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Right Now

In this issue's Right Now section:
Falling by Wire, Falling by Light - The Cultures of Sweetness and Smoke - "Wonder Cabinets" - Hiking into the Ozone - E-mail and Web Information


"Wonder Cabinets"

The central panel of Flemish painter Jan van Kessel's seventeenth-century allegory of America depicts a wonder cabinet full of curiosities (some of them not American) and information (misinformation, too).Painting courtesy Alte Pinakothek, Munich

In 1649 René Descartes proclaimed wonder "the first of all passions." A passion for awe no doubt inspired the inscription above the door of Pierre Borel's seventeenth-century "wonder cabinet": "Stop at this place, curious one, for here you behold...a microcosm or compendium of all rare things...." Borel's was one of countless private collections that flourished in the Renaissance. Crammed with the curiosities of art and nature--Manitoban birds of paradise, bezoar stones (calcifications from animals' stomachs), nautilus-shell cups, an epic battle carved in a cherrystone, three-tailed lizards, and the carapaces of armadillos--these one-room museums celebrated the strange, the marvelous, and the rare.

In Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (Zone Books, 1998), Katharine Park '72, Ph.D. '81, Zemurray Stone Radcliffe professor of the history of science, and Lorraine Daston '73, Ph.D. '79, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, analyze the culture that inspired these hodge-podge collections. Their own interest in wonders was sparked 20 years ago, in a graduate seminar on seventeenth-century metaphysics. At the time, their research--hours spent reading treatises like The Hog-Faced Woman or Renaissance monster ballads stored in Houghton Library--was deemed as marginal as the curiosities found in a Wunderkammer. But lately, they write, wonders have become "all the rage" in academic circles--which Park attributes to a shift away from Enlightenment notions of "good taste" that have dominated our culture since the eighteenth century.

Between the twelfth and seventeeth centuries, wonder was not the stuff of broadsides, freak shows, and almanacs, but primarily the province of the cultural elite, who cultivated it for power, prestige, or in praise of their Maker. Despite classical precedents like Pliny's Natural History, wonders first gained widespread currency in medieval encyclopedias, bestiaries, and romances. Medieval abbots and princes prized natural wonders like magnets and ostrich eggs for their potent magical or religious symbolism. The thirteenth-century Church of All Saints in Wittenberg incongruously suspended gigantic whale ribs from its ceiling as a token of God's prodigious powers.

Later, "[i]n the hands of sixteenth and seventeenth century virtuosi and collectors," Park and Daston explain, these objects "became occasions for elaborate exercises in taste and connoisseurship." During the Renaissance, the unearthing of classical artifacts and texts, exotic discoveries from the New World, contact with Africa, Asia, and the Far East, the printing press--all thriving amid a renewed spirit of inquiry--filled cabinets to overflowing with remarkable objects. Artificialia and naturalia were displayed cheek-by-jowl with astonishing new scientific inventions and ethnographic items: a stuffed crocodile and an Eskimo boat might be hung next to each other from the ceiling.

The bewildering abundance suggested less an attempt to classify and study the objects than a desire to evoke gasps of wonder from admiring visitors. Curiosity cabinets became "must-sees" on the Grand Tour itinerary. Italian naturalist and encyclopedic collector Ulisse Aldrovandi would boast that "many different gentlemen passing through the city...visit my Pandechio di natura like an eighth wonder of the world."

By the eighteenth century, however, wonder had become, in David Hume's words, "the hallmark of the ignorant and barbarous." Wonder, Park and Daston assert, now "smacked of the disruptive forces of enthusiasm and superstition" that threatened Enlightenment rationalism. As scientific discoveries, in turn, became better known, many wonders were explained away and, once familiarized, lost their charm. The unicorn's horn, for example, once ubiquitous in wonder cabinets because of biblical connections and its reputation as a potent antidote to poison, lost status after the fabled creature had been debunked, its horn reclassified as a narwhal tusk with no magical properties. Wonders that demonstrated aberrant nature gave way to more regular specimens illustrating nature's uniform laws. One of the authors of the great eighteenth-century Encyclopédie even sniffed, "the marvelous is not for us."

Yet wonders still persist, stubbornly, on the margins of our modern age. "A wonder is something that so forcibly grabs your attention you are incapable of ignoring it," says Park. "And because they don't fit into existing categories, wonders are perfect objects for making you rethink your world." Park and Daston's book reconsiders how cultures define the boundaries between the ordinary and the extraordinary. "To be a member of the modern elite is to regard wonder and wonders with studied indifference," they write. "But...[s]itting wide-eyed under a planetarium sky or furtively leafing through the Weekly World News in the checkout line, we wait for the rare and the extraordinary to surprise our souls."

~ Nancy Staab

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