For hundreds of years, European collectors sought to own marvelous rarities of the natural world from their own and distant continents, as well as extraordinary examples of art skillfully crafted from the components of nature. The stunning materials, the imaginative classical or awe-inspiring devotional subjects, the expert artistic techniques all evoked wonder.
Princes, scholars, and merchants alike placed their precious objects and art made of rare materials such as gold, tortoiseshell, and tropical woods—often originating in faraway places—in small rooms known as cabinets of curiosity. There the owners, removed from their daily concerns, could study and reflect, and share the wondrous properties of their collections with invited guests. Their cabinets, predecessors to the modern museum (and even student dorm rooms), were a microcosm of the world, with the owner at its center.