Rarely seen treasures from the Paper Museum amassed by a seventeenth century Roman antiquarian go on show this summer at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham
During the 17th century the antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo embarked upon an epic attempt to document and record the major fields of knowledge of his day.
Together with his younger brother Carlo Antonio he assembled what became known as the Museo Cartaceo or Paper Museum consisting of over 10,000 watercolours, drawings and prints illustrating subjects as diverse as antiquities, architecture, zoology, botany and geology, social customs and ceremonies, costumes, portraits, topography and military maps.
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Creating a visual record of the material world around them, their fascinating collection was one of the most significant attempts before the age of photography to embrace human knowledge in visual form.
Most of this remarkable paper assemblage was eventually acquired by George III in 1762, and it is still part of the Royal Collection today and this exhibition – the first in more than 20 years dedicated to Cassiano’s remarkable contribution to art and science – is part of a collaboration between the Barber Institute and Royal Collection Trust and has been curated by University of Birmingham MA Art History and Curating Students.
It includes more than 40 objects, including 17 ‘Paper Museum’ works lent by Her Majesty The Queen, some of which have never been publicly displayed before.
“Cassiano was operating at a fascinating moment,” says Robert Wenley, the Barber’s Deputy Director and Head of Collections who has been acting as mentor to the student curators. “It is important to remember that he was accumulating the material for the Paper Museum at a time when educated people were moving away from a medieval world-view to a more science-based one, but to promote progressive views at a time of religious orthodoxy was fraught with danger.”
Cassiano was secretary to Cardinal Francesco Barberini and both men were members of the famous Accademia dei Lincei (‘The Academy of the Lynxes’), established in Rome in 1603. Its membership, which included Galileo, placed great emphasis on observation as a key to understanding and the Academy was named after the wild lynx cat, which was known for having especially sharp eyesight.
“In an age when excavated fragments of mammoths’ tusks were still interpreted as the bones of giants, the tribulations of Cassiano’s friend Galileo at the hands of the church bear testimony to this,” adds Wenley. “Dal Pozzo had to walk a fine line due to his closeness to the Papal household, while at the same time working at what was then the cutting edge of scientific thought and discovery.”
Galileo’s run-in with the Roman Inquisition – who declared his ‘heliocentric’ theories about the transit of the earth around the sun to be heretical – meant he spent the final ten years of his life under house arrest, although his fellow Accademia dei Lincei member Cardinal Barberini refused to condemn him.
Meanwhile the ever curious eye of Cassiano did not simply seek to chart the natural world or even the universe; it seemed that anything and everything held wonderment for him and his brother.
Their friend Nicolas Poussin is believed to have contributed a drawing of a Samnite Triple-Disc Breastplate (c.1635), while what were thought to be Early Christian Martyr’s Chains – attributed to Leonardi (c.1646) – further reveal dal Pozzo’s desire to create an exhaustive record of the objects around him. Drawings of a Roman banquet, St Peter’s, a boxer’s hands and mosaics are also featured.
One of the key exhibits is a sheet of specimens of Corals, Fossils, semi-precious Stones and Minerals (attributed to Vincenzo Leonardi, c.1630-40), which shows 25 individual geological samples and fossils. Actual examples of 22 of these have been loaned to the Barber Institute’s exhibition by the world-leading Lapworth Museum of Geology, also on the University of Birmingham campus, enabling the drawing to be ‘recreated’ using physical samples.
The University’s Cadbury Research Library has also collaborated and loaned three artefacts; a copy of Historiae Animalium (Conradi Gesneri, 1511), the Supplément au livre de l’antiquité expliquée et répresentée en figures (Bernard de Montfaucon, 1757) and Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum Historia (1642).
Aldrovandi is considered the founder of modern Natural History, and his Monstrorum is an intriguing and curious collection of depictions of mythical beasts – including a cockatrice, harpy and chimera – and human deformities, represented by drawings of conjoined twins, a baby with one arm and a man with a cutaneous horn growing from the top of his head.
Cassiano’s interests may not have been so overtly monstrous but his paper wunderkammer continues to offer a fascinating link to a world of science, art, learning and knowledge that still resonates with the world around us today.
THE PAPER MUSEUM: The Curious Eye of Cassiano dal Pozzo is at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts from June 14 – September 1 2019. Admission free.
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts
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