Cabinet of Curiosities

This week’s cabinet is really a casket, made from amber, “the gold of the Baltic Sea”, regarded as a substance of mythical origin possessing magical powers.  Imagine this beautiful piece illuminated in candlelight, throwing the sunset colors of the precious materials against the surfaces of a room.  Landscapes and pastoral scenes are carved into the stone on the reverse, leaving the smooth surface to invite a finger’s caress.

The design and decoration are related to a drawing for a similar casket signed by Michel Redlin, who is documented as an ‘amber carver’ in Gdansk (Poland) in 1688.  Nearly all variants of amber are incorporated to emphasize the interplay of art and nature that Redlin’s learned patrons considered the most desirable characteristic of a treasury object.

With ingenious carving, turning, delicate engraving, he transformed the natural material into a masterpiece of craftsmanship.  The base section, with a drawer, has a wooden core; the tiers above are decorated with a system of rectangular or oval sections consisting of whisper-thin plates of transparent amber. This example of decorative work can be viewed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their video series ‘Connections.’


Casanova – The Passion for Freedom” at the Biblioteque Nationale of France

A complete version of Casanova’s memoirs was first published in French in 1960.  But with access to the original manuscript limited to a few scholars, it was soon forgotten.  He wrote the memoirs in the sunset of life, preceding his death in Bohemia in 1798, bequeathing his papers to a nephew; subsequently the boxes were acquired in 1821 by Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus, one of Germany’s prominent publishers.

It was assumed in literary circles that the documents had been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in WWII.  But they were carried on a bike and hidden in a bank vault in Leipzig.  An American military truck drove them to safety in Wiesbaden.  Then in 2007, the French ambassador in Berlin contacted the Biblioteque Nationale and told of a mysterious intermediary that was prepared to talk about the sale of the memoirs.

A French commission unanimously declared the manuscripts a national treasure that needed to be purchased.  After two years of roller coaster negotiations an anonymous donor provided the finances to buy this fabulous collection.  The purchase was hailed as the most spectacular acquisition ever, at $9.6 million it was also the most expensive.  Some may consider areas of these works pornographic, but taken in their historical context, this record of Casanova’s life gives unique vision into the social structure of 18th century, where the flick of a fan could be an invitation or the coldest of snubs.

The exhibition is organized in 10 sections, one for each book of the memoirs.  Included with his other writings are 18th century Venetian paintings; objects reflecting the style of the era; jewelry; fabric; films; and music recordings.


Rose Iron Works survives over 100 years

Iconic treasures from the Rose Iron Works abound in Cleveland.  The 107 year old company will have its first open house this weekend.  Those with an appreciation for art history can get a closer look at the wrought iron creations – many of them classic Art Deco.

A delicate wrought iron spray of roses was used on the calling card of Martin Rose when he first opened for business in 1904.  He wanted to demonstrate what happened when an ancient craft met a modern aesthetic.  Using advanced technologies and new materials that promised greater efficiencies, the results maintaining the same standards of excellence he applied to traditional methods.  Martin took great pride in the fact that specifications for metalwork from Cleveland’s top echelon architects often read, “Rose Iron Works or equal.”

Take a virtual tour of the facility at their site.  Various incarnations of metal work involving intricate design motifs can be viewed in their portfolio, with a history of the craft and images from their museum.  Attention to craftsmanship and historical detail are evident in each design, with care in maintaining their reputation.


The Swiss scholar and Harvard’s collection of ornithology

The Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology houses an enormous and encyclopedic bird collection.  Founded in 1859 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, primarily through the efforts of Swiss scholar Louis Agassiz; research at the MCZ continues to follow his vision to illuminate the structures of living things, with their natural classification and relationship with their surroundings.  The museum boasts the fifth largest ornithology collection in the world, with several unique treasures:

-a brace of golden pheasants Lafayette gave to Washington.

-the world’s smallest bird, aptly named the Bee Hummingbird, found only in Cuba.

-a red-throated loon shot by John James Audubon himself.

The preserved birds are called ‘skins’ – skin and feathers stuffed with cotton.  With approximately 7,000 species, 400,000 individuals, their collection contains 80 percent of the species in the world.

Rooms filled with white metal cabinets, each holding an array of shallow sliding trays.  Each body bears a tag giving its species, and where and when it was collected.  The earliest examples coming from the late 18th century, like the Washington pheasants, many of the skins date from the 1860s to the 1930s.  The museum is also a special pilgrimage site for local birding societies eager to enjoy the rarity of items on display, the abundance of colored feathers urging them on to new discoveries of their own.


Rylands Medieval Collection

The University of Manchester archive contains more than 4 million printed books and manuscripts, over 41,000 electronic journals and 500,000 electronic books in several hundred databases.  The John Rylands University Library is one of the best-resourced academic libraries in the world.

The foundation of the Library’s collections were the Althorp Library of Lord Spencer acquired in 1892 and part of the Bibliotheca Lindesiana purchased from the Earl of Crawford, James Lindsay of Haigh Hall in 1901.  The manuscript collection includes Chinese and Japanese printed books; exquisite medieval illuminated manuscripts; examples of the earliest forms of European printing; a copy of the Gutenberg Bible; books by William Caxton; and the personal papers of Elizabeth Caxton, John Dalton and John Wesley.

The library also houses the papyrus fragments known as the Rylands Papyri and documents from North Africa.  The most notable being the St. John Fragment, believed to be the oldest extant New Testament document; the earliest fragment of the Gospel of John text; and a manuscript fragment of the apocryphal Gospel of Mary.

Illuminated manuscripts and medieval papers include 15th century medical recipes from John Byron; images from the Mundy family of Markeaton Hall, Derbyshire; and a copy of the Quest for the Golden Fleece from the 14th century.

The availability of this online resource can bring a turning point of information for any writer.  On occasion, the smallest bit of information from a rare historical record can add the joie de vie to a character, making the plot grow and come alive.  Perhaps a notation in the margins of a medieval manuscript will offer a clue to the ingredients of the Medici succession poison, a formula that dates to the ruling families of Rome.


Churchill Cabinet War Rooms

Hidden beneath the Treasury building in London lie the original Cabinet War Rooms used by Winston Churchill in WWII.  The restoration of these rooms to their previous use from 1940-1945, allows visitors to look through the lens of history.  The rooms provided the secret underground headquarters for the core of the British government throughout the war.  A few items of interest include the Transatlantic Telephone room that housed the SIGSALY encrypted telephone enabling Churchill to speak securely with President Roosevelt, Churchill’s office bedroom, and original pots and pans from the Churchill’s cook, Mrs. Landemar.

This inner sanctum, left undisturbed, with knowledge of the site highly restricted until the late 1970s when the Imperial War Museum began the task of preserving the site and its contents, opened to the public in 1984.  It is the only major museum dedicated to Sir Winston Churchill.


Thank you for joining me for this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities, Museum Monday will be a virtual visit to the Cluny Museum in Paris, suggested by Debra Eve at Late Bloomer.  If you enjoy the Museum Experience and virtual tours, take a look at Museum Nerd‘s  new post on the Walker Art Center and the changes to their social media and site content.  I see great changes on the horizon for many museums as the possibilities of a wider audience through better on line exhibitions and educational programs becomes available.





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6 responses to “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. Such a rich and amazing history behind the survival of the Casanova writings, romantic like their author. I’ve seen some of the Rose Iron Works over the years and am always impressed with the inspired quality of the work. Thanks much for sharing these treasures with us, Mary Jo!

  2. Very fine wood work love that kind of work, there was a nice display of snuff boxes here that remindeds of this kind of work.

  3. Thousands of specimens from the collections of the Museum of Comparative Zoology are on public display at the adjoining Harvard Museum of Natural History,…which is open to the public from 9 am to 5 pm, 361 days/year. The museum displays, in public, interpreted displays, some 1,000 birds, 500 current day mammals, as well as dinosaurs, Ice Age mammals, insects and other arthropods.. A new exhibition on New England Forests recently opened

  4. Thank you for your comment Charles, I will look for the collection of snuff boxes. Little pieces of art from another time intrigue me.

  5. Thank you very much for your comment! The plethora of collections at your museum is truly a national treasure. I am so pleased to share such a repository of history with other readers. I look forward to the day I can visit and immerse myself with the exhibitions and archive. I would be interested to know if you have any podcasts of lectures from your facility that I can feature in future blog posts.

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