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A RECENT exhibition in New York headlined NY Public Library Opens its Cabinet of Curiosities for Exhibition of Unusual and Unexpected Items did not include any mermaids’ skeletons or freaks of nature that appeared in that Renaissance phenomenon, the cabinet of curiosities, also known as Wunderkammern... “infinite riches in a little room”. Instead the NYPL gave us two teeth of a giant the size of a fist, a memo pad ruled with human hair, papers made from unusual materials including a wasp’s nest, Jack Kerouac’s crutches and souvenirs stolen from the house where Jesse James was shot, including his mother’s specs.

The author is a Paris-based contributing editor to the Italian art and design magazine FMR and has written on Italian mannerist painting as well as acting as general editor for a book on the history of trompe l’oeil. Cabinets of Curiosities is an ingenious historical survey of these “rooms of wonders”, these collections of the rare, the exceptional and the strangely marvellous which proliferated throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries; these “theatres of the world” that aimed to gather the whole sum of human knowledge, in one room.

Patrick Mauriés’ writing style is perfectly in tune with the bizarre nature of the book; when talking about the people who created these cabinets of curiosities, he says, “each in turn emerging from the arcane recesses of history to form a shadowy procession wreathed in mists and attended by a deluge of miscellaneous objects”. These included minerals of breathtaking beauty, fantastic corals, mysterious fossils, stuffed animals, freaks, celestial globes, automata that imitated living things, and wax effigies, with the whole cosmos arranged on shelves, in cupboards, or hanging from the ceiling.

There are five chapters, including Opening the Cabinets, The Collector: ‘senex puerilis’ (childish old man), with much here on the Emperor Rudolf II, prince of collectors, together with a conclusion on how these cabinets of curiosities, once only of interest to art historians and scholars have, since the Surrealists and Young Brit Art, seen a remarkable revival of interest.