Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Cabinet
Born in 1522, Aldrovandi lived between the times of Da Vinci and Galileo. Like these geniuses of their times, Aldrovandi too got himself in hot water with the church. Arrested for heresy for espousing anti-trinitarian beliefs, Aldrovandi was transfered to Rome. On a sort of loose house-arrest, the time in Rome proved to have a silver lining; Aldrovandi began to cultivate an intense interest in the natural world. Up to this point, very little existed in the way of collections of natural specimens. The only collections belonged to apothecaries and were liable to be ground up into medicated powder on a moment’s notice, but Aldrovandi was about to change all this.
His interests ranged widely from botany to zoology to geology, a word he is thought to have coined. At the young age of 31, after serving out his sentence for heresy, he began collecting anything of natural interest he could get his hands on. He would eventually assemble over 18,000 “diversità di cose naturali” creating the first great cabinet of curiosity, one of the first natural history museums (open only to scholars and aristocrats), jump starting the modern study of natural history. Ole Worm, who was to create one of the most famous cabinets of curiosity modeled his after Aldrovandi, and Linnaeus, who created the system of taxonomy, called him the father of natural history. Aldrovani was an obsessive collector and he had a taste for the bizarre. One of the many books he wrote was Monstrorium Historia, a compendium of all known human and animal monstrosities. His collection contained what would have been some of the earliest taxidermy. He even owned a dragon or two. Shortly before his death he gave his collection to the university of Bologna. It would be another 50 years before Aldrovandi’s collection was acquired by another Italian naturalist and showman, Ferdinando Cospi.
Ferdinando Cospi would take the collection and add greatly to its contents, though not always its credibility. Adding such natural wonders as fish-bird hybrids and a mermaid, Cospi went so far as to have a dwarf act as the guide to the now enormous collection of natural wonders. How the dwarf felt about his dual role as guide and addition to the collection is unknown, though easily surmised.