Life inside a Cabinet of Curiosity: Sitting on the Sofa with Sir John Soane and Mariano Fortuny

Domenico Remps (1620–1699) (photo from WGA)

Philip Hoare wrote a great article a few weeks ago for the Guardian (my fave) about the resurgence of curiosity for the Cabinet of Curiosity in museums today. He highlighted upcoming exhibitions and new forms of curation that reveal a taste for stuffed animals and objects of naturalia within the realm of fine art. In recent years the type of objects and means of display pioneered within the Renaissance Wunderkammer (aka Cabinet of Curiosity) has gained momentum due to artists such as Damien Hirst reinventing them. The structure of the cabinet is intriguing and to have a single art piece or show based on it is fascinating. However what I am more interested in is what happens when you build your Wunderkammer around you in your home and you become the central object?

I need to explain what a Wunderkammer is first.

Simply, the Cabinet of Curiosity is a collection of objects displayed within a room or cabinet. It was initially a European phenomenon that surfaced during the 16th century. It was a pursuit of the educated in society as a means to collect objects for display and research. Those from the pope, to princes, dukes, philosophers, scholars and poets built up their own Wunderkammer in order to appeal to the ideal of the ‘Renaissance Man’ – a person whose expertise spans a range of subject areas. The concept of the Renaissance Man was first expressed by Leon Battista Alberti during the humanist explosion of the Renaissance and refers to figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and Francis Bacon who strived to constantly develop their capacities as learned men.

What was the purpose of the Wunderkammer?

To an extent the early princely collections that developed into Cabinets of Curiosity acted as a mark of a superior scholarly status. The most fully realised during this early period was the studiolo of Francesco I de’ Medici. It was a room filled with painted cabinets; the imagery on the facade alluding to what objects were concealed within. In many Wunderkammer there was a conceptual basis from which the collection stemmed. Here introducing the idea that these were not rooms filled with cluttered objects, but organised collections that acted like encyclopedias on certain subjects. For Francesco nature and art anchored his collection. For others there were different subject areas as the central focus, such as coins and medals, or exotic objects sourced from colonial travels and trading.

Although many of these collections were initally private, over the course of time many of them were opened up to the public. For example, Peter the Great’s princely collection (18th century) was created as an accessible museum in St. Petersburg. He wanted it to be educational. Some collections introduced an entrance fee and others toured to different locations (much like today’s blockbuster exhibitions). Such visitors would have been of a certain social standing. But it is important to understand that the cabinet of curiosity finds itself at the origin of the museum. Many museums are founded upon a cabinet of curiosity and the ways in which the items were displayed within subjects helps us to understand the organization of museums today. For example the Ashmolean in Oxford was established through the donation of Elias Ashmole’s cabinet of curiosity.

I now want to look at two museums that are based on two men’s collection. Two very different men and two very fascinating museums. Both the Sir John Soane Museum (Holborn, London) and Palazzo Fortuny (Venice) are museums that contain the collections of the owner of the house. Although not intended as large scale cabinets of curiosity, for me they feel like collections that burst out of their cabinets and consumed the buildings they inhabit. When walking through them you feel like you are walking through the passageways of the minds of the men who created them.

Sir John Soane Museum Facade

Sir John Soane Museum Facade

Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of the most interesting museums in the world. The Soane Museum is an institutionalised private collection that the 18th century architect Sir John Soane created, which preserves and displays his vast collection of Classical, Gothic and Egyptian objects. Soane was a highly renowned architect who boasted notable commissions such as the Bank of England and was Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy. Over many decades he developed a vast collection of objects, drawings and paintings which he hung in his house and transformed into a museum of architecture to be bequeathed to the nation upon his death in 1833. When walking through the house you are surrounded by objects. Too many to see, too many to take in all at once.

The house itself is not particularly large but it is filled ‘to the brim’ with hundreds of objects from floor to ceiling making it appear double its size. You forget the walls exist (in some cases you can barely see the walls) as you are mesmerized by the treasures that surround you. Reading an essay by Wolfgang Ernst I was interested how he highlights the timelessness of the way Soane displayed his collection. Ernst notes that unlike the cabinet of curiosity which was a site of universal knowledge, the items on display in the Soane museum do not tell a story of their past. They visualize a “network of signs of their own coherence, of their own logic”. When you stand in his house surrounded by fragments of the Parthenon you are not confronted by the parthenon itself, reconstructed, but by the beauty of the objects themselves. They are extracted from their original historical narrative and presented as isolated objects. The house acts as the frame, in other words Soane himself, as each minutiae detail has been designed and carefully planned out by him.

It is intriguing that to many the museum was like a house of cluttered objects without logic and historical consciousness. However Soane has visualized in front of our eyes his own scrap book. Throughout the museum he cleverly played with display to blur the line between fact and fiction. For example, he placed the masterpiece of his collection, the Belzoni Sarcophagus, within the basement or ‘crypt’ – implying the space is a mausoleum. Similarly the Monk’s parlour found on the same level is a space dedicated to an imagined ghost that haunts the room.

The recurring theme of death and preservation does not seem accidental. Museums housing private collections can function like “mausoleums of their founders” because they preserve not only the collection but also the legacy of the collectors. And we are subtly reminded of Soane’s presence throughout the museum. A portrait of himself can be seen under the central dome overlooking the sarcophagus, amongst other classical figures, in the place of Julius Caesar. What can we infer about the way Soane thought of himself through this act?

Ernst cleverly notes that in divorcing the objects from their place within history they are “named by the collector’s own signature”. It appears Soane is immortalizing himself through his collection. Not only has he secured this through the display but also the simple fact that upon his death he passed a bill with parliament that the museum should not be changed in any way upon the point of his death. The implications of the act prevents any loss of meaning in relation to Soane’s mark upon the museum. He is the artist of his own museum. The way in which Soane designed and displayed his collection creates an overall personal feeling. This is what makes it so compelling and unique. You feel as if you are walking through the passages of his mind.

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

Despite the fact that this sounds fairly eerie, there is something intoxicating about experiencing immortal beauty. And in no place are beauty and decay intertwined more than in Venice. Decadent Palazzos sinking into the putrid water of the Grand Canal. The sound of Vivaldi seeping out into the street where rats scuttle from bin to bin. Some of the greatest art and architecture ever created lies in a city whose centre is fast resembling Disney Land. Is it Death in Venice, or death of Venice? Lets forget about the hoards snapping thousands of photos of themselves covered in dirty pigeons in Piazza San Marco and escape down the narrow winding streets to a small square along from the Rialto bridge. In the silent Campo San Benedetto the beautiful Palazzo Fortuny remains untouched by the tourist crowd. I can picture its beauty so clearly in my mind. It will always be waiting for me in my memory, seducing me back to the watery wonderland.

The Ducal Palace from the Grand Canal

The Ducal Palace from the Grand Canal

San Marco

San Marco

Palazzo Fortuny

Palazzo Fortuny

The building was acquired by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo from the Pesaro family who were a Venetian noble family. The Pesaro family were of great importance with members serving the Papalcy and the ducal court. They were great patrons of the art, most famous for commissioning Titian to decorate the family chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari with a painting of the Virgin and Child with St. Peter. Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo is best known as a designer of dresses, fabrics, theatre lighting, interiors and architecture. A son of a famous Spanish artist, Fortuny moved to Venice at the age of 18 with his family. At the beginning of the 20th century he moved into the vast Gothic Palazzo Fortuny and transformed its interiors into his studio, or “think-tank” as he referred to it. Fortuny is most famous for his work as a fashion designer. Alongside his wife Henriette Nigrin he created the Delphos Gown, a dress influenced by ancient Greek female robes. They were made from exquisite silk and pleated with a fine delicacy that gives the effect of rippling water. Fortuny designed them to be worn inside and without shoes or undergarments so that the material could cling to the body and spill out onto the floor, making those who wore them look like mermaids.

But what about the Palazzo? The Palazzo contains Fortuny’s possessions and works of art. You can see his dresses on display, his photographs, objects of curiosity all held within cabinets and hung on the walls covered in the fabrics he designed. It is only open during temporary exhibitions where Fortuny’s world collides with art works from other modern and contemporary artists. My only experience of seeing Fortuny’s house and collection was during the 2013 Biennale when a unique exhibition was on display. The Catalan artist Antoni Tapies was the central focus of the exhibition ‘TAPIES. The Eye of the Artst’, in which Fortuny’s house opened up its doors to Tapies’ own collection. Works that had never been put on display before from the Tapies estate were hung next to Fortuny’s own unique collection. Everywhere you turned there was something to go and explore more closely. Interesting juxtapositions of objects placed next to each other: Large modern abstract paintings by Emilio Vedova next to 18th century drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

The Palazzo is made up of 4 floors (I think) that all look different to each other. The ground floor has a thickness in the air, full of water, and the scent of old bricks and damp wood. Large murals by Tapies were hung on exposed brick walls alongside works by Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and Sir Anthony Caro.

Ground Floor Palazzo Fortuny

Ground Floor Palazzo Fortuny

As you venture upstairs you climb into a different universe as you enter a dimly lit hall filled with large sofas, drapery hanging on the walls, huge lamps and lanterns hanging from the ceiling that Fortuny designed himself. It is full of decoration and contrasts starkly with the floor below and the open empty decor of the floors above. It is this decadent first floor that is most like the immersive Cabinet of Curiosity. So many different objects and textures calling to you. So many reminders of the man who lived in the building. His dresses stand on mannequins in his studio next to his sketches and drawings for theatre sets. His photographs and paintings are hung up on the walls surrounded by other paintings and sculptures by other modern artists. His death mask sits in a cabinet next to Wagner’s. It’s otherworldly.

Sketching on the third floor of Palazzo Fortuny

Sketching on the third floor of Palazzo Fortuny

There is something more Bohemian about Fortuny’s collection. It’s about getting lost in the immersive physical effect of the space itself in comparison to Soane’s house where you are placed within a controlled environment devised meticulously by his brilliant mind. In the Soane museum you take more of a passive role as you wander through his collection experiencing the narrative of Soane’s legacy. Whereas at the Palazzo Fortuny you are thrown into a different world and left to explore the labyrinth alone. I love both places, both collections and the atmospheres they conjure. They are incredibly powerful as the doors of the cabinet of curiosity dissolve letting us enter into the creative minds of their collectors.

Open breezy spaces, 4th Floor Palazzo Fortuny

Open breezy spaces, 4th Floor Palazzo Fortuny

For Philip Hoare’s article in the Guardian:

For more pictures of Palazzo Fortuny see:  and


Dario Gamboni, ‘The Art of Keeping Art Together: On Collector’s Museums and Their Preservation’, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 52: Autumn 2007

Wolfgang Ernst, Frames at Work: Museological Imagination and Historical Discourse in Neoclassical Britain, The Art Bulletin, 75: September 1993, 481-498

Arthur MacGregor, Curiosity and Enlightenment, Yale University Press, 2007

Gillian Darley, John Soane: An Accidental Romantic, New Haven and London, 1999


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