A New Way of Writing History: Ulisse Aldrovandi's Encyclopedic Cabinet of Nature

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Putman, Christina Marie
Aldrovandi; cabinet of nature; History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology
thesis / dissertation description
Thesis directed by Professor Claire Farago For many fifteenth and sixteenth-century scholars, antiquity and Nature together could serve the interest of signaling the divine order of God's cosmos. Following this assertion, the realm of science and scientific discovery confirmed the programs set by ancient authorities. A Renaissance humanist prided himself on a possession of the world through intellect. Examples of collections devoted to art, history, and nature flourished; among the most notable those of Cosimo I in Florence, Frederico da Montefeltro in Urbino, and Rudolf II in Hradcany, Prague. This project will focus on one such `cabinet of nature' devised by Ulisse Aldrovandi in Bologna. Aldrovandi dealt with the fragments of antiquity and nature, conceiving relationships between past, present, and future. For the sixteenth century collector-scholar, history and science were one; the encyclopedic nature characteristic of such collections were exercises in linking language to artifact, and arranging these reconstructions spatially. Such is the method in which writing history is conceived of in this early modern era; Direct observations intersected with language, creating seamless world-view narratives and definitions of natural phenomena. The natural objects are decontextualized, and then recontextualized in the artificial space of the gallery. The mental and physical spaces overlap. This thesis will examine the collection of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), a sixteenth century Bolognese scholar whose documents are among the most expansive and encyclopedic volumes of natural history in the late Renaissance period. Aldrovandi's `cabinet of nature', his accumulation of natural artifacts, produced a visual narrative--a history--of an early modern scientist's world view. From his fragments of nature, this early modern historian brought light to nature's mysteries. Aldrovandi's methods of classification and organization can be seen as characteristic of the 16th c. episteme, focused on the relationships between microcosm and macrocosm. The history written and collected by Aldrovandi established a method of connecting the aesthetic and linguistic nature of artifacts. The collecting practices of Ulisse Aldrovandi are a material form of history writing.