Curiosity shopping 

Coffe table books for the connoisseur

The term “coffee table book” has always struck me as somewhat disingenuous. It sounds like people setting out books for effect. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I guess—everyone should have at least one friend whose idea of hanging out is thumbing through your reading material until he finds something to seal himself off in. If you enjoy providing a reading-room atmosphere for your friends, here are a few thematically conjoined recommendations for coffee table enjoyment—although one of them might put your guests off their cookies. They also make nice gifts—but only for people who have been very, very good this year.

Cabinets of Curiosities
Patrick Mauriès
Thames and Hudson
256 pages, hardcover

Cabinets of curiosities are supposed to represent the world in miniature through the arrangement, in a small enclosure, of natural and man-made objects and curios selected for the way they reflect on one another. People have been arranging and ordering objects for as long as they’ve been picking up things they’ve found, but the cabinet as an art form (somewhere between art and science, really) didn’t appear until the late Middle Ages. At a time when relatively few people in Europe had the means or the occasion to stray more than a few dozen miles from where they were born, cabinets of curiosities opened up new hemispheres of mystery and wonderment.

In this gorgeously illustrated volume, author Patrick Mauriès speculates that the Renaissance-era curio cabinets commissioned by the Medicis, the Hapsburgs and other patrons of the arts and sciences grew out of relic collections housed in medieval churches. In those often macabre collections, villagers could marvel at chips of bone and wood purported to be the mortal bits of martyred saints or slivers from the True Cross, or even stranger curios like vials of saint’s blood or Holy Virgin’s milk. As time went by, privileged collectors started competing to see who could assemble the strangest objects—and with explorers now circling the globe and bringing back curious souvenirs with every voyage, you could say that the Europe of the Renaissance was a bull market for far-out shit. Not all of it was real, of course—lots of fakes and forgeries concocted to part 16th-century tourists from their pieces of eight got swept up into collections as well.

The cabinet of curiosities had largely fallen out of favor by the 1700s, when scientific rationalism began to dispel some of the superstition and magic of these collections. According to Mauriès, curio collections went from being pseudoscientific attractions to merely vulgar, “bumptious” entertainment for the masses—kind of like the circus sideshow. Cabinets of Curiosities is an engrossing survey of these collections and their collectors.

Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay…Eterniday
Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, et al.
Thames and Hudson
272 pages, hardcover

2003 marks the centennial of Joseph Cornell’s birth, and that’s the reason behind this jaw-droppingly beautiful illumination of the artist’s work, from early collages to the chests and shadow boxes that were direct descendents of medieval cabinets of curiosities. The “Eterniday” part of the book’s title is Cornell’s own coinage, a word he came up with to describe his conception of artistic time as the eternal inscribed in the everyday.

You can literally get lost in this book for days, pacing around the labyrinth of Cornell’s extruded imagination. Shadowplay contains over 200 color illustrations, many of them new photos of Cornell’s pieces, organized into chapters meant to compartmentalize the artist’s far-ranging interests. It also includes essays by several respected Cornell scholars and friends, including Art in America author Richard Vine, and the writers aren’t shy about probing Cornell’s sexual and spiritual eccentricities in their search for answers. A must for Cornell fans, it also includes a CD-ROM with tons of extra material.

The Mütter Museum: Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia Gretchen Worden
Blast Books
192 pages, hardcover
If Joseph Cornell represents the artistic fork in the curiosity-cabinet road, collections of medical anomalies like the one housed in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum owe more to the scientific basis, however fanciful, of Renaissance collections. The collection bestowed in 1856 upon Philadelphia’s College of Physicians, a private medical society, was a gift from a professor of surgery who amassed his extraordinary assortment of specimens as a teaching aid for medical students. It is the most legitimately scientific collection of its kind anywhere in the world.

And what a collection it is, illustrated here in full color, bursting with hydrocephalic fetuses and murderers’ brains pickled in jars (with the idea that science would one day provide a why) and conjoined twins connected in places you don’t even want to think about. It’s macabre and more than just occasionally shocking, but—as with a car accident—you can’t turn your eyes away.

Surprisingly, maybe, the book can also be quite touching. One somber print shows a prosthetic leg, which the caption indicates its owner wore only once, to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. And it might not pass for humor, exactly, but there’s a mischievous touch to the X-ray of a swallowed toy battleship still lodged in an infant’s esophagus (it was later removed and placed in the museum’s Chevalier Jackson collection of foreign objects retrieved from digestive tracts).

And what to make of the Vienna Eye Phantom, a life-sized model of a human head that could be fitted with calves’ eyeballs to teach eye surgery to 19th-century students? There’s plenty to marvel at in this book of curiosities—and to make you thank your lucky stars you live in this wondrous new century of medicine, rapacious healthcare industry and all.

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