Elliott Terral

Wonder cabinet

The estate has countless doors. Bedrooms, bathrooms, a library, smoking room, parlor, even a turkish bath. But the real treasure of the manor—the true opulence of the home—isn't found on the other side of a mahogany door. What you’re looking for is the room just behind the bookcase.

Welcome to the Wonder Cabinet. Not so much a piece of furniture as we know it today, but more an elaborate vault of curiosity, the Wonder Cabinet was a room for the elite to showcase morsels of fascination that guests would never dream of beholding in their lifetime. At the height of the European Renaissance, Wonder Cabinets were bound only by the curiosity of the intelligentsia. The walls would be adorned with anything from specimens of natural history, to paintings, to maps of uncharted worlds. It was within the Wonder Cabinet that the mind of the beholder could run free.

Historian R. J. W. Evans stated that within a home there could be two possible types of cabinets. "The princely cabinet, serving a largely representational function, and dominated by aesthetic concerns and a marked predilection for the exotic," or the less grandiose, "the more modest collection of the humanist scholar or virtuoso, which served more practical and scientific purposes." Evans goes on to explain that "no clear distinction existed between the two categories: all collecting was marked by curiosity, shading into credulity, and by some sort of universal underlying design.”

The Wonder Cabinet allowed the inquisitor to journey around the world and back in the comfort of their own homes. By the mid-eighteenth century, scholars would host meetings of the mind within their individual cabinets. Together they formed fraternities that relished in the marvelous and sheer enormity the world had to offer.

Today, Wonder Cabinets have gone public. We know them better as museums. But if you know where to look, and subscribe to the age old doctrine of amazement, you'll still find a few private collections—lurking just behind the wall.

Dan Buck

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