“Cabinet of Curiosities”: Eerily beautiful or creepy tasteless: the art from curios cabinets

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© Manufacturer / Massimo Listri / Bags
Rosenborg Castle in the heart of Copenhagen was opened for viewing in 1838, but the royal art collection was founded under Frederick II (1534–1588). “The dark room” houses wax busts like those of Friedrich III. and Sophie Amalie.


Around 500 years ago, chambers of wonder were the places where whole worlds could be seen. Everything that was strange and different was brought together in great variety, from art to science.

Until a few decades ago, you could still admire real shrunken heads in a pub in Hamburg: at the end of the 1900s, seafarers had started to bring their souvenirs from foreign parts of the world to Captain Haase, a pub owner who had them on his walls and under hung the ceiling and exhibited. The pub told tales of fairy tales and sailor’s yarn to the works of art – they say. After various moves and changes of ownership, you can view the collection in Harry’s harbor bazaar today in HafenCity – and even buy one or the other piece!

Such eerily beautiful exhibits have inspired people much earlier, Taschen-Verlag has dedicated a picture book of the finest design to them. It leads through European (big) cities, in which collections exist, which were created centuries ago by fascinated curious people. What grows deep down in the sea? What do people look like from the inside? Which animals live in other parts of the world? People have already asked themselves these questions when only a few were granted travel to exotic countries and other continents. And even back then, it was mainly seafarers who brought with them from their tours what seemed particularly worth seeing.

There are chambers of wonder all over Europe

Shells, corals, ivory, stone types, bones, fossils and what “artists” have made of these materials are only a fraction of what the XXL illustrated book “Cabinet of Curiosities” shows. Many of the exhibits, which are distributed in pantries all over Europe, could no longer be created today – some for reasons of species protection, others because this type of exhibition is forbidden by itself today.

What some descendants may have disposed of as kitsch or dust catchers remained in Cabinets of curiosities received and can still be seen today. And what kind of curiosities they are! What Massimo Listri’s “picture book” shows is astonishing, some things will still look “futuristic” even in 2020. The loving design of the book with its pink metallic intro pages or a triple fold-out double page for ivory art even creates a certain amount of awe – even for the victims who demanded the exhibits many, many years ago.

Massimo Listri was born in Florence in 1953 and specialized in art and architecture when he was 17. He has already published 70 photo books.

Learn more:

Serial killer Peter Kürten: How the head of the “Vampire of Düsseldorf” ended up in an American cabinet of curiosities

Lonely Planet’s curious world: the eleven most puzzling places on earth

Medusa: coral snake with two heads survives only through special feeding

Video: In close contact with a big cat: lion jumps into a car with tourists (KameraOne)

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