Collections of natural curiosities flourished during the 16th and 17th centuries. Also known as "cabinets of curiosities," these collections gathered strange and rare natural wonders such as monsters, often including enormous eggs, two-headed snakes, and supposed magic stones and dragon's teeth. At first these collections were formed by physicians and natural philosophers with a passion for collecting, but also with the desire to have a professional collection useful for research. The philosopher Francis Bacon described these collections as sites of "broken knowledge" lacking in unity. Such collections also played a social role: they enabled collectors to build their reputations and create professional networks not just through publishing, but also through visits and the exchange of objects. During the 17th century, curiosities became increasingly collected by high-ranking personalities. This princely influx gave a more extravagant turn to natural history collections. Glorying in superfluity, the professional function of such collections was reduced as they increasingly became mechanisms of entertainment and social promotion for their owners.

Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605?). Musaeum metallicum in libros IIII distributum. Bartholomaeus Ambrosinus ... composuit ... Marcus Antonius Bernia ... in lucem edidit ... [Bologna: Typis Jo. Baptistae Ferronii, 1648.]



This professor of natural history and philosophy in Bologna had one of the largest natural history collections of the 16th century. He described it as containing: "18,000 different things, among them 7,000 plants in fifteen volumes, dried and pasted, 3,000 of which I had painted as if alive. The rest - animals terrestrial, aerial and aquatic, and other subterranean things such as earth, petrified sap, stones, marbles, rocks, and metals – amount to as many pieces again."


His collection was also intended to be a major attraction for gentlemen passing through this city.

The engraving shown on the left page depicts a marble fragment in which a cat was "sculpted by nature." Such figured stones were common in collections of the 16th and 17th century and constituted a class of minerals on their own.

Ole Worm (1588-1654). Museum Wormianum; seu, Historia rerum rariorum, tam naturalium, quam artificialium, tam domesticarum, quam exoticarum, quae Hafniae Danorum in aedibus authoribus servantur ... Amsterdam: Apud Ludovicum & Danielem Elzevirios, 1655.



A naturalist and professor of medicine in Copenhagen, Ole Worm had a significant professional collection. The beautiful frontispiece shown here depicts a part of his collection: a room full of many rare and exotic animals, plants, and minerals, including a crocodile and an armadillo mounted on the right-hand wall. His collection was purchased after his death by Duke Friedrich III of Schleswig-Holstein.


Catalogus Musaei Ruyschiani..Praeparatorum Anatomicorum, variorum Animalium, Plantarum, aliarumque Rerum Naturalium … Amsterdam: Janssonio-Waesbergios, [1731].

Frederik Ruysch was a Dutch surgeon and anatomist. He assembled one of the largest anatomical collections of the time, including examples of human beings with physical oddities. Ruysch was famous for his rather romantic and dramatic ways of displaying his specimens using innovative embalming techniques. His 'cabinet' became a major attraction for foreign visitors and was on view in several small rented houses in Amsterdam. He also conducted public dissections on human corpses by candlelight, accompanied by music and refreshments.

This catalogue describes 1,189 anatomical specimens, followed by 27 lots of exotic plants from Ruysch's collection.



Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731). Thesaurus anatomicus … Amsterdam: J. Wolters, 1701-7.

The engraved illustrations that accompanied this Thesaurus are examples of Ruysch's use of his anatomical collection as an expressive artistic medium. Almost surrealistic, the present illustration depicts posed skeletons surrounded by embalmed monsters, exotic reptiles, dried plants, and sea creatures.