materials and displayed according to the principles of the cabinet; the figure of Atlas supporting the globe stands at the axis of these two forms of representation. While visitors tended to call it his ‘galeria’, Kircher himself usually refers to it as his ‘museo’, although on one occasion in 1659 he writes of his ‘Galleria oder Museum’, prompting one scholar to suggest that he used the terms synonymously for the institution and the collection it housed respectively.
None the less, my thesis remains that the cabinet and the gallery were two very different kinds of architectural entities, housing – and in some ways defining –different kinds of collections. To some degree, the formally constituted museums that succeeded them (in chronological terms) found it necessary to adapt their own architectures to accommodate the materials from each of these sources, so that we continue to live with the legacy of this early dichotomy in the history of collecting.
6. Coope 1986, 59 quotes a telling description of the gallery from a treatise on building by Roger North (1651-1734): "This is a room for no other use but pastime and health... it is to be considered whether the gallery be taken into the parade of the house, or be kept for private divertion of the master". Whichever function it fulfilled, it was capable, North suggests, of being ‘adorned and made diverting’.
7. The display and domestic functions of the gallery were never, of course, mutually exclusive. Prinz (1970, p. 8) finds a reference from the first decade of the sixteenth century in which the Conte de Pianella gives a description of ‘una galleria sive loggia’ at the chateau of Cardinal Georges d’Amboise at Gaillon (Haute-Normandie), ‘dove per magiore ornamento sonn messe tre statue de marmora’ – in this case contemporary figures rather than antiquities. A much later example of the recreational use of the gallery is provided by Cosimo III de’ Medici, who is said to have secured papal approval for the removal of three of his most valued sculptures from Rome to Florence in 1677 with the excuse that, on the advice of his physician, he had been taking exercise in his gallery and was in desperate need of them for his diversion there.
12. Coope 1984, 450, quotes a letter from Viscount Howard of Bindon wrote to Robert Cecil in 1609, mentioning ‘The Gallery I lately made for the pictures of sundry of my honored friends, whose presentation thereby to behold will greatly delight me to walk often in that place where I may see so comfortable a sight’.
15. Marcin Fabiański has identified the domed rotunda as a preferred form for the early ideal musæum, but there seems little evidence that it was widely adopted for the type of universal museum of the Renaissance considered here: see Fabiański 1990.
17. Menzhausen 1985. For all its renown, the Kunstkammer at Dresden was housed in an attic floor, with inward-sloping ceilings that must have tested the skills of those responsible for installing the collection.
22. In this respect the arrangement of the studiolo is commonly compared to the theatre of memory, in which recollection of particular facts was prompted by associating them with specific loci in the mind’s eye
25. For an account of the long-lived museum of the Gualdo family in Vicenza, its ceiling decorated emblematically with images of the universe, the Creator, the Virgin and saints, see Pomian,  1990, 72-4.
keywords | Architecture; Memory; Museums; Gallery; Exhibition design; Cabinet; Kunstkammer; Kircher.
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