Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet Animals Detail 2 MFA Author's Own (5)

This week’s cabinet is from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  I had the distinct pleasure of viewing these exquisite red coral specimens first hand, a previous story from The Burlington had keyed me to their history and craftsmanship. The footnotes to the article hold all the delish details.

Cabinets from MFA site

Red Coral Cabinets, MFA, Boston

The cabinets are on “Anonymous Loan” and grace a special display room called The Cabinet of Curiosities.  Constructed from a wide variety of exotic and precious materials such as Florentine hard stone panels, tortoise shell and silver.  The red coral; a specialty of the craftsmen in Trapani, a Sicilian fishing port; believed to ward off evil, accent a majority of the surface with intricate carvings fastened with wire.  The front panels depict animals gathering around the mythical Orpheus, charming them with soothing music.  The fronts of each individual drawers depict domestic, wild, and mythical creatures.  The coral additionally has a part in mythology through Ovid: Metamorphoses IV, 741, describing Perseus beheading the Gorgon Medusa.  Where her head fell on seaweed, thus rendering the branches to coral, while sea nymphs scattered drops of her blood into the sea.

Standard stuff for the upper class, but what of these talented craftsman?  Would you be surprised to learn there was a Red Coral cartel?  According to the Burlington, and referenced in the collected bills of sale for the cabinets is one Michele Sansone, cited among the nine masestri corallari who were hanged and beheaded during a famine-driven revolt in 1673. (Daneu and Vadala)  Coral, being the predominate decoration on the cabinets, is an unusual decoration for furniture considering the quantity of pieces, the rich color and unusual texture.  In 1418 a large coral bay was discovered on the coast of Tapani, therein followed the harvesting of coral and production of objects bringing economy.  The community of corallari craftsmen and fishermen numbered 500, the majority of Jewish origin.

Cabinet Animals Detail 2 MFA Author's Own (2)

Cabinet Animals Detail 2 MFA Author's Own (4)

The cabinets were created by special order for Claude Lamoral I (1618-1679), among several titles, he served as Viceroy of Sicily in the service of the Spanish Crown, 1670-1673.  The cabinets remained at the ancestral seat of the Ligne family, the chateau de Beloeil, Belgium, since Lamoral’s return from Italy.  Very few cabinets of this period survive in collections today.  The DIA has their own masterpiece, which I have been fortunate enough to view.  The red coral cabinets at the MFA are an amazing testament to the craftsmen of Trapani and their ability to create art from natural resources.

Medici Cabinet Detroit Institute of Art Author's Own


Aberdeen logo


I believe drawers of such a storied cabinet should contain items that match both beauty and history, and was not disappointed. The first drawer contains the Aberdeen Bestiary, a true marvel of medieval times.    This illuminated manuscript is one of the most lavish of its kind, now online thanks to the Aberdeen University, current custodian of this treasure.

The book ended up in the library of Henry VIII as a handpicked treasure by his scouts after rummaging through dissolved monastic libraries for valuables.  While ornate in appearance, it was never fully finished.  The clearly visible imperfections indicate it was created in a Scriptorium by a crew of craftsman.  The pages contain instructions left by various workers, notes in the margins contain editing information, corrections in spelling errors, and pronounced mistakes to the narrative.

Aberdeen Bestiary 5

The illustrations prove why the book easily fascinates, impressively varied, depicting common animals from tiny ants to elephants, alongside fantastical beasts such as the leocrota and the phoenix.


Oriental Institute logo

Our next drawer holds some letters from the archive, a special tip of the hat to the Rabbit Hole of Research and the Oriental Institute. I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the Institute on the campus of the University of Chicago this year.  This university holds a special place to me, as my great uncle J. Harlan Bretz was a professor for many years in the Geology Department.  The Oriental Institute shared the letters of James Henry Breasted, from the first expedition of the Oriental Institute to Egypt (August 1919-July 1920).  I stumbled across Dr. Breasted during a cemetery search for another research article.  His granite head stone was a gift from Egypt in recognition of his life’s work, restoring the ancient history of Egyptian culture.

Henry Breasted Headstone from Egypt Author's Own


The Library

Behind the door of Orpheus hides a new book out this week by Stuart Kells, The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders.  I love discovering the secrets held in these institutions.  Libraries are windows on the soul of mankind, and with every burnt book the fire licks the skin of our humanity.  The local libraries in America are the beginning source of many authors and need our support to remain robust in the changing landscape of education and continued relevancy to their patrons.


I leave you with my favorite anniversary Tweet of the moment, found in a tiny drawer near the bottom.  Mary Wollenscroft Shelley was born on August 30th in 1791.  The Bodleian Library has the hand written draft in their archive.  Here’s a YouTube of their Curator of Treasures discussing Chapter 7 – the moment of the Creation.

Oxford University posted this picture of a student’s addition to her famous story Frankenstein, found in their library.  Thirteen other marginalia can be found at this link.

Frankenstein Margin

The dedication to Brian enjoyed a few sassy comments.



Resource: Burlington Magazine, July 2014, Two coral cabinets made for Claude Lamoral I, Prince de Ligne and Viceroy of Sicily, by Mario Tavella, pg 428.


1 Comment

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One response to “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. modemjunkie

    Another gorgeous and fascinating post. Thank you.

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