This personal room was very popular among the Baroque aristocracy, serving as a space for study and meditation.

Oval Cabinet in Pitti Palace, Florence.
Oval Cabinet in Pitti Palace, Florence.

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A Small, Intimate Space

In early modern Europe, a cabinet was a personal room usually located in a private part of the house, serving as a study or retreat, usually for a man. In particular, the female equivalent is known as “boudoir”. The space used to be generally furnished with libraries, books, works of art, and located adjacent to bed-chambers. Such a room was commonly used as a study, “drawing room”, office, or sitting room. The intellectual connotation derives from the original connotation of this room, birth during the Renaissance period as “studiolo”. Then it offered to aristocratic more privacy from servants and visitors: in fact, it was typically planned for the use of a single individual. Moreover, heating larger rooms in the winter were difficult and expensive, so small rooms were more comfortable for this intent. 

Marie-Antoinette's "boudoir", Versailles.
Marie-Antoinette’s “boudoir”, Versailles.

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The archetype of the Baroque cabinet evolved in France. In this personal, small room, walls were decorated with a rich textile background, often made in copper or wood panel, covered with devotional or other paintings. The Baroque furniture and its classical features, such as heavy moldings and gilded finish, could not miss. One of the most representative cabinets from this period is the cabinet in Vaux-le-Vicomte. The architect Le Vau conceived a jewel-like cabinet for Nicolas Fouquet, the minister of finance, that was entirely adorned with Venetian-looking glass. The Grand Cabinet in Versailles, build for king Louis XIV, was a perfect example of a mirror-lined cabinet, following the taste of this luxurious royal palace. Versailles has several cabinets enfilade (a suite of rooms aligned with each other) arranged for the king and located behind his formal bed-chamber.

Origin of Cabinets

The origin of the cabinet can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance studiolo. Even earlier, in the Medieval period, the need for privacy was serviced by the solar, a separate zone for the family’s living and sleeping quarters. The studiolo was designed for study and meditation, and it was compatible with the humanist excitement of Renaissance aristocracy. It was also important for the workshop’s masters, who used to design their projects in this room, far from the bustle of the bottega. Often it was reachable only through the living room, which instead was public. Saint Jerome’s representations provided a source of inspiration for the standard model of the studio in the early modern period (Dürer engravings are the most famous). A perfect example of a Renaissance studio could be the “Studiolo of Francesco I de’ Medici”, located in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

Albrecht Dürer, “St. Jerome in His Cell”, (1511).

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The Cabinet of Curiosities

Soon the meaning of the word “cabinet” began to indicate the general contents of this room: from the 16th century the cabinet is also a piece of furniture known as “cabinet of curiosities”, or “cabinet of wonders”. Conceived as a display case, during the Baroque period this piece was the finest furniture in the house, well decorated according to the traditional criteria. The cabinets of curiosity contained a collection of notable items, in accordance with the pseudo-scientific interest of that period, including natural history, archaeology, and mysterious relics, geology, artworks. While some scholars were driven by authentic dedication, the aristocracy was an occasion to consolidate their position, and these objects were often faked. Anyway, these collections are credited for laying the basis of modern museums.

Domenico Remps, "Cabinet of Curiosities", (1690).
Domenico Remps, “Cabinet of Curiosities”, (1690).

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