Imperato's Museum

Date: 1599
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Images


Ferrante Imperato's museum was one of the many early cabinets of curiosity that sprang up throughout Europe (many of the first were in Italy) concurrently with the discovery and exploration of the New World. Although the vast majority of Europeans could not travel to the Americas, they were able to experience the utter strangeness of the new continents through the flora, fauna, and ethnographic artifacts collected in these institutions. Just as naturalists (like Oviedo and Acosta) who visited the New World used empirical learning to make sense of what they saw, the display of American things in European wonder cabinets did much to encourage the spread of empiricism throughout Europe.

The highest ambition of early cabinets of curiosity was universality: collectors sought to encompass all of creation in one building, room, or cabinet of drawers. Yet these chaotic collections eventually needed to be organized, and the scientific systems of classification developed to make sense of New World items helped inspire the complex taxonomies of the Age of Reason. Originally there were only two categories, "natural" (plants, animals, shells, etc.) and "artificial" (art, tools, weapons, etc.), but as collections grew, the means of identifying them did as well.

Although these cabinets were created largely for scientific value, the proper reaction of both casual observers and professional collectors was wonder, the sheer delight in the novelty of an object. Foreign plants and animals were the most sought after items, but the ornamental objects of alien cultures were also highly prized. In fact, materials produced by "primitive" peoples, like American Indians, was actually considered to be natural history, the same category as minerals and plants. By denying that native items were the result of intelligent manufacturing, collectors contributed to the de-humanizing of indigenous peoples in European eyes.

CITATION: Imperato, Ferrante. Ritratto del Museo di Ferrante Imperato. Napoli: C. Vitale, 1599. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call number: S16 O40.