Objects, flora, and fauna from these faraway lands were shipped back to Europe where many people perceived them as exotic items of wonder and fascination.
Americana and Cabinets of Curiosities
After Christopher Columbus landed on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1492 and the subsequent Spanish invasion and colonization of much of the Americas, material objects, flora, and fauna from these faraway lands were shipped back to Europe where many people perceived them as exotic items of wonder and fascination. Americana—objects sent from the Americas—were found in numerous cabinets of curiosities (also known as Wunderkammern). Cabinets of curiosities first appeared in sixteenth-century Europe as a way to display items perceived as exotic, curious, and wondrous. The strategy of collecting Americana and displaying it in cabinets of curiosities offered a way to engage with the Americas for those who might never undertake the voyage. In a sense, we might even say that this allowed Europeans to take possession of these distant lands.
The origin of cabinets of curiosities in the sixteenth century coincides with the discovery, by Europeans, that the world was much larger than they previously believed. It also coincides with the invasion and the colonization of the Americas and the millions of people who lived there. Technological and scientific advancements in mapping and navigation spurred interest in collecting items from around the globe, as well as the instruments needed to create maps and sail the seas.
Cabinets of curiosity created a microcosm of a world that could be studied, ordered, and understood, but they were not spaces in which just anyone could encounter and study such objects, these were personal spaces for the elite (and anyone they invited). They often combined human-made (artificialia), natural elements (naturalia), and scientific objects and instruments (scientifica), as we see in Ferrante Imperato’s 1599 illustration of a Wunderkammern.
Of the naturalia sent from the Americas, living animals—especially birds—were among the most popular. Turkeys, parrots, and macaws were among the birds that arrived in Europe. The armored appearance of armadillos were also a continuous source of wonder; and their shell retained its shape, even if they died on the transatlantic voyage. Apparently, some were even gilded and displayed on pillars in Europe.
Among the human-made items from the Americas found in Renaissance curiosity cabinets are Olmec masks, Mesoamerican codices (such as the Codex Vaticanus A), New Spanish featherworks, Brazilian hammocks, Taíno objects, and more. Among the most exceptional objects to first enter European Wunderkammern were those sent by Hernán Cortés in 1519, as gifts to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Turquoise masks, golden figurines, featherworks, and more were met with excitement and amazement by people in Toledo, Valladolid, and eventually Brussels. Albrecht Dürer even remarked that “In all my life I have seen nothing that made my heart rejoice so much as these things. Here I have found wonderful, costly things and I have marveled at the subtle ingenuity of people in strange lands.”
The Medici Popes
Among the most avid collectors of Americana were members of the powerful Florentine Medici family. Medici popes Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, who reigned as Pope from 1513–21) and Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, who reigned from 1523–34) collected Americana—and in fact were some of the earliest to do so. They never traveled across the Atlantic, yet their desire to understand these lands increased, especially with ongoing evangelization attempts. Leo X commissioned frescoes filled with American flora and fauna. For instance, he commissioned the artist Giovanni di Udine to paint maize (also known as corn and first domesticated by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico about 10,000 years ago) in festoons in the Loggias (designed by Raphael) in the Vatican palace.
Udine had, though, painted the first known depictions of maize earlier, between 1515–17, in the festoons around frescoes by Raphael in the Loggia of Psyche within the Villa Farnesina in Rome, which belonged to the wealthy Sienese banker Agostino Chigi. Pope Clement VII was likewise among the earliest patrons to commission artworks that depicted subjects related to this foreign world which he had never seen with his own eyes. In his Villa Madama (Sala di Giulio Romano, c. 1520) in Rome, he had Udine paint a naturalistic turkey along with other birds like peacocks.
Popes Leo X and Clement VII also actively acquired Americana as well. In 1514, the Portuguese king, Manuel I, sent Leo X a gift of flora and fauna from the Americas and India. It is likely that part of this gift included plants like maize and beans from the Americas, as well as the special gift of an elephant, called Hanno, from India, of whom Leo was extremely fond.
The Ñudzavui (Mixtec) Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus I, one of the few surviving pre-conquest Mesoamerican screenfold codices, was owned by Clement VII. The King of Portugal reportedly sent it to Clement VII, along with other gifts from the Americas, sometime before 1523. A decade later, the Medici pope received another gift of objects from the Spanish Dominican friar, Domingo de Betanzos, who had traveled to New Spain to aid in evangelizing the indigenous populations. The Dominican friar apparently gifted the pope featherworks, Ñudzavui turquoise masks, and codices.
The First Grand Duke: Cosimo I de’ Medici
Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici (who reigned from 1537–1574) and his wife, Duchess Eleanora di Toledo, like their Medici family members, never traveled to the Americas. But they too continued to acquire plants, animals, and other objects from these far-away lands. They also commissioned artworks that made visual reference to the Americas, possibly as a way to participate in a vicarious conquest of these foreign peoples and places. Cosimo was partly able to collect Americana because of his marriage to Eleanora, a noblewoman of the Spanish court. Their marriage in 1539 helped to cement a Medici alliance with Spain, which would aid Cosimo in his collecting practices. The two grew maize, and apparently even started to cultivate tomatoes and medicinal plants (also introduced from the Americas). Cosimo had live birds, including turkeys, at Medici estates. Beyond their interest in living flora and fauna, the Medici Duke and Duchess also had also obtained a number of objects from the Americas, including mosaic masks, objects made of jade, and feather cloaks.
How items such as these were listed in Medici inventories reveals the challenges that Europeans faced when classifying Amerindian objects. In a 1553 inventory, Aztec masks were listed under ‘jewelry’ (goia), but not long thereafter in another inventory they were listed as “theatrical masks” (maschera) in an attempt to compare them with recognizable European forms with clear functions. At this time there was also an interest in Greco-Roman theatrical masks, so perhaps the Aztec masks were eventually believed to function in a similar capacity. This reframing of Mesoamerican masks—from jewelry to masks—could also relate to broader ways in which Europeans were trying to understand and reconcile American objects, many of which were unfamiliar to them. 
Grand Dukes Francesco I (1574 to 87) and Ferdinando I (1587 to 1609)
Cosimo and Eleanora’s eldest son, Francesco, was similarly drawn to the naturalia and artificialia of the Americas, sharing his father’s keen interest in birds and plants. At one point, he commissioned Jacopo Ligozzi to create naturalistic drawings of local and exotic plants and animals, some of which came from the Americas. Among the most remarkable are his depictions of a pineapple, a macaw, and the American century plant (Agave americana), all drawn circa 1570.
Ligozzi had live models on which to base his clearly articulated images, and his almost microscopic details were praised. Francesco’s interest in the American naturalia extended to his experiments as well. In the Casino di San Marco in Florence which had workshops, including the Medici porcelain factory, Francesco conducted experiments and studied his collection of plants and animals. Like his father, he continued to grow plants, some of them from the Americas, in a nearby botanical garden. He would use some in his alchemical experiments, creating medicines and other distillations. Francesco often gifted objects and naturalia from the Americas to other high-ranking individuals who were similarly fascinated with items from distant lands. One sumptuous gift was given to Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in 1572, and it included featherworks, gold and silver figurines, parrots, food items, and more.
Francesco’s younger brother, Ferdinando, also had a desire to collect Americana. As a cardinal in Rome, he acquired numerous objects, such as multiple featherworks, one of which was a bishop’s mitre. He also came into ownership of the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedia produced between 1575 and 1577 under the direction of the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun along with indigenous collaborators. This twelve volume text included discussion of cochineal, which produced a highly coveted red dye, along with other types of resources from the Americas. One can imagine Ferdinando’s interest in possibly learning from the Florentine Codex how to manufacture cochineal.
When Francesco died in 1587, and Ferdinando became Grand Duke of Florence, he moved from Rome to Florence with his collection. Ligozzi, who had remained in the employ of the Medici court even after Francesco’s death, would then paint, at the request of Ferdinando, one of his most well-known and final botanical images: the Passiflora coerulea, or the passion flower (or Granadilla or maracot originally). Previously unknown to Europeans, it had only recently become known, and sent across the Atlantic to Europe. The plant sparked immense curiosity because of the manner in which it visually evoked the crown of thorns, and so became a powerful Christian symbol.
Knowing the Unknown
Medici fascination with Americana in the sixteenth century was certainly not unique. Across Europe, many powerful individuals sought to acquire objects taken from the Americas, as a way to know the unknown, to exert some control over the colonial processes underway, and to possess exotic and rare things. The Medici popes and three grand dukes provide a more focused example of the ways in which Americana intersected with European interests in conquest and colonization, science and alchemy, and collecting and visual culture in the sixteenth century.
- Adriana Turpin, “The New World collections of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and their role in the creation of a Kunst- and Wunderkammer in the Palazzo Vecchio,” Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, ed. R.J.W. Evans and Alexander Marr (London: Ashgate, 2006), p. 64.
- Isabel Yaya, “Wonders of America: The Curiosity Cabinet as a Site of Representation and Knowledge,” Journal of the History of Collections (2008), pp. 1–16.; Turpin, p. 73.
- The Medici Collections of the Museo Galileo, on Google Arts and Culture
- Collecting for the Kunstkammer on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
- Christian F. Feest, “The Collecting of American Indian Artifacts in Europe, 1493–1750,” in America in European Consciousness, 1493–1750, ed. Karen Ordahl Kupperman (University of North Carolina Press, 1995), pp. 324–60.
- J. Janick and G. Caneva, “The First Images of Maize in Europe,” Maydica 50 (2005), pp. 71–80.
- Eloise Quiñones Keber, “Collecting Cultures: A Mexican Manuscript in the Vatican Library,” in Reframing the Renaissance, ed. Claire Farago (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 229–42.
- Lia Markey, Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence (Penn State University Press, 2016).
- Peter Mason, “From Presentation to Representation: Americana in Europe,” Journal of the History of Collections 6 (1994), pp. 1–20.
- Larry Silver, “Europe’s Global Vision,” in Blackwell Companions to Art History: A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art, ed. Babette Bohn and James M. Saslow (Wiley, 2013).
- Adriana Turpin, “The New World collections of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and their role in the creation of a Kunst- and Wunderkammer in the Palazzo Vecchio,” Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, ed. R.J.W. Evans and Alexander Marr (London: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 63–85.
- Isabel Yaya, “Wonders of America: The Curiosity Cabinet as a Site of Representation and Knowledge,” Journal of the History of Collections (2008), pp. 1–16.
Originally published by Smarthistory, 06.14.2019, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.