It’s a sad fact that most academics think of holidays as an opportunity to visit libraries in exotic and far-flung places. And so it was that last week I found myself on a train to Windsor, with an appointment to visit the Prints and Drawings department of the Royal Collection, housed in Windsor Castle.
I was on the hunt for some drawings of insects done by Christopher Wren in the 1660s with the aid of a microscope. Supposedly Wren presented several such drawings to Charles II (presumably encouraged to do so by the Royal Society, as a sort of advertisement for their endeavours). Charles was so impressed that he requested more microscopical drawings, but Wren felt he didn’t have time to do the job so the Society asked Robert Hooke to step in. The result was Hooke’s best-known work, Micrographia, printed in 1665.
Sadly, the Royal Collection no longer has Wren’s drawings. But the day wasn’t wasted, because the curators introduced me to something I’d never come across before, the paper museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo. Cassiano (1588 – 1657) was an Italian nobleman, who like many of his contemporaries was afflicted by the collecting bug. Rather sensibly, he decided to collect pictures of things rather than the things themselves. He commissioned many hundreds of beautiful illustrations of birds, fish, fruit, fungi, fossils, precious stones, classical statuary, Roman artefacts, mosaics and friezes.
Cassiano was a member of the Accademia dei Lincei, the first of the scientific societies founded in Europe in the 17thcentury. His museum shows some of the same interest in curiosities shared by many collectors in the period – images of oddly-shaped double fruit are scattered through the collection. But as curator Rea Alexandratos explained, he intended his albums to be useful to the learned community. In his correspondence he offered the use of his illustrations to accompany printed treatises on particular topics, and his zeal for collecting pictures of the everyday objects of Roman life (clothes, weights, lamps) was prompted by contemporary debates about how these things had been used.
This is a collection that falls somewhere between what we generally think of today as two distinct categories, that is, the scientific depiction of specimens as an aid to classification, and the artistic rendering of objects for decorative purposes. It’s clear that Cassiano’s paper museum filled both functions. Each natural history object is drawn as near to life-sized as possible, and where this wasn’t practical (as with a lovely drawing of a pelican) some individual parts were drawn life-sized alongside a scaled down version of the whole object.
And finally, I did get to see some images made with the aid of a microscope – in fact, some of the earliest in existence. In 1624, Galileo gave the Accademia dei Lincei a microscope. The Academy’s founder, Federico Cesi, commissioned a series of botanical studies, some of which show microscopic details of plant reproductive structures. The microscope showed that plants thought to be ‘imperfect’ because they lacked visible flowers, fruit or seeds (such as mosses and liverworts) actually reproduced in much the same way as larger plants. Unfortunately these volumes of drawings are housed in the library of the Institut de France (I was looking at copies). Perhaps my next ‘holiday’ will be in Paris . . .