Geographies of collecting

Geographies of collecting

The mania for collecting was not a new thing in Renaissance Europe: one root of it can be found in the cathedral treasuries of the Middle Ages. Yet it gained multiple new impulses during the sixteenth century. Although by the seventeenth century collecting had spread to many different regions of Europe, the distribution of major collections was not uniform. Italy led the way in the sixteenth century, and -- as the term Kunst- und Wunderkammer itself suggests -- the mania was particularly acute in the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire during the decades either side of 1600.

The map above was created to help navigate a useful collection of
material on 'Kunst- und Wunderkammern' by Peter Huber in Austria. Although eighteenth-century collections were far more widely spread than the yellow squares indicate, the red and orange squares give a useful impression of the concentration of collecting in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century in a relatively narrow corridor from Naples in the south broadening as it moves northward to Naples and London, and concentrated above all in northern Italy and the Holy Roman Empire.

The political fragmentation of these regions led to a multiplication of princely courts. Particularly within the Empire, these princes' territorials were bounded on all sides by other imperial principalities, preventing a the pursuit of glory by military conquest. Instead, these princes competed with one another for cultural prestige by patronizing composers, artists, astronomers, and poets, and by collecting books, artworks, and all manner of rare and curious things. Hence the proliferation of extravagant collections in this cultural landscape in particular.

Commentary. Howard Hotson (May 2019, October 2021)