The Inaugural Stuffed Crocodile

Without a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling, a cabinet of wonders hardly deserves the name. In this, our first posting, we trace the history of this tradition and, following in the footsteps of our famed forebears, we inaugurate our collection with a taxidermy crocodile of our very own.




Intro Sequence (0:00-0:18)

The opening music is “Prospero’s Magic” by Michael Nyman, from the soundtrack to Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books. Despite the movie’s often humorous excesses, I’ve always found its evocations of the Renaissance aesthetic of wonder to be breathtaking.  The film is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest–a perfect source from which to draw inspiration for this website, and a play I hope to address more directly in a future posting.
(0:01) KIRCHER, Athanasius.  Mundus subterraneus, Janssonius & Weyerstraten, Amsterdam, 1665, Tome 1, p. 233.  Naturally, I’ve been perusing quite a bit of Kircher during my researches for this site.  And where better to find great Baroque cave imagery than the Mundus subterraneus? The entire book is available from my favorite source for digitized photographic reproductions of old texts, the Herzog August Bibliothek.
(0:03) I really wanted a color version of the Kircher image, so I printed it out and gave it the old colored-pencil treatment.
(0:07) BRAHE, Tycho.  “Quadrans alius orichalcicus etiam azimuthalis”, Astronomiæ instauratæ mechanica, Wandesburg, 1598.  A digitized photographic reproduction of the text is provided by the Sächsiche Landesbibliothek, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (or, more affectionately, the SLUB).  The original is already in color, although I did play around with the saturation.
(0:09) ALDROVANDI, Ulisse. Quadrupedum omnium bisulcorum historia. I wanted to pay homage to some of the great Renaissance collections in my introduction and this excellent Rhinoceros pic came up when I searched for Aldrovandi on google.  I traced the image as far back as a 1621 print edition, a DPR of which is available from the Biblioteca Complutense.  The original 1500’s watercolor would seem to be held by the University of Bologna, but I actually wasn’t able to find the image that I used in my intro.  If anyone can positively ID the image, please let me know.
(0:11) VESALIUS, Andreas.  De humani corporis fabrica epitome, Johannes Oporinus, Basel, 1543, folio 9v.  I took this classic image from a site showcasing Renaissance and Baroque anatomical illustrations held by the University of Glasgow.  The reddish tint was added by me.
(0:12) IDOLA SPECUS/IDOLS OF THE CAVE. Besides sounding cool, the reasons I chose this name for my site are described here.


Parade of Cabinets (0:32-0:47)

(0:32) REMPS, Domenico. Scarabattolo, oil on canvas, late 1600s, Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence, Italy.  This image is amazing and I was completely unaware of it before I started looking for good wunderkammer pics.  I’ve taken it from a really excellent Austrian site called, simply,  I haven’t been able to find much information on the painting or the painter but apparently it’s kept in the Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence.  I actually sought out that museum the one and only time I was in Florence (2000) but sadly I have no recollections of this work.
The word itself, Scarabattolo, is rather unusual and prompted some etymological investigation.  In modern Italian there’s the word carabattola, which means, roughly, “knick-knack”.  It’s generally only used in the plural, carabattole, (“knick-knacks”, “odds and ends”).  Scarabattola and garabattola are variant, older forms.  Scarabattola can also refer to the knick-knack shelves and, to add to the confusion, is occasionally found in the masculine scarabattolo.  All these words derive from the Greek κράββατος (through the Latin grabatus and its diminutive grabatulus) which means, oddly enough, a sort of poor-man’s mattress or bed.  How exactly the word evolved from mattress to “knick-knack” and then “cabinet of curiosities” is, we admit, something of a curiosity in its own right.
(0:37) VINCENT, Levinus. Wondertooneel der natuur, Amsterdam, Tome 2, 1715.  This image is hosted on wikimedia commons, with a digitized photographic reproduction of the entire text available from the University of Strasbourg.
(0:40) ARNOLD, Joseph. “Kunstkammer der Regensburger Familie Dimpfel”, 1668, Ulmer Museum, Ulm, Germany.  The image is taken from
(0:44) DE SEPIBUS, Georgius (Giorgio De Sepe). Romani collegii societatis Jesu musæum celeberrimum, Janssonius-Waesbergen, Amsterdam, 1678.  This is the famous image of Athanasius Kircher’s collection which once was kept at the Jesuits’ Roman College.  A digitized photographic reproduction of the full text is available from the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg.
(1:02) “Tom – a man and his shed“.  This is my good friend Thomas Brady.  We go all the way back to middle school in Tucson, AZ.  I like to think of Thomas as continuing in the grand tradition of curators like Giorgio De Sepe and Francis Hauksbee.

Crocodiles on the Ceiling (1:07-1:48)

(1:07) This splendid beast hangs in the cabinet of curiosities of the Franckesche Stiftungen (“The Francke Foundations”) in Halle, Germany.  These were a complex of primary schools and an orphanage founded in the late 1600s by the Pietist theologian August Hermann Francke (1663-1728).  The foundation seems to have continued in this role up until 1946.  In 1991, the foundation was re-established as an education and cultural center with, in their own words, “European charisma”.  Whether by this they’re referring specifically to the crocodile is difficult to say.  The image used in my video comes from  I’m not sure if the specimen is an original or a replacement.
(1:11) A photo of the cabinet of curiosities at Trausnitz Castle, the ancestral home of the Wittelsbach dynasty, in Landshut, Germany.
(1:11-1:16) “Would anyone take my cabinet of curiosities seriously without a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling?  Definitely not.”  Nowadays, for whatever reason, taxidermy crocodiles are considered the canonical object of any cabinet of curiosities.  At least that’s been my impression.  And having spent a certain portion of my life studying wunderkammern in an academic setting, I’m confident that this conceit isn’t just in my head.  I wanted to find a citation from a modern source to support this impression of mine, but that turned out to be trickier than I thought.  The best I found was the following: In 2002 the Smithsonian held an exhibition called “Wonder Bound: Rare Books on Early Museums“; the section on wunderkammern was called–you guessed it–“Crocodiles on the Ceiling” even though only one of their images actually showed a crocodile on the ceiling. Delineating a more complete history of this practice was one of the goals of my video.
(1:17) Once again, this excellent image comes from (under the heading for Theoretische Grundlagen).  There the pic is attributed to Eberhard Werner Happel, from a work entitled Groesste Denkwuerdigkeiten der Welt. The Herzog August Bibliothek possesses three tomes of Happel’s Relationes curiosæ, Oder Denckwürdigkeiten der Welt (1707-9), which I would assume to be the same work; however, the image is nowhere to be found.  So, if anyone knows anything about this, please do contact me.  Oh, and yes I realize that the red text on video is impossible to read and I’m sorry and I promise I won’t ever do it again!
(1:22) A detail of the image show earlier (0:44) of Kircher’s cabinet at the Collegio Romano.
(1:27) IMPERATO, Ferrante.  Dell’historia naturale, Naples, 1599.  The image comes from the site for the Smithsonian’s “Crocodiles on the Ceiling” exhibition.
(1:40) This illustration of a crocodile eating a man comes from a 15th century Latin bestiary (Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 12v).  The image, as well as citations for the accompanying lore, come from  The Medieval Bestiary, a fantastic website that, inasmuch as it’s a compendium of many bestiaries, could perhaps be considered a bestiary of bestiaries.


The Apothecary Tradition (1:49-2:31)

Apothecary shops functioned as emporia for all manner of exotic specimens insofar as such material could be used in the manufacture of medicines.  Accordingly, it’s not terribly strange that crocodiles could be found in these establishments.  But, as I hope is conveyed by our discussion in the video, the connection between crocodiles and apothecary shops was particularly strong, so much so that that hanging crocodiles served kind of like professional signposts, much like how today a green cross signifies a pharmacy in many countries.  Likewise, it should come as no surprise to learn that Ferrante Imperato, who assembled one of the greatest cabinets of curiosities (Naples, ca. 1600, see image at 1:27, above), was himself an apothecary by profession.
(1:49) RYFF, Walther Hermann.  Confectbuch und Hauß Apoteck, Johann Saurn, Frankfurt am Main, 1610. Digitization of the complete work provided by Google Books.  I originally found this image in a more modern book, namely: PETERS, Hermann,  A Pictorial History of Ancient Pharmacy, G.P. Englehard & Co., Chicago, 1899, p. 36.  This book was also digitized by Google Books.
(1:59) WILSON, Adrian, and WILSON, Joyce Lancaster. A Medieval Mirror: Speculum humanæ salvationis, 1324-1500, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1984.  Online version hosted by UC Press E-Books Collection, 1984-2004.  An interesting example of a late 90’s compromise between online and dead-tree publishing.  I like the format, but I guess it seems quaint what with Kindles and other e-readers nowadays.  Not to say that the publishing industry today has any better solutions for keeping control of their digitized texts (that is, without violating my privacies as a reader).  No, I imagine the whole thing will remain a headache for many, many years.  Another reason to only read books whose copyright expired several centuries ago!  Anyways, I wanted to find a Renaissance/Baroque image of Leviathan but, as you can see, I mostly failed.  I ended up with a medieval hellmouth image.  Such beasts are often identified with leviathan, but certainly not always.  The specific page with the image I used is here.  The pink coloration was added by me and seems appropriately hellish.
(2:12) Portrait of Samuel Bochart, 17th century, artist unkown.  Image downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.  Samuel Bochart (1599-1667) is famous in particular for his Hierozoicon, one of those insane humanistic works that runs to thousands of pages and is full of citations in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Chaldean, etc.  And upon what subject matter did such a scholar wield his formidable erudition?  Why, the animals in the Bible, of course!
(2:12) BOCHART, Samuel. Excerpted from the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana; or, Universal dictionary of knowledge, ed. by the Rev. Edward Smedley, Vol. XXI, printed by B. Fellows et al., London, 1845.  A digitized version of the complete volume is provided by Google Books.  The correspondence in question is found under the entry for “Leviathan” (p. 406).  Unfortunately, I was unable to track this exchange back to an original source.  The translation from the Latin is my own.  The encyclopedia entry ends with a droll, yet still pertinent, observation: “It is plain from this passage (as indeed we might learn from Sidrophel’s study) that stuffed crocodiles were cheaper and commoner two Centuries ago than they are at present.”  Yes, quite.


Ecclesiastical Crocodiles (3:03-3:47)

(3:03) Crocodile in the Santuario della Beata Vergine delle Grazie in Curtatone, Italy.  Unfortunately, it seems that I snagged this photo from someone’s flickr account for which I can find no further information.  Apologies to whomever took this excellent pic.
(3:08) Another photograph of the Curtatone crocodile from a site that gives a little more information about the crocodile.  The site’s author quotes (unreferenced) the 17th century chronicler Ippolito Donesmondi as writing, “It’s been a hundred years now that he was discovered in the ditches of Curtatone, and he did much mischief there.  One morning he unexpectedly attacked two brothers walking together along the embankment of a ditch. He killed one of them and the other, seeing that he was not able to flee, took heart and entrusted himself to the glorious Virgin and with a hatchet that he had with him, he attacked the animal and killed it, which was then skinned and the skin filled with straw and hung as can be seen.” (Translation from the Italian is my own).  The author of the site also suggests that the crocodile may have simply come from the ruling Gonzaga family whose collections include two other such examples. The Donesmondi citation can presumably be found in his Historia dell’origine, fondatione, et progressi del famosissimo tempio di S. Marie delle Gratie, in campagna di Curtatone fuori di Mantova (1603), but I have not been able to get my hands on any copies to verify.
Nor is the phenomenon of hanging crocodiles in churches limited to the two examples I give in the video.  Here’s an Italian site that shows some more photographs of church crocodiles.  And here’s a photograph of a crocodile in the chapel of Oiron in France.
(3:13) The Cathedral of Seville, photograph downloaded from Wikimedia Commons 19-may-2011. The cathedral’s official website contains an account of the crocodile (under “Catedral y Giralda” then “Curiosidades y Leyendas” and finally “El Lagarto”).  According to the legend, the crocodile was sent by the sultan of Egypt as part of an embassy to petition Alfonso for the hand of his daughter, Berenguela, in marriage.  Evidently, the crocodile wasn’t terribly charming since the proposal was rebuffed.  This is another legend I have attempted to track down without success.  It is true that the sultan’s embassy is mentioned in the chronicles for the year 1260.  See, for instance, The Chronicle of Alfonso X, translated by Shelby Thacker and José Escobar, the University Press of Kentucky, 2002, chapter 9.  There we read of an elephant, an azorafa [=giraffe] and “other animals”, but the crocodile is not mentioned specifically.  Nor is the marriage proposal.  Oh well, I suppose that’s why the whole thing is a legend.
(3:20) Manuscript illustration of Alfonso X, image downoalded from Wikimedia Commons, 3-july-2011.
(3:24) “El Lagarto“.  According to the Cathedral’s website, the wooden version of the crocodile dates from the 16th century.  The purpose of the crocodile, the site explains, is either to embody the cardinal virtue of prudence or to scare away pigeons.  It’s true that sometimes it’s very hard to tell where prudence ends and scaring pigeons begins.  The photo shown here is another that I must have snagged from google images since I have no information about it at all.  Apologies.
(3:37) The column of St. Theodore (San Todaro) in the Piazza San Marco in Venice.  Image downloaded from Wikimedia Commons, 30-april-2011.
(3:42) Evil Eye Mosaic, found at the entrance to the “House of the Evil Eye” in Antioch (Antakya, Turkey), 2nd centruy CE.  The photograph was downloaded from Sacred Destinations, a travel website, on 3-july-2011.  Further discussion of the crocodile as talisman can be found in
ELWORTHY, Frederick Thomas.  The Evil Eye: An Account of this Ancient & Widespread Superstition, John Murray, Albemarle Street, London, 1895.  See especially chapter IX.  A digitization of the full text can be found on Google Books.


Crocodiles in Arab Lands (3:48-4:17)

(3:48) AL-IDRISI, Muhammad. Tabula Rogeriana, Bibliothèque nationale de France (MSO Arabe 2221). A map of the world, oriented with North at the bottom, made for Roger II of Sicily in 1154.  Imaged downloaded from Wikimedia Commons, 3-july-2011.
(3:52) Same as above, only here the map is flipped “upside-down” to show a more familiar image of the world.
(3:58) La Giralda.  The bell-tower of the Cathedral of Seville was converted from a minaret.  The tower was begun in 1184; Seville was conquered by the Castilians in 1248.  The photograph was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons, 3-july-2011.
(4:04) Sobek, the ancient Egyptian crocodile-god, as depicted in the temple of Kom Obo.  A description can be found at the travel site Luxor on Line (which is where this image was downloaded, 3-july-2011).
(4:08) Mummified crocodile, Greco-Roman period (332 BCE – 395 CE), Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, the Netherlands.  However the photograph used here (downloaded 2-july-2011) is from a site describing an exhibition at the Australian Museum in Sydney, Australia.
(4:11) MACGREGOR, John, & HART, Martyn. Crocodile hanging from the town gate of Siout, from “Sunday Evenings with the Children”, The Sunday Magazine for Family Reading, Daldy, Isbister & Co., London, 1878, p. 136.  Needless to say, the only way I could have found this image in such an unlikely source is through the magic of Google Books, where the entire volume has been digitized.
(4:12) “Traveler’s accounts“.  For instance, no less an adventurer than Richard Burton wrote, “In the sacred cemetery at Meccah, the aloe, here as in Egypt, is hung like the dried crocodile over houses as a talisman against evil spirits.”  The reference is:
BURTON, Richard Francis. Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, Memorial Edition, in Two Volumes, The Meccan Press, 3. Soho Square, London, 1893, Volume II., p. 248.  Digitization of the full text provided by Google Books.


A World of Hidden Powers, Virtues and Sympathies (4:18-4:30)

(4:18) KEPLER, Johannes. Prodromus Dissertationum Cosmographicarum, Continens Mysterium Cosmographicum, De Admirabili Proportione Orbium Coelestium, Deque Causis cœlorum numeri, magnitudinis, motuumque periodicorum genuinis & proprijs, Demonstratum, Per Quinqve regularia corpora Geometrica, Georg Gruppenbach, Tübingen, 1596, p. 30A.  I couldn’t resist listing the full name of this work in all its glory, although it’s generally just called the Mysterium cosmographicum.  A digitized photographic reproduction of the full text can be found at the Herzog August Bibliothek.  The image in the video, however, comes from Wikimedia Commons (downloaded 4-july-2011) since they have a cleaner version; the colorations were added by me.  In this image, Kepler wanted to illustrate one of his early theories, namely, that the spacings of the planets in the solar system follow the same proportions as would the Platonic solids nested one into another.
(4:24) FLUDD, Robert.  Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia, 1617, Tome I, p. 90.  A digitized photographic reproduction of the entire text is available from the Max Planck/ECHO. The image, with some description, was taken from another page (also hosted by the Max Planck) here.  The universe before the scientific revolution seems to have been a rather strange place and it’s kind of a shame that we’ve more or less killed it off.


Etymological Excursus (4:56-5:16)

All etymologies are, of course, from the OED which unfortunately requires a subscription.  How long they’ll be able to survive what with various other free sites nipping at their heels is an interesting question.  I’m assuming they’ll sadly go the way of the Encylopedia Britannica.
The Latin word for lizard is actually either lacertus or lacerta, but I didn’t want to clutter my graphic unnecessarily.  Pliny uses lacerta, which probably should tip the balance, but the legitimacy of lacertus will forever remain unassailable on account its use by the immortal Vergil.  Note also that whereas the Spanish went for the masculine lagarto, the Italians ended up with the feminine and diminutive lucertola. Perhaps the Italians are less intimidated by lizards?  The crocodile image I took from Giorgio De Sepe’s Romani collegii societatis Jesu musæum celeberrimum, op. cit. supra, p. 25, where he also includes some excellent stories of people getting eaten by crocodiles.


Closing Music (5:50-6:08)

A snippet from Michael Nyman’s “Drowning by Number 2” from the soundtrack to Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers.  In case the pattern isn’t evident by now, I’m a huge Michael Nyman fan.


4 Responses to The Inaugural Stuffed Crocodile

  1. Athanasius Kircher says:

    looking forward to the vid. you owe me 100 pieces of an ancient currency (to be named later) for using my material in the intro.

  2. Anna Z. says:

    Yours is my favorite of the wunderkammer sites I’ve come across. You rock, Alex Boxer.

  3. Edward W. says:

    Love it!

    The power and terror of a stuffed crocodile, indeed.

  4. Peter E. Medine says:

    Dear Alex,

    I know that Linda has written to you of her fascination with your Kunstkammer. I have been busy with concluding term so I have gotten to it only now.

    I like that you include that wonderful passage (5.1.34-48) where Romeo decides he will commit suicide by poisoning himself and recalls an apothecary. I never thought much about this except to note the appropriately bizarre, grotesque ambience that Shakespeare invokes here. (It’s the only instance of “alligator” and “apothecary” in the corpus of his plays and poems.) It is completely Shakespearian to see such a tradition creep into his work this way.

    From a warm Tucson afternoon,

    Yours sincerely,


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