Estrella de Diego
Cabinet of Natural Sciences
“Marina Núñez”, catálogo, Junta de Castilla y León. Valladolid, 1998, pp. 14-21.


The encounter in 1697 during his visit to Holland between Peter the Great, Czar of Greater Russia, and Frederick Ruysch, Dutch botanist and early anatomical scientist, was surely not accidental. Perhaps because, as Berberova tells in her biography, the Russians have always been fascinated by passionate and enigmatic encounters, so graphically des­cribed by Guy de Maupassant in the story Travelling, or perhaps because the historic destiny of both of them was joined by the most subtle of links, such as always unite characters in transit.

And so it was that Peter the Great launched himself on journeys of knowledge -from high philosophy to the most humble manual labour- and developed a friendship with Leibniz, who in 1708 described his own method for constructing collections -what to collect and how to do so. This was one activity that for the Czar and the botanist would constitute a particular selective affinity. Leibniz considered that the manner in which objects should be brought together ought to take account of two criteria, “to educate and to please the eye”.

In this way, shells, minerals, musical instruments, paintings, rarities and curiosities of all types, stuffed animals, or, in other words, naturalia and artificialia – the marvels of nature and those produced by the hand of man – would make up the large collections of the 17th century. These chambers of marvels would, in the first place, manifest the power of their proprietors, their capacity to bring peculiar objects together, items that not everyone could own.

For her part, the Czar’s successor, Catherine II, a collector at least of manuscripts of the Enlightenment, also followed in the footsteps of Peter the Great, above all in the fascination for unusual encounters, as shown by her well-known relationship with Denis Diderot, to whom she wrote asking advice about a sculptor to create a monument to her predecessor’s glory. The intense relationship that followed the letter is an irrefutable proof of the passionate excesses of which Russians have shown themselves capable throughout their history -though we may suppose that this forms part of another story.

But are these excesses Russian or simply those of a period? To judge from the abundant correspondence preserved, in the case of Catherine they would seem to be Russian, for the 18th century world usually stressed containment as a corporate stage-set. However, those of Peter, who is said to have enjoyed excesses of all kinds -from those of knowledge to his crimes, as celebrated as they were numerous- could be a simple reflection of a moment which, with its fascination for the terrible and for death, integrated both concepts with the most sophisticated earthly possessions -paintings, pheasants, Ming jars or walnuts and biscuits on carved trays- without anyone seeming to feel too alarmed by this terrible reminder of vanity, of everything that is vain and banal in life, to judge by the success of the genre.

Peter the Great was excessive in all his passions -including bloodthirsty ones- and the macabre anecdote is often retold according to which his wife received the severed head of her lover without emotion, and the head preserved in formol went to join the Czar’s singular collection. We might suppose that the Czarina ‘s strategy was that of a mere survivor, but what if the comfortable coexistence with death and horror, so widespread at the time, finally explains her reaction?

Others give the fabled story a happier ending: when Catherine occupied the throne she decided to give the bodyless head a decent burial, perhaps because being a woman, also known as “the Great”, she felt the compassion that her predecessor never experienced. But the answer is too easy.

The first point to consider is that Catherine’s action was not so much Christian as enlightened. Catherine II, the friend of Diderot, whom she adopted as arbiter of good modern taste, could not allow herself the luxury of having heads exhibited here and there, like trophies in an anachronistic collection of rarities, which would correspond to the 17th century. The 18th century, rational and well-travelled, preferred to collect other things with a better social image than severed faces with surprised expressions -as death always tends to creep up on us, one imagines. For it is one thing to bring back diminutive animals, as Gulliver did -a criticism of the incipient mania for zoos-, or even subjects if the king was not careful; one thing is to collect volcanoes, like Sir William Hamilton, and something quite different to exhibit seve­red heads, even if they are exhibited as a result of scientific research. The 18th century, in its quest to order the world, taxonomizes it and returns it “other”, expelling nuisances from “nor­mal” life, locking up the mad, placing objects on shelves, with labels, catalogued by indisputable, universal categories: this one in, that one out. The 18th century had a concept of science as a territory with its own limits: or at least they repeated this to themselves as a for­mula to justify their own excesses by way of research and knowledge.

Thus, in contrast to the Museum Wormianum, which Olaus Worm set up in 1655, displaying an incredible agglomeration of objects, from imported artifacts and models to “exotic” stuffed animals -bears, crocodiles, armadillos, tortoises-, which seem to recall events occurred during hazardous journeys, they began to inaugurate the great collections of art as we understand them today: classified, with exclusions. These are distinct from the cabinets of natural sciences, being a result of the awareness of science as an autonomous and, above all, superior territory, the privileged kingdom of reason. In this way, even Hamilton, who collected volcanoes and pots -naturalia and artificialia once again-, opted not to include minerals among his accumulated passions -unlike many of his contemporaries who still followed the logic of the chamber of marvels-, limiting the collection, ordering and dividing it.

It is likely that this change in “scientific policy” between one century and the next is one of the explanations of the different types of collecting to be found, though the exclusions may also be related to expulsions in a wider sense -the mad inside, the sane outside. However, the passion for marvels continued to be basic to an understanding of 18th century protocol, as shown by the adventures described by Swift in the early years of the century. Nevertheless, there is one point distinguishing these from the often unjustified passions of the 17th century: the extravagant “imports” of Gulliver -a satire on a society that treasured the “exotic”- are always camouflaged as having scientific and even anthropological interest, very much in accordance with the times. Gulliver makes every effort not to seem like a tourist, one who when visiting distant places dreams only of bringing home improbable objects.

Who can tell whether the encounter between Peter the Great and Frederick Ruysch should not be seen in the light of these changes in the manner of collecting iitself, those occurring in the 18th century in contrast to the way of possessing characteristic of the previous century, an essential transition in which the illusion of knowing, and of transmitting this know­ledge, becomes increasingly mapped out, less passionate, more efficient. Peter the Great and Frederick Ruysch seemed to organize a collection with certain assumptions about the past, and at the same time they lived absorbed by knowledge, even more than one might expect for personages of the 17th century. Thus, these two prodigious men lived in the midst of this change, and the results of their research – of their collecting – explained the transformations occurring in their own lifetime.

A further point is that the chronicles always mention that Peter was enormous. Everything about him was huge. He was almost two meters tall, he accumulated knowledge and wars, cruelties, and even grandeur of spirit when he finally died in 1725 as a result of an act of heroism, rescuing shipwrecked folk. He, being of immoderate size and therefore unusual, surrounded himself by unusual persons exhibited alive among his other possessions: an hermaphrodite, who finally escaped despite receiving a high salary for the time, and the celebrated Foma, who had two fingers on each hand and two toes on each foot, and who when he died was dissected and exhibited together with the other monstrous marvels.

It is a fact that the passion for the monstrous -beings that were different- was not exclu­sive to the Russian court. The presence of these prodigies of otherness was also abundant in other European courts. Catherine de Medici, Elizabeth I and Maria Theresa of Austria loved to surround themselves with midgets, often of Polish origin, and to facilitate their export sometimes they were “constructed” by some prodigy, such as the ointment mentioned by Doctor Jacob Wenceslaus Dobrzensky, which when applied to the spinal column and limbs of newborn babes impeded their normal development. Though littel more than conjectures, these might not have been the only practices to maintain eternal childhood by medical methods: the voices of castrati were also wildly popular in Elizabethan England, a taste that was maintained centuries later to judge by the well-known passion of Goethe for this type of ambiguity.

In Spain, together with the madmen and fools painted by Velázquez, the people of pleasure -so called because their mission was to entertain courts where events were not excessively frequent-, the peculiarities of nature also became popular, as shown by an ample iconography extending from the midgets appearing in the Meninas of Velázquez, to the Bearded Woman of Ribera, or the print of a curious young woman which appears as frontispiece to the work of Fortunio Liceti, De Monstris, preserved in the National Library at Madrid; she would have delighted Hans Bellmer, who in 1938 produced a bust that was all breasts. Hermaphrodites, monstrously fat or exaggeratedly small, tall or short men and women, made up a catalogue of differences expressing the passion for the unusual, which formed part even of palace life.

Without doubt, the presence of these different beings speaks of the customs of a period and the manner in which the concept of magnanimity was reinforced in a monarch, who was capable of protecting madmen in the court, those lost beings who would have had to wander in isolation at a time before the creation of houses for their internment, as conceived in the 18th century. However, to some extent the people of pleasure also became part of a catalo­gue of the strange, rare objects completing the repertory of curiosities, extravagancies of the chambers of marvels which once again manifested the power of the owner, and his capacity to surround himself with surprising objects.

And as an extravagance amongst extravagances we remember the collection of Peter the Great who, sustained by scientific interest, accumulated the most varied and outrageous items: from Russian dolls fitting one into the other, alluding to classic miniaturization as a symptom of the marvelous, to sophisticated instruments of torture and surgical material, and including curiosities of nature such as skeletons, eyes and ears of metal and crystal, a cock with four legs and a sheep with two heads, in addition to a collection of teeth which the Czar himself had apparently extracted, on each of which appeared a description of the victim of such an eccentric hobby.

Therefore, when in the encounter of 1697 the Czar suddenly carne upon the Ruysch collection, he must have felt himself in the presence of an epiphany. From a contemporary viewpoint, the catalogue of items in this collection bears less resemblance to the classic cabinet of natural sciences than to the chamber of horrors constructed by the 19th century, deprived by the 18th of a close relationship with what is different and with death, a territory where terror has been transformed into aesthetic acquisition, our own way of facing up to it, and part of the attraction we feel for objects and documents of decadence.

Ruysch, who according to his biographers was one of the persons who most efficiently prepared the path of anatomical science, had spent years accumulating preparations and embalmings of living beings or parts of living beings, which with the care of a scientist and the passion of a collector he organized into his own peculiar cabinet of natural sciences, perhaps closer to a chamber of marvels. Among other objects, his collection included an embalmed child, which Peter is said to have found so moving that he could not avoid bending over and kissing its face. Siamese twins with spinal deformities, a variety of organs preserved in secret preparations, the arm of a child which had been fitted into a sleeve carefully embroidered by his daughter Rachel, a well-known painter of the Flemish court, fetuses stored in jars, fetuses preserved In formol and adorned with bands of pearls on their wrists, neck and ankles. The excitement of Peter was such that he purchased the entire collection, over 2,000 items, at a price considered exorbitant at the time.

The genuine astonishment, and even repulsion at least from our contemporary viewpoint, caused by this in its way systematic collection of objects, is not due to the embalming bodies or parts of bodies, and possibly not even to the habit of adorning them with pearls of embroidery. Indeed, in many western societies embalming is carried out even nowadays, and the dead are adorned. The essence of the astonishment and repulsion at this gruesomely atractive spectacle is the very fact of exposing these items, of showing or exhibiting them in public.

How could this “museum of horrors” follow the indications of Leibniz, who demanded that a collection should both teach and please the eye? Teach it undoubtedly did; not in vain it was said that Ruysch opened the way to modern anatomical science, but how could these macabre objects please the eye?

Let us attempt to formulate this question from a different angle. What if the astonishment arises from our incapacity to read the situation, from our outlook restricted by the conventions of the Enlightenment which advocated a clean world, without any “mistakes”, or rather, with the mistakes concealed from view?

In this respect it is worthwhile to rethink the relationship with death in the 17th century, the manner in which it was perfectly integrated into dally life, and public life, as were those madmen and midgets which the following century would expel from the “normal” world, from reason, limiting the “other”, or irrational, to the territory of representation, replacing midgets by witches, something which at the same time can exist and can only form part of a dream. The astonishment and rejection would arise, therefore, from the act of showing the “mistakes” not as a part of the irrational sphere, but as a territory of the real scientific world. The essential thing is the act of adorning misformed fetuses perhaps to make them more beautiful, perhaps to mitigate their sorrow, to convert them into human beings, into part of daily life.

Be this as it may, the relationship with death in the 17th century was more complex than it might appear at first sight. Like the objects displayed in a Wunderkammer, scientific research is once again the pretext for speaking of collective fears -social fears- which arise precisely in environments of great splendour and in societies of abundance. Possibly together with these social fears, Europe witnesses a species of cult of terror, or a fascination with it: thus, together with precious objects, representing abundance rather than well-being, appears the remembrance of death, which when adorned like living beings in part dilutes the terror.

Basically, what is exciting about the discourse of the chamber of marvels or the cabinet of Ruysch is that it is particular: that child is not any child, as the pearls convert it into a being with its own entity, different from the others. Such discourse is opposed to that of the Enlightenment in its attempt to banish what is different -or particular- imposing the triumph of the universal. However, what is universality if not a particular discourse which has imposed itself over the others? Moreover, any universalist discourse needs particular elements to define itself, and that is perhaps why the 18th century turned its eyes towards the “exotic” to mitigate the emptiness left by the exclusions.

One thing, however, seems clear: one cannot live without terror, without the passion engendered by the rejected object. It is not possible to live in a world where only what is rational exists -or is exhibited, made public, which in the end is the same thing- and one after another the centuries have used different solutions to defend themselves from the restrictions of the Enlightenment, which by attempting to taxonomize the world diminished it. The fascina­tion with vampires, humanized symbols of malign vertigo in the face of death, the dark streets of Poe, the inclusion of serial murderers among modern aesthetic acquisitions, are manners of recuperating terror and opposing types of exclusion, though like everything modern they are degraded forms of terror, nervous tics which attain reality only in the world of representation, often being further domesticated by the cinema. There, all the pathologies of fear are being integrated, like an authentic catalogue of otherness definitively reduced to fiction: mummies, vampires, carnivorous plants, human files, demented people, zombies or even physical deformities, as in the case of Tod Browning’s Freaks (which was strongly criticized for using real midgets), in which two “normal” persons join a circus world governed by other beings, a world in reverse where the strong man ends up by carrying off the ballerina.

Then the surrealists proposed a possible recuperation of otherness -death, madness, abjections- not merely as an alternative form of expression, but as a sole form of expression, and the famous Papin sisters were acclaimed as heroines. The hysteria which so fascinated Bréton and Aragón, in their own words “the greatest poetic discovery of the 19th century”, was celebrated on its fiftieth anniversary, bringing out some of the examples from the archive of Charcot, another type of cabinet of natural sciences where bepearled fetuses were replaced by young people in theatrical poses. But this pathology, poetic invention rather than reality, again obliges us to wonder whether we are not in the presence of a pathology that is fictional insofar as it is constructed, and if like the models it does not reflect the pathology of the collector.

And for a moment the encounter of Peter the Great, Czar of Greater Russia, and Frederick Ruysch, Dutch botanist and early anatomical scientist, returns to our memory. In Delft the Czar had observed with wonder the private worlds of Leeuwenhoek, only visible under the microscope, like a kind of giantship of the miniature, almost another story of Gulliver. Later on, confronted by the Ruysch collection, when glancing through these curiosities he surely thought himself in the presence of an epiphany. These curiosities which today seem to us to be atrocious, terrible, macabre, though it may well be that the truly terrible thing Is to insist on concealing them, in hiding one’s own horror, excluding it from our imagination, as the 18th century did with the insane.

We need to recuperate the cabinets of natural sciences, where death is not only mixed in with life, but is exhibited; those chambers of marvels where one day the hermaphrodite decides to leave despite the high salary. Or at least to recuperate them as territory of representation. It is necessary to recover the objects, the events, as antypology, or at least to reconstruct the shocking matters which, undoubtedly with the best of intentions, the Enlightenment eliminated and we need, as nothing causes more fear than what is hidden. Marina Núñez does this in her own particular cabinet of natural sciences, in which mad women, mummies, miracles, eyes, instruments of torture, hands which by excess recall those of Foma, dead women and varied curiosities and rarities make up a fabulous territory for reflection, even of an historical nature.