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"Prudence and Curiosity in the Early Modern Collection" symposium

Friday, October 21, 2022 at 8:30am to 5:00pm

Museum of Natural and Cultural History
1680 E 15th Avenue, Eugene, OR

Through the lenses of both the histories of art and the histories of science, this symposium explores the political relationship between statecraft and art. Heads of state expended fortunes on building cabinets of curiosity, or Chambers of Art and Wonder (Kunst-und Wunderkammern). Yet curiosities, by definition, had no purpose. From the perspective of new conceptualizations of the state, why have a cabinet of curiosity? For many, the answer lay in the cultivation of prudence.

Today, prudence and curiosity might sound like opposite traits; one seeks to reign in our behavior, making us careful and above all thrifty, while the other pushes us outward, always seeking novelty and excitement. Yet, in the early modern period in Europe, these two traits intertwined. Prudence, the descendent of the Greek metis, was a form of antisystematic, probabilistic inquiry enmeshed in materiality and attuned to the needs of a particular moment. As a form of political thinking, it enjoyed a rising star following the advent of Machiavelli’s realpolitik. The culture of collecting curiosity objects prized wondrous and surprising “monsters” and “sports” of nature and ingenious works of art. These curiosities did not correspond at all to what one might assume to be true about the world based on rational, abstract systems. They challenged a prior cultural hegemony prizing nature over artifice, constancy over mutability, and logic over experience. There was thus a natural correspondence between prudence and curiosity, in their shared attention to dramatic, ingenious, and swiftly changing action.

Political theorists encouraged the heads of states to consider the state as though it were itself a work of art. Collections of curiosities thus came to seem not just entertaining, but useful to the state. Showpieces of the most extraordinary abilities and discoveries of humankind, collections offered training in the development of the key political traits of observation and ingenuity. They also suggested how counsel and artistry might transform the state, expanding its powers and resources as never before, just as artists transformed nature.

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