Raia exsiccata in formam draconis a circulatoribus efficta', watercolour of the natural historical collection of Ulisse Aldrovandi (Biblioteca Universitaria Bologna, Fondo Aldrovandi, Tav. 004/1, f. 117r)
Project (2013-2015)

Role of Craftsmen and Artisans in the Natural Historical Collections of Sixteenth-Century Venice

This project was a study of the role of craftsmen and artisans in the natural historical collections of sixteenth-century Venice and the Veneto, documented primarily through their correspondence and collaboration with the Bolognese naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605).

From the fifteenth century ancient botanical texts and new lands had conspired to stir the curiosity of many, prompting the hoarding of both natural and man-made notabilia and their capture on paper, woodblock, and canvas for study and recreation. Scribes with a talent for sketching became a sought-after presence during herborizations. Miniaturists and engravers were regularly commissioned by connoisseurs to reproduce the naturalia displayed in their cabinets. Artists themselves employed these smaller subjects to hone their hand and eye, and began to see the skillful depiction of flora and fauna as a stepping-stone to making a name for themselves at European courts.

So far this history has been written from the perspective of the naturalist collector. This project reconstructs the experience of the craftsman who acted on these collections, with special attention to the medical charlatan and fish connoisseur Leone Tartaglini (fl. 1560–1576), and his preparation of three-dimensional specimens and sought-after fakes.

The analysis focused first on the channels through which the (usually male) artisan/artist arrived at these cabinets, and on his daily interactions with specimen suppliers (such as apothecaries, hunters, and fishermen). The attention then turned to his manipulation of the specimen themselves, in light of the experiences that naturalists had in their museums in the same period. Both categories were involved in the study of materials and their properties, albeit for different purposes, with a significant overlap between the resins, minerals, vegetable dyes, and metallic pigments employed by the craftsman and the valued naturalia stored by the naturalist.

The overall aim of the project was to reconstruct the artist’s take on embodied natural knowledge and bring to life the manufactured nature of the Renaissance theatre of nature. The backdrop was the Venetian metropolis and her satellite towns, the fabled door between East and West, entrepôt for luxuries and exotica, and center for oil painting and glasswork.