The Man Without Content
Giorgio Agamben

Chapter #4 : The Cabinet of Wonder

In 1660, in Antwerp, David Teniers published the first illustrated catalog of an art museum under the title Theatrum pittoricum. In a series of etchings, the book reproduces the paintings owned by the archduke Leopold William and hung in his exhibition halls in the Brussels court. The author, addressing the "admirers of art" in his preface, warns that
the original paintings whose drawings you see here are not all of the same shape or of the same size. Thus we have had to make them the same, in order to reduce them to the size of the pages of this volume, so that we could present them to you in a more convenient form. If somebody should wish to know the proportion of the originals, he can measure it guiding himself with the feet or palms which are marked in the margins.

This warning is followed by a description of the halls themselves that could be a prototype of the guide found at the entrance of any modern museum, if it were not for the scant attention that Teniers pays the individual paintings rather than to the exhibition space as a whole:
Upon entering, one encounters two long galleries, where, along the windowless wall, the Paintings hang in good order; on the other side, where the windows are, one can admire several large Statues, for the most part ancient ones, set on high Bases, with their ornaments; be hind them, under and between the windows, are other paintings, several of which you do not know.

Teniers informs us that among these are found six canvases by Bruegel the Elder, representing the twelve months of the year "with an admirable art of the brush, vivid colors, and ingenious ordering of postures," and a large number of still lives; from there one moves into other halls and exhibition areas "where the rarest and most precious rooms show the most subtle masterpieces of the brush, to the wonderful delight of the discerning Minds; so that the people who wish to look at such lovely things to their hearts' desire would need several weeks of leisure, or even many months, to examine them as closely as they deserve."

Art collections, however, have not always had such a familiar aspect for us. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, in the countries of continental Europe, princes and learned men used to collect the most disparate objects in a Wunderkammer (cabinet of wonder), which contained, promiscuously, rocks of an unusual shape, coins, stuffed animals, manuscript volumes, ostrich eggs, and unicorn horns. Statues and paintings stood side by side with curios and exemplars of natural history in these cabinets of wonders when people started
collecting art objects; and, at least in Germanic countries, the princes' art collections preserved the traces of their origin in the medieval Wunderkammer until much later. We know that August I, elector of Saxony, who boasted that he owned "a series of portraits of Roman emperors, from Caesar to Domitian, executed by Titian from life," refused an offer of 100,000 gold florins made by Venice's Council of the Ten for a unicorn he owned, and that he kept as a precious object a stuffed phoenix, a gift from the bishop of Bamberg. As late as 1567, the exhibition room kept by Albert V of Bavaria contained, in addition to 780 paintings, 2,000 objects of various kinds, among them "an egg that a bishop had found inside another egg, manna fallen from the sky during a famine, a hydra, and a basilisk."

We have an etching that reproduces the Wunderkammer belonging to the German physician and collector Hans Worms, with the help of which we can gain a fairly precise notion of the appearance of a real cabinet of wonder. Alligators, stuffed gray bears, oddly shaped fish, stuffed birds, and canoes used by primitive peoples hang from the ceiling, at a considerable distance from the floor. The upper part of the back wall is taken up by spears, arrows, and other weapons of various shapes and origins. Between the windows of one of the side walls there are deer and elk antlers, animal hooves and skulls;
on the opposite wall, in near proximity to each other, hang tortoise shells, snake skins, sawfish teeth, and leopard skins. From a certain height all the way down to the floor, the walls are covered with shelves overflowing with shells, octopus bones, mineral salts, metals, roots, and mythological statuettes. Only seemingly does chaos reign in the Wunderkammer, however: to the mind of the medieval scholar, it was a sort of microcosm that reproduced, in its harmonious confusion, the animal, vegetable, and mineral macrocosm. This is why the individual objects seem to find their meaning only side by side with others, between the walls of a room in which the scholar could measure at every moment the boundaries of the universe. 

If we now lift our eyes away from the etching and turn them to a painting that reproduces a seventeenth-century gallery, for example the picture by Willem van Haecht that depicts the archduke Albert visiting Cornelius van der Geist's collection in Antwerp, in the company of Rubens, Gerard Seghers, and Jordaens, we cannot help noticing a certain similarity. The walls are literally covered, from the floor to the ceiling, with paintings of the most diverse sizes and materials, almost touching each other so as to form a pictorial magma that recalls Frenhofer's "wall of paint" and in which the single work would have had little chance of being noticed. Next to a door, in equal confusion, stands a group of statues, among which we can make out only with difficulty an Apollo, a Venus, a Bacchus, and a Diana. The dense group of artists and gentlemen gathered around a low table covered with small sculptures stands out among the other paintings that are piled up all over the floor. On the lintel of one of the doors, under a coat of arms above which is a skull, is an easily legible
inscription: Vive l'Esprit (long live intelligence).

It has been observed that we feel as though we were not in front of paintings but in front of one immense tapestry in which vague colors and shapes fluctuate, and the question comes naturally whether the same thing may not apply to these paintings as to the medieval scholar's shells and whale teeth: namely, that they acquired their truth and their authentic meaning only through their inclusion in the harmonic microcosm of the Wunderkammer. It seems, that is, that the single canvases have no reality outside the unmoving Theatrum pittoricum to which they are consigned, or at least that they acquire all their enigmatic meaning only in this ideal space. But while the microcosm of the Wunderkammer had its profound reason in its living and immediate unity with the great world of divine creation, it would be vain to seek an analogous foundation for the gallery: enclosed by the vivid colors of its walls, it rests in itself like a perfectly self-sufficient world where the canvases resemble the sleeping princess of the fairy tale, prisoner of a spell whose magic formula is inscribed on the door's lintel: Vive l'Esprit.

In the same year in which, in Antwerp Teniers published his Theatrum pittoricum, Marco Boschini Carta del navegar pittoresco (Chart of pictorial navigation) also appeared. This book interests the art historian because of the multifarious information on seventeenthcentury Venetian painting it provides us with and for the embryonic aesthetic judgments on individual painters that it sketches; but it is particularly interesting for us because, after leading the "Venetian Ship" across "the high seas of Painting," Boschini concludes his adventurous itinerary with the meticulous description of an imaginary gallery.
Boschini lingers for a long time on the shape that, according to the taste of the time, the walls and the corners of the ceilings must have:

L'opera su i sofiti, che xé piani
e' i fenze in archi, e in volti li trasforma.
Cusì de piani ai concavi el dà forma
e tesse a i ochi industriosi ingani.
El fa che i cantonali in forma acuta
salta fuora con angoli spicanti,
e in pe' de andare in drento, i vien avanti.
Questo è loquace, e no' pitura muta.
(The work on the ceilings, which are flat,
molds them into arches, and transforms them into vaults.
Thus he gives to concave spaces the look of flat ones
and weaves ingenious deceptions for the eyes.
He makes it so that the corner cupboards, in acute shape,
jump out with outstanding angles,
and instead of going in, come forward.
This is loquacious, and not mute painting.)

He does not even neglect to specify, for every room, the color and kind of wall coverings for this purely mental décor. Although architectural rules for the construction of galleries had already been put in writing, this is one of the first times that these precepts, instead of being contained in an architectural treatise, are given as the ideal conclusion to what we could define as a vast critical-descriptive treatise on painting. It seems that for Boschini, his imaginary gallery is in some way the most concrete space of painting, a sort of ideal connecting fabric that is able to ensure a unitary foundation to the disparate creations of the artists' genius, as though, once abandoned to the stormy sea of painting, they could reach dry land only on the perfectly set up scene of this virtual theater. Boschini is so convinced of this that he even compares the paintings sleeping in the halls of the gallery to balms, which, in order to acquire their full power, have to rest in their glass containers:

Balsamo è la Pitura precioso,
per l'intelletto vera medesina,
che più che 'l sta in te 'l vaso, el se rafina,
e in cao cent'anni lé miracoloso.
(Painting is a precious balm,
true medicine for the intellect,
and the more it stays in its vial the more refined it gets,
and by a hundred years later it is miraculous.)

Although we do not make use of such ingenuous images, it is probable that our aesthetic perspective on art, which makes us build museums and makes it appear normal to us that the paint ing should go immediately from the hands of the artist to a hall in the museum of contemporary art, is based on not too dissimilar assumptions. What is certain, at any rate, is that the work of art is no longer, at this point, the essential measure of man's dwelling on earth, which, precisely because it builds and makes possible the act of dwelling, has neither an autonomous sphere nor a particular identity, but is a compendium and reflection of the entire human world. On the contrary, art has now built its own world for itself. Consigned to the atemporal aesthetic dimension of the Museum Theatrum, it begins its second and interminable life, which, while it will keep increasing its metaphysical and monetary value, will also eventually dissolve the concrete space of the work until the latter resembles the convex mirror that Boschini wished to hang on a wall of his imaginary gallery, 

dove l'ogeto, in pe' de farse appresso e se fa un passo in drio, per so' avantazo.
(where the object, instead of coming closer, steps backward, to its advantage.)

We believe, then, that we have finally secured for art its most authentic reality, but when we try to grasp it, it draws back and leaves us empty-handed. However, the work of art was not always considered a collector's object. There have been epochs when the very idea of art as we conceive it would have appeared monstrous. Love of art for its own sake is almost never encountered in the Middle Ages, and when its first symptoms appeared, mixed up with the taste for pomp and precious objects, the common view considered them aberrations.
In these epochs, the subjectivity of the artist was identified so immediately with his material--which constituted, not only for him but also for his fellow men, the innermost truth of consciousness-that it would have appeared inconceivable to speak about art as having value in itself, and in front of the finished work of art it was im possible to speak of aesthetic participation. In the four large sections ( Mirror of Nature, Mirror of Science, Mirror of Morals, Mirror of History) of the Speculum Majus, in which Vincent of Beauvais lodged the entire universe, there is no room for art because it did not represent in any way, for the medieval mind, a realm of the universe among others. When the medieval man looked at the tympanum of the Vezelay cathedral, with its sculptures depicting all the peoples of the world in the single light of divine Pentecost, or the column in the Souvigny abbey, with its four sides reproducing the wonderful ends of the earth through the images of the fabulous inhabitants of those regions--the goat-legged Satyr, the Sciapodes who moves on one foot, the horse-hoofed Hippopode, the Ethiopian, the manticore, and the unicorn--he had the aesthetic impression not that he was observing a work of art but rather that he was measuring, more concretely for him, the borders of his world. The wonderful was not yet an autonomous sentimental tonality and the particular effect of the work of art, but an indistinct presence of the grace that, in the work, put man's activity in tune with the divine world of creation, and thus kept alive the echo of what art had been in its Greek beginnings: the wonderful and uncanny power of making being and the world appear, of producing them in the work. Johan Huizinga reports the case of Denis the Carthusian, who tells how once, upon entering the Church of Saint John at Bois-le-Duc while the organ was playing, he was immediately entranced by the melody and brought to a prolonged ecstasy: "Musical sensation was immediately absorbed in religious feeling. It would never have occurred to Denis that he might admire in music or painting any other beauty than that of holy things themselves."
And yet, at some point we see the stuffed crocodile suspended at the entrance to St. Bertrand de Comminges and the unicorn foot that was kept in the sacristy of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris leave the sacred space of the cathedral to enter the collector's cabinet, and we also see the sensibility of the spectator in front of the work of art linger for so long on the instant of wonder as to isolate it as an autonomous sphere from any religious or moral content.

Text : The Man Without Content, Giorgio Agamben, originally published in italian in 1994 under the title L'uomo senza contenuto; editions Quolibet
Picture : Pianta Della Basilica di San Marco in Venezia