At the turn of the 17th century, Ferrante Imperato, a well-to-do apothecary from Naples, had a truly impressive collection of natural history curios. From skeletons to seashells to swordfish, Imperato’s collection was a microcosm of how he, and his fellow European curiosi, encountered and catalogued the then-known natural world. When Imperato published a catalogue of his collection in 1599, Dell’Historia Naturale, he included a fold-out, engraved illustration of how he stored everything in floor-to-ceiling cabinets and bookshelves chockfull of books and natural history bric-a-bracs. With an alligator on the ceiling to taxidermied birds on the shelves, Imperato’s collection and its organization quickly came to epitomize Renaissance Europe’s Wunderkammer — cabinet of curiosities — and has for centuries.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) has brought Imperato’s 16th-century engraving to life in its Cabinet of Curiositiesexhibit. On the second floor of the museum, nestled between the Halls of Texas and African Wildlife, the HMNS has faithfully recreated a Renaissance cabinet of curiosities, right down to the sprightly lyre music plucking away in the background. The exhibit has the ethos and aesthetic of Imperato’s Renaissance cabinet, complete with a school of pufferfish hanging from the ceiling.
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