The following photographic-rich article about the culture, history and art of Cabinet of Curiosities was produced on the occasion of the new exhibition by Takeshi Yamada entitled “Takeshi Yamada’s Museum of World Wonders: Cabinet of Curiosities” at the Brooklyn Public Library – Coney Island Branch in Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York. The manuscript was produced by Dr. Eriko N. Bond, noted art critic and book author in New York City, as told by Takeshi Yamada.

 

 

 

Takeshi Yamada in his Chamber of Curiosities in Baltimore, Maryland

36 x 30 inch, oil on canvas, 1983

 

Historical Cabinet of Curiosities

The Cabinet of Curiosities (also known as Wunderkammer or wonder-room) consisted of collections of natural history specimens (and some artifacts) kept and often displayed in cabinets, by many early practitioners of science in Europe. They were precursors to today’s natural history museums. (The cabinet of curiosities can be a cabinet, room, or auditorium.) This specific culture was a result of the technological advancement of long-distance voyages by ship. In the 17th century, Amsterdam, the Netherlands was the most advanced technological/biological center on the earth; The City of the New York was called New Amsterdam and was ruled by Dutch settlers.

 

NOTE: The name of Coney Island (where Takeshi Yamada lives now) is commonly thought to be derived from the Dutch Konijn Eylandt or Rabbit Island, as apparently the 17th century European settlers noted many rabbits running wild on the island of Brooklyn, New York. This inspired Takeshi Yamada to create his original Coney Island circus sideshow monster “Sea Rabbit”. For more information, see http://sideshowworld.com/TYSeaRabbit.html.

 

As the international import and export business grew, possessing a high quality Cabinet of Curiosities was a sign of wealth, education, social status and power among the ruling classes of the European nations. For the wealthy and the powerful, cabinets of curiosities were not merely expensive toys, but the ultimate expression of their egos -- victory trophies of their success in the competitive international trade business and international politics. This is why such individuals also created large zoos and botanical gardens full of exotic creatures collected from remote lands.

 

Inspired by the taste of the time, highly recognized artists also produced paintings and fine art prints that were filled from corner to corner with exotic items. A new visual technique was devised by highly accomplished artists of the time, such as Leonardo da Vinci in Italy and Albrecht Durer in Germany, in order to fit a great number and variety of items in limited pictorial space in an orderly fashion. This new technique was called one-point linear perspective. Some good examples of works using the linear perspective are listed below:  

 

 

Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer, 1514, engraving, 9 3/8" x 7 3/8"

The leader of the German Renaissance with sublime visions. This genius also originated

and perfected the art of engraving prints for the masses to propagate his deep religious faith.

 

 

Georg Gisze, a German merchant in London by Hans Holbein, the Younger, 1532.

Oil on wood, 96.3 x 85.7 cm (38 x 33 3/4 in); Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

The record stated that his portrait of the Henry VIII was "life size, so well that everyone

who looks is astonished, since it seems to live, as if it moved its head and limbs."

 

Note: This level of obsessive and manic detail-oriented, life-like extreme realism in visual art never appeared again until after World War II. This new art movement, created in America 500 years after the previous version was called Super Realism, Ultra Realism, HyperRealism, and Photorealism. Needless to say, Takeshi Yamada, as a follower of the Renaissance spirit, also created a series of photorealistic paintings.

 

Diner at the Times Square, New York City, Takeshi Yamada, 36x48 inch, oil on canvas, 1986

 

The first Cabinet of Curiosities is believed to have been created around 1500 in the courts of Italian princes, but by the following century they were quite popular and widespread. Major collectors  strove to collect curiosities of four (sometimes five) elements from all over the world to complete their prized collections. These elements are water/liquid, soil/solid, fire, wind/gas, (and sometimes divine life/soul/energy as fifth element) which are ultimate components of our universe, which have been diligently investigated by alchemists throughout history.

 

     

 (left) Alchemist’s laboratory          (right) Elements of Alchemy

 

Historically, two of the most famous cabinets described were those of Ole Worm (also known as Olaus Wormius) and Athanasius Kircher. These 17th-century cabinets, actually room-sized collections, were filled with preserved animals, horns, tusks, skeletons, minerals, and so on. Their collections (like those of modern collectors) consisted of both factual and fictional items (from mythological creatures), specimens, and artifacts. The specimens displayed were often collected during exploratory expeditions and trading voyages. Many monarchs, in particular, developed large collections. Frederick III of Denmark, who added Worm's collection to his own after Worm's death, was one such monarch. Another example is the Kunstkamera founded by Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg in 1727.

 

Shown below are some of the most dramatic examples of Cabinets of Curiosities, featured in historic scholarly books.

 

Naples pharmacist Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625) formed one of Europe’s first natural history

research collections. Here, Imperato and his son Francesco show it off to visitors.

 

Ole Worm (1588-1654), a doctor and professor of natural philosophy in

Copenhagen, used his collection to teach students. Shown above is Worm's

cabinet of curiosities depicted in the Museum Wormianum in 1655. Note the variety of

Taxidermy specimens on display such as insects, seashells, plants, giant turtle shells,

horseshoe crab, and monstrosities (monstrous-looking animals and two-headed animals).

 

The Natural History Museum or Chamber or Curiosities of Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680).

Kircher was a 17th century German Jesuit scholar who published around 40 works.

He was a da Vinci in the fields of oriental studies, geology, and medicine.

 

As you can see in these dramatic examples, the word “cabinet” as used in the Cabinet of Curiosity is a catchall term that does not quite jibe with the common dictionary definition of “cabinet - a box-shaped form containing drawers, with doors with door hardware and a lock for storing miscellaneous items”. The word “cabinet” in this context simply means “space” in and around the cabinet including the ceiling and wall space where specimens are hung. The physical three- dimensional space where their prized collections were systematically collected, filed and displayed proudly were referred as a “Cabinet”. In some cases, the term “Chamber of Curiosities” was used instead of “Cabinet of Curiosities” to describe it more correctly. 

 

Marchese Ferdinando Cospi (1606-1686) gave his collection to the city of Bologna in 1657 for

the use of scholars. Note several manmade monsters also displayed among real specimens.

The dwarf Sebastiano Biavati is also featured as a part of his precious curiosity collection.

 

    

Details of above shown cabinet of curiosity -  taxidermies of manmade monstrous animals. 

 

The cabinet of curiosities of Marchese Ferdinando Cospi is quite intriguing for several reasons. For one -- it features quite a number of manmade specimens of fictional animals including winged fish and Hippocampus (mythological half-horse and half-fish animal), as shown above. Another point of interest is the placement of the bust of Dante (instead of God or Goddess) in the center of his collections. Durante degli Alighieri, (1265 – 1321), or simply Dante, as he is universally known, was an Italian Florentine poet. His greatest work, la Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) is considered the greatest literary achievement produced in Europe during the Middle Ages. He was the embodiment of the highest intellect and taste of the time. The presence of Dante’s bust here symbolizes Cospi’s belief that the collecting of curiosities was one of the noblest pursuits of human intellect.

 

At this point, the reader might be disappointed at not finding “two-headed babies in jars” or any curious specimens in jars in historic Cabinets of Curiosities. Unfortunately, the technique of preserving specimens in glass jars using preservative liquids was unknown. You will also note the absence of any specimens of Fiji mermaids or shrunken human heads in these collections; those curiosities were also unknown at the time.

 

 

Cabinet of Curiosities in America

The culture, art, and business of the Cabinet of Curiosities arrived in the United States with the settlers. As is always the case, the impressive collections of curiosities resided in the hands of a few elites at the beginning. Nevertheless, a show business of exhibiting unusual items for the public began to develop in this new country as it did in Europe. The documented proof of how far back the public's fascination with the strange goes is evident in the plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). In the Tempest, Trinculo meets the mutant man/lizard, Caliban, and schemes to take him back to civilization. Commenting on the public's desires, he says, "When they will not give a doit (a cheap coin) to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian."

 

It is widely believed that one of the first people to capitalize on this “curiosity” type of entertainment in the United States was the late P.T.  Barnum.  In 1841, Barnum opened the doors to the American Museum in lower Manhattan.  At that time, Manhattan was the import/export hub of America. Barnum acquired a large collection of high-quality curiosities from all over the world. However, his concept of public entertainment went far beyond a room full of his prized curiosities.

 

 

P.T. Barnum and his advertisement of a show of curiosities including “Fejee Mermaid” in 1842.

 

 

What people saw in another newspaper advertisement (Charleston Courier, January 1843)

and the drawing of what they actually saw at the circus sideshow of P.T. Barnum in 1842.

 

The American Museum was a multi-complex and multi-program entertainment center similar to today’s major amusement park. It offered patrons a chance to view attractions such as the Fejee Mermaid, wax figures, taxidermy exhibits, the famous Tom Thumb and even live Shakespearean stage dramas in its theater.  Barnum was a man of vision and genuine genius who could charm  his audience -- heart and soul -- with his innovative entertainment. It should be noted that this level of highly sophisticated entertainment/culture designed to appeal to human curiosity was still undeveloped in Europe.

 

However, in 1868 Barnum faced a dramatic change in his life. His museum burned to the ground on two separate occasions. Barnum took his experience with "sensational entertainment" to the circus industry. Here again, his creativity in business shone, -- indeed, his circus was his lasting legacy.  Barnum became the cultural spokesman and living icon of the “circus sideshow” (not a mere “show” anymore) and created benchmark for others to follow. Barnum’s business model of charging fees for pay-per-view shows also played a significant role in the development of the Dime Museum (although his American Museum charged twenty-five cents) as well as today’s municipal museums in general.

 

In addition to Barnum, another giant of the 19th century significantly contributed to the development of the American circus sideshow business. His name is Benjamin Franklin Keith. Keith began his career working with traveling circuses and dime museums in New York. He  established his own dime museum in his home state of Massachusetts in 1883. One of the features of his Boston museum was "Baby Alice, The Midget Wonder." What makes Keith’s business different from Barnum’s was his passion for "Vaudeville" style entertainment. After he built the Bijou Theater in Boston with Edward Franklin Albee in 1885, Keith built 29 theaters throughout the eastern part of the country. Among many, his true masterpiece was the Palace Theater ("Big Time Vaudeville”) in New York. It is this author’s belief that Keith’s vision and style of sideshow business was passed down to Robert Ripley. Ripley was a world traveler, collector, and creator of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not!". Today, Ripley Entertainment has 54 attractions in 10 countries.

 

The cultural, commercial, and spiritual contributions of these two giants, and those of many less recognized circus sideshow owners, performers, and artists, contributed significantly to the birth of  grand scale amusement parks and entertainment complexes, such as Coney Island. At one time, the Coney Island amusement enterprise was much bigger than Disney World, Six Flags and Hollywood combined. Coney Island was literally the center of entertainment culture -- the place where the most spectacular curiosities, oddities, monsters, and marvels were collected from around the world to satisfy the human mind and soul. Coney Island was the missing link where heaven and earth met. It was a “Cabinet of Curiosity” on the grandest scale. 

 

 

Takeshi Yamada’s Museum of World Wonders

Following the great tradition of the room-sized Cabinet of Curiosity (Chamber of Curiosities) of the European Renaissance era, Takeshi Yamada has created his own version of the Chamber of Curiosities wherever he lived since he was a little child. The latest one was created in Coney Island in 2002 when he purchased a two-story house (M-1 and M-2 zoning, which means the property allows residential and light industry use). Just as 16th century collectors did, Yamada has shown his unique taxidermy specimens and taxidermy artwork to art collectors and fellow artists on special occasions. 

 

The East wall of the Chamber of Curiosities in Takeshi Yamada’s Museum of World Wonders

in Coney Island. The collections include the 4x6 feet “Battle of Coney Island” oil painting on

canvas, and a variety of taxidermy works of rare, exotic, extinct and fantasy giant marine

invertebrate species from all over the world. (Photograph by Eriko N. Bond in June, 2006)

 

The North wall of Chamber of Curiosities in Takeshi Yamada’s Museum of World Wonders

in Coney Island. Specimens shown here include a 7-foot giant killer worm, 6-foot Fiji mermaid

from Japan, arrowhead lizard, Canadian hairy trout, and a 3-foot dragon (flying lizard).

 

 

Continue to Part 2

 

 

All rights reserved by Takeshi Yamada, November 2006. Takeshi Yamada’s Museum of World Wonders in Coney Island, 1405 Neptune Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11224, USA.

E-mail: yamada108@aol.com

Special thanks to Eriko N. Bond, Lauren D. Travis, and Deborah Zingale.

 

 

Takeshi Yamada © 2007 Copyright all rights reserved

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