This work was inspired by the remnants of the most famous and extensive
collection of artifacts, mostly natural, in 16th c. Europe. They were
amassed by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), the first professor of natural
history ever appointed in Italy, at the University of Bologna. A tiny
fraction of Aldrovandi's 18,000 items are still on display in today's
Aldrovandi Museum at the University of Bologna, but a few of the strangest
pieces caused the artist to investigate the collection. Oddities, such
as a frog with a lizard's tail plastered on and fishes' teeth inserted
into the frog's mouth, led to research that included not just Aldrovandi
and his thousands of tempera paintings but the History of Museums in
general. What was originally going to be a work about the fakes created
for museums and natural history collections gave way to the broader
topic of museology from Hellenistic Greece to the Enlightenment.
The Trade Edition of The Theater of Nature is a mechanical reproduction
of a limited series of handmade books created in two slightly different
versions. Both the original series and the Trade Edition contain the
same imagery and text. In the first handmade series of nine copies,
each book has nine original watercolors of completely different subjects
based on manuscripts commissioned either by Aldrovandi or by Manfredo
Settala (1600-1680) for their collections of curiosities. Settala's
museum was in Milan, but his manuscripts are housed today in the Biblioteca
Estense of Modena, not far from Bologna. The artist spent a year making
this cycle of 81 unique miniature paintings which were glued and sewn
into the nine books. The Trade Edition more closely resembles the second
handmade series, known as the Magic Lantern Edition. It contains the
same black and white copperplate etchings as the first version, and
looks identical when set upright and extended to make the "theater",
but the cover is entirely different. It is really a case as opposed
to a cover. When the book is removed from it, the case may be set up
to form a magic lantern, a sort of early slide projector from the 17th
The historical research for The Theater of Nature, both iconographic
and textual, was boiled down to a 900-word rhyming poem that accompanies
the color illustrations. The color images and text are hidden from view,
however, when the book is viewed in the theater format. In this position,
the 11 copper-plate etchings form a collection of curiosities or wunderkammer,
receding into the distance. The etchings, hand-drawn and printed by
the artist, are based on the images of six early museums in Europe,
put together here to form one fictitious museum. Lorenz adapted the
images from engravings commissioned by the founders of these early collections
to depict their museum at the front of a published catalog. In most
cases, these engravings and the lists of museum contents are all that
is left of the early collections. The etchings demonstrate a goal of
early museum founders: to shock the visitor into a state of wonder by
trying to make the entire collection visible at once, through both open
architecture and crowded displays on every surface.
In the handmade versions of the book, an effort was made to include
the animal, vegetable and mineral worlds present in these cabinets of
curiosities which were part natural history museum, part laboratory
and part library. While the covers of both versions were die-cut to
resemble the display cabinet in the first black and white image on the
left, only one edition represents the mineral world, that with the purple
mica inserted into the front cover. In place of glass, the artist split,
cut and glued into the cover, sheets of lepidolite, a purple mineral
of the mica family. Not only does the lepidolite create the idea of
a cabinet, but it also reflects light as did the mirrors often incorporated
into museums of curiosities. And while asbestos, a common item in these
early collections (from which even museum souvenirs were made), is now
known to be toxic, mica is not, yet magically resists heat as well.
The animal world is represented with the vellum binding of each hand-bound
book. The vegetable world is more subtle. The etching paper is composed
of cotton rag; however, it was dyed in boiling calendula flowers before
the etchings were printed. In this way, not just a plant is represented
but one with medicinal value, known as a "simple".
But a further element need to be included, also from the mineral world,
one that inspired wonder: the magnet. The purple mica version of the
book closes with magnets sewn into two leather straps, similar to ethnographic
amulet cases, which automatically adhere to magnets inserted in the
back cover when closing the book. The stitching of the straps forms
the letter "u", for Ulisse Aldrovandi, the wandering naturalist.
Stamperia Valdonega, one of the most prestigious art printers in Italy,
printed the text of the handmade copies in moveable type without electricity,
as it would have been printed centuries ago, in the typeface known as
Centaur (a mythical beast). They also printed the images and text of
the Trade Edition in 5,000 copies, but this time with photo-lithography,
or offset. The handmade versions contain acid-free paper produced by
the Italian paper manufacturer Cartiere Fedrigoni. The same luxurious
Fedrigoni cardstock used for the Magic Lantern Edition cover was adopted
for the body and cover of the Trade Edition.
I would like to acknowledge that the copperplate etchings could not
have been printed without the expertise of Manuela Candini at the Laboratorio
di Sperimentazioni Grafiche Leoni-Whitman, in Bologna, a stone's throw
from Aldrovandi's Collection. Invaluable assistance with calendula dyeing,
printing and mica cutting was provided by Kate Erb.
For Lucy R. Sprague
who loved the theater and
all things extraordinary
Questions you might have:
What is a magic lantern, and how does it relate to the history of
A magic lantern was originally a room or booth with a window or opening
in one wall created within a larger room. Someone inside the booth with
a flame or lamp inside could project images painted on glass through
the window and onto the wall of the larger room. That process was later
recreated in miniature to make the portable magic lanterns used until
modern slide projectors were invented. Along with the camera obscura
it played an important role in the history of photography and cinematography.
It relates to cabinets of curiosities because a Jesuit named Athanasius
Kircher in 17th century Rome experimented with with them in the Collegio
Romano or Roman College mentioned in the poem(scroll down for the text
of the book below). Many visitors flocked to the collection and laboratory
of this early scientist.
What is vellum?
The term vellum is used interchangeably with parchment, as there is
no commonly agreed upon distinction between them, even historically.
Vellum and parchment are animal skin used nowadays mostly for bookbinding.
It is generally cow, but could be sheep or goat. It ranges from white
to tan in color, and was once the principal material for the pages of
books in the Western world, until papermaking and the printing press
changed books forever. Illuminated manuscript pages were made of vellum,
and vellum was used as a painting surface for portrait miniatures, along
with ivory, until photography on tin or glass plates became the vogue
towards the end of the 19th century.
Why would Aldrovandi, or any other natural history professor or scientist
display "fakes" in his museum?
Unfortunately, scientists and collectors weren't always aware that the
things people brought to them were fakes. The questionable items were
usually for sale, offered by fishermen or anyone out to make some money.
Aldrovandi also commissioned tempera paintings of dubious curiosities
depicted in woodcuts that circulated in Europe. The Crakow man, featured
on the Magic Lantern and trade edition cover, is an example of a black
and white woodcut turned into a color manuscript image. Supposedly this
man, who resembles a surrealistic super-hero, like the Green Lantern,
only naked, was born in Crakow, Poland. The fact that he had animal
heads on his joints was supposedly a sign of the devil. When unusual
people or animals were born, with congenital aberrations real or faked,
such an event was considered a bad omen for the town or country where
the birth or discovery took place.
Also, early collectors still considered valid many things that the ancients,
such as Pliny and Aristotle, wrote about. The image with the face on
the torso, and a big red hat, was one such "foreign" race
supposedly from Asia described by Pliny. The same "people"
were depicted in Medieval manuscripts as well. Aldrovandi also displayed
things he had doubts about. He was not sure all the things in his collection
were real, but he wanted to represent as much as possible. Unfortunately,
that led early scientists and collections to be discredited, with the
advent of New Science in the Enlightenment.
Possessing Nature - Museums, Collecting and Scientific Culture in
Early Modern Italy .
University of California Press, 1994.
By Paula Findlen, Professor of Italian History and History of Science
at Stanford University
Artificialia e Naturalia. Il collezionismo enciclopedico nelle Wunderkammern
By Adalgisa Lugli
Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice 1500-1800.
By Krzysztof Pomian
The Origins of Museums: Cabinets of Curiosities in 16th and 17th
Oxford University Press,1985.
By Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor
A great amount of information was culled directly studying the thousands
of images commissioned by Aldrovandi and Settala, stored in the University
of Bologna Library and the Biblioteca Estense of Modena, respectively,
when the artist actively began reasearching the book in the fall of
1996. Also, guiding foreign visitors frequently over a period of 10
years to the Aldrovandi Museum at the University of Bologna(formerly
installed in the University library) certainly furnished a great deal
of information, as well as curiosity and inspiration.