Shells matter – History item of the month

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Bass, Marisa, Stephanie Dickey, Anne Goldgar, Anna Grasskamp, Hanneke Grootenboer, Claudia Swan, and Róisín Watson, eds. Conchophilia: Shells, Art, and Curiosity in Early Modern Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021.

“Conchophilia [love of shells] ought to be a word, but it isn’t.” This is how one of the shell-loving editors of this beautiful volume starts off the introduction, and, judging by the content of the book, one cannot but wonder.

Conchophilia: Shells, Art, and Curiosity in Early Modern Europe. Book cover

Book cover

Conchophilia: Shells, Art, and Curiosity in Early Modern Europe is one of those titles that I ordered towards the end of the year in 2023, when, spending the reminder of the Library funds assigned

to the history collection, I usually scout the web for relevant publications that I might have overlooked during the year. Among my sources there are, of course, various history journals, in this case Isis. Isis is, in the words of its description: “an official publication of the History of Science Society, […] the oldest (and most widely circulating) English-language journal in the field.” This review by Anna Echterhölter was convincing enough for me to place an order.

In this book, which focuses mainly on shells in the Dutch Renaissance, “no shell remains unturned”; if you believe this is a trivial subject, think again. Shells are a gateway to the history of Dutch trade and colonialism; to the research about representation of non-European people; shell collectors played a role in the development of natural sciences and in the birth of a branch of taxonomy. In art history, shells are even iridescent clues of intercontinental contraband.

As the book is lavishly illustrated with reproductions of paintings, etchings, engravings, woodcuts, and photographs of opalescent artifacts (sometimes challenging our modern taste, and somehow weird enough to display in any Wunderkammer worthy of its name, see for example this cradle now at Pitti Palace), what eventually caught the eye of a long-term resident in Florence like me are the pictures of German grottoes. Artificial grottoes (i.e. caves) were a popular upper-class quirk in the 16th century, the most famous being in the Boboli gardens. They brought the Mannerist style into European gardens, and they were typically encrusted with stones, corals, and – you guessed it – shells. Now, all I have left to do is to go to the EUI’s very own grotto in Villa Salviati and compare it to its German counterparts.

You will find this book on the ground floor at 736.6094 BAS. During the next couple of weeks, however, it’ll be in the New Book Display next to the Library issue desk.

Finally, if you’re interested in how objects can be studied to understand wider historical subjects, please refer to the EUI Library eBooks and books about material culture – or look for the subject heading Material Culture in any library catalogue.