• Eccentricity

    • As if saving documents and objects from the fire, Sir Thomas Browne created this extraordinary (imaginary) catalogue, reviving the Renaissance's desire to rescue the intellectual treasures of Alexandria.

    An exquisite catalogue of the lost and found / 

    In the era of data recovery, when almost everything that has ever been printed can be seen online and be eternally preserved there, it would be wise to remember that once the loss of books and artefacts was near catastrophic. The Library of Alexandria was burnt by the Romans in the 1st century AD and with it a collection more vast than any other ever recollected by humanity. For this reason, many scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries devoted themselves to remembering (or inventing) what was irrecoverable and unknown. Among these was Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682).

    His vast knowledge in areas as diverse and embryology, anatomy, ornithology, ancient history and literature, etymology, archaeology and pharmacology made him especially sensitive to those losses. Musaeum Clausum deals with the loss of some of these precious intellectual treasures.

    Man has always been drawn to curiosities and rarities, as if these were an addiction, or perhaps a fortunate weakness; one, which additionally has been especially appreciated and cultivated by scholars of all eras, as well as, naturally, collectionism. In the era of maritime explorations, when the West began to fill the oddest pieces of knowledge, then, perhaps, began said extravagance and, in turn, its fragmentation. Musaeum Clausum is the false catalogue of a collection that encompasses books, drawings and artefacts.

    Browne’s catalogue, assembled with ardour and melancholy, speaks of fragmentation, of dissemination and loss, but also of eccentricity and comedy. Among its documents there is a “submarine piece” that shows the bottom of the Mediterranean and the algae that grow there; another describes a moonlit battle between the Florentines and the Turks; others are “ice or snow pieces” that show an alien landscape inhabited by Arctic creatures; others show the fire of Constantinople; and some others are cartoons, portraits and even representations of Sultan Achmet’s dogs. The curiosities are even stranger: a ring found in the stomach of a fish and the Homeric battle between frogs and mice, precisely described on the jawbone of another fish.

    Browne was a master of educated curiosity. He was especially attracted to the philosophy of antiques, of the past and of existent knowledge, resuscitated and preserved from the corruption of time and oblivion. Browne’s goal was repairing and restoring truth, and Musaeum Clausum reads like a luminous evocation of that which could have existed in the collection of the Library of Alexandria, if it hadn’t been destroyed by fire. In this unique book there is a persuasive evocation of so many forgotten things, and some others that are still remembered. 

    Also in Sphere: Orhan Pamuk Brings His Museum of Innocence to Life

    Tagged: Thomas Browne, Musaeum Clausum, writers, literature, Eccentricity, museums Credits: Image (Engraving from the Dell'Historia Naturale (1599) showing Naples apothecary Ferrante Imperato's cabinet of curiosities, the first pictorial representation of such a collection.)