Cabinet of Curiosities #1

Before museums and public libraries, the wealthy and idle rich collected books and curios as a sign of status. While some would dedicate entire rooms, if not wings to their collections, others would make do with small cabinets that would be opened with the port after dinner and shown to their guests.

There were many interesting personalities for whom it became something of an obsession. Doctor Hans Sloane (1660-1753) bequeathed 71,000 items to the nation when he died and it became the foundation of what is now the British Museum, the British Library and the Natural History Museum (he also created drinking chocolate and once treated Captain Morgan while he was in Jamaica).

His collection was comprised mostly of natural history, books, coins, and antiquities which he had acquired during his travels or bought from other collectors. It grew to such a size that he had to purchase a large manor house in Chelsea to house it.

Although Sloane had probably the most greatest collection, there is one other character from history that intrigues me more… Rudolf II (1552-1612), Holy Roman Emperor, King of Bohemia, Hungary and Croatia. He may not have been remembered as the greatest ruler of all time (some believe he was directly responsible for the Thirty Years War), but he had the most eclectic if not the largest collection of curiosities in all of Europe.

A lover of the arts, Rudolf was a patron of Dürer and Brueghel, but his collection went beyond painting: ceremonial swords, musical instruments, clocks, waterworks, astrolabes, compasses, telescopes and other scientific instruments, were all produced for him by some of the best craftsmen in Europe.

He was said to be obsessed with alchemy and the occult. His court was attended by the likes of John Dee (Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer), Edward Kelley, Tycho Brae and Johannes Kepler.

Photo by Martin Kníže on Unsplash

Based in the impressive Prague Castle, Rudolf built a new Northern Wing in which he created his Kunstkammer incorporating the three kingdoms of nature and the works of man. The collection was supposedly patrolled by a lion and tiger who were allowed to roam freely and there is documented evidence of survivors compensation after an attack, or in some cases, payments to the victim’s families.

He developed quite a reputation for his interest in the occult sciences of astrology and alchemy, which were considered mainstream in Prague at that time. In his lifelong quest to find the philosopher’s stone, he spared no expense in bringing Europe’s best alchemists such as Dee, Kelley and Sendivogius to his court, and building his own private alchemy laboratory. Nostradamus had even prepared a horoscope for him. He was also supposed to have paid 600 ducats ($90,000) for the Voynich Manuscript although no evidence has ever been found to support that.

Rudolf is also mentioned in the legend of the Golem of Prague.

After his death most of his collection was moved to Vienna or stolen during the sacking of Prague in the Thirty Years War.

This research (and much more besides) was used to develop the characters and storylines of Changeling.

Do you have any interesting facts about other collectors? Let me know, I’m always looking for new stories…

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