Imagine what Europeans experienced during the age of discovery, roughly 1500 to 1550 AD. New continents were being discovered and the world was being shown to be a far more diverse and complex…and wonderful …place than originally thought. Ships were frequently returning from uncharted lands, their holds crammed full of strange and wondrous new life forms, tribal art, and even the strange looking tribesmen themselves. Meanwhile scholars at home doing their renaissance thing were learning so much…about astronomy, printing, optics, alchemy, medicine, philosophy, art with perspective, etc. This explosion of new insights showed God’s world to be all the more awesome, man all the more capable, and life filled with all the more wonder.
Not surprisingly, noblemen, scholars and merchants went down to the docks and bought this new-world cool stuff… the seashells, the wild plant material, the “unicorn” horns, the feather headdresses… and brought it home. And they added the products of local artisans and artists, demonstrating virtuosity of the highest order…still lives so realistic you had to tap the canvas to find them two-dimensional, turned carvings of incredible delicacy and complexity, classical sculpture so life-like. And all these were placed in purpose-built rooms, wonder chambers or (in German) wunderkammern, which created a microcosm of the whole world right in your home. These rooms were designed to overwhelm you with a sense of wonder, or in modern parlance, to blow your mind.
My purpose here is to promote interest in these wunderkammern (one wunderkammer, two wunderkammern…sorry, German) to the point where the reader will learn about them, consider visiting some, and perhaps build their own. For the world is a wonderful place and we should more often celebrate that fact.
The literature and internet happily are full of information on this topic. And many beautifully illustrated books were produced in the 16th and 17th centuries as well as in the 1980’s ’90’s and ‘oughts. What I found missing was a practical guide to help you visit them in person. And that’s what I propose to write about, visiting them and seeing in person: the cacophony of form, the bouquet of color, the quirkiness, the opulence, and the stimulus for the curious.
While several thousands of these have existed in Europe, most no longer do and finding the ones worth a visit is not a straightforward task…One which took me hundreds of research hours. So I plan to describe an 11-day itinerary which two of us followed in April/May of 2009 taking us to 9 wunderkammern in Germany and Austria for a little over $4000 US including flights from Boston. (I plan to make other trips to other parts of Europe…England, France, Italy and Eastern Europe in time.) I recommend those with the interest make a similar trip! (For a detailed itinerary of this trip, please see the Appendix to Chapter 2.)
But wait. There’s a recession/depression going on. There are wars being fought with people dying. What relevance could what renaissance people did up to 500 years ago possibly have today? One thought is that then just as now the steepness in the progress curve is especially pronounced and the explosion in knowledge remarkable. A second is this: back then, Europeans were discovering the rest of the world for the first time. History then shows that a period of European exploitation of these new worlds followed, sometimes being rather hard on the newly discovered peoples and places. Today it seems we of European descent are discovering the rest of the world AS AN EQUAL for the first time. Militant Arabs can blow up our buildings, the Chinese economy profoundly affects ours, our environment’s well-being is impacted by the health of the Brazilian rainforest, and an African American is our president. So with renewed respect let’s celebrate the awesome diversity of our world!