Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy

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University of California Press, Apr 2, 1996 - History - 449 pages
In 1500 few Europeans considered nature an object worthy of study, yet within fifty years the first museums of natural history had appeared, chiefly in Italy. Vast collections of natural curiosities - including living human dwarves, "toad-stones", and unicorn horns - were gathered by Italian patricians as a means of knowing their world. The museums built around these collections became the center of a scientific culture that over the next century and a half served as a microcosm of Italian society and as the crossroads where the old and new sciences met. In Possessing Nature, Paula Findlen vividly recreates the lost world of late Renaissance and Baroque Italian museums and demonstrates its significance in the history of science and culture. Based on exhaustive research into natural histories, letters, travel journals, memoirs, and pleas for patronage, Findlen describes collections and collectors great and small, beginning with Ulisse Aldrovandi, professor of natural history at the University of Bologna. Aldrovandi, whose museum was known as the "eighth wonder" of the world, was a great popularizer of collecting among the upper classes. From the universities, Findlen traces the spread of natural history in the seventeenth century to other learned sectors of society: religious orders, scientific societies, and princely courts. There was, as Findlen shows, no separation between scientific culture and general political culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy. The community of these early naturalists was, in many ways, a mirror of the humanist "republic of letters". Archival documents point to the currying of patrons and the hierarchical nature of the scientific professions, characteristicscommon to the larger world around them. Examining anew the society and accomplishments of the first collectors of nature, Findlen argues that the accepted distinction between the "old" Aristotelian, text-based science and the "new" empirical science during the period is false. Rather, natural history as a discipline blurred the border between the ancients and the moderns, between collecting in order to recover ancient wisdom and collecting in order to develop new scholarship. In this way, as in others, the Scientific Revolution grew from the constant mediation between the old form of knowledge and the new. Possessing Nature is a unique cross-disciplinary study. Not only does its detailed description of the earliest natural history collections make an important contribution to museum studies and cultural history, but by placing these museums in a continuum of scientific inquiry, it also adds to our understanding of the history of science.
 

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User Review  - nicole_a_davis - LibraryThing

Very informative but almost overly so...the writing is too dry and bogged down by details that the overall picture is hard to remember sometimes. More for academics than for leisure reading. I confess that I've fallen asleep a few times while trying to get through it. Read full review

Contents

A World of Wonders in One Closet Shut
17
Searching for Paradigms
48
Sites of Knowledge
97
Laboratories of Nature
151
Pilgrimages of Science
155
Fare Esperienza
194
Museums of Medicine
241
Economies of Exchange
289
Inventing the Collector
293
Patrons Brokers and Strategies
346
The Old and the New
393
BIBLIOGRAPHY
409
INDEX
433
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About the author (1996)

Paula Findlen is Professor of History and Director of the Science, Technology and Society Program at Stanford University

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