To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting

Philipp Blom
The Overlook Press ($27.95)

by Allison Slavick

The phenomenon of collecting has been documented for around 500 years. Early on there were reliquaries, studiolos, and the Kunstschrank, an ornamental piece of furniture with multiple drawers filled with objects that were metaphors for life. Then came the cabinets of curiosities that documented the freaky and weird, all those fascinating deformed fetuses and unicorn horns outside the realm of human understanding. Later, when objects were arranged in a more orderly fashion, according to advancing scientific knowledge, they became illustrations of the supremacy of the rational mind. Eventually, the science-based methods of display were transferred to art, and paintings were no longer hung according to the whims and aesthetic sensibilities of the curator. Subsequently, collections went from instruments of exploration to instruments of conservation and museums as we know them today were formed. Mix all this up with various human renaissances and revolutions, mass production (it democratized collecting and shaped the American aesthetic), differences among male and female collectors, class issues, the drinking habits of Peter the Great, and manipulative art dealers and you have a charming book of profound intelligence, insight and wit.

In To Have and to Hold, Philipp Blom illustrates the ideological differences in collecting through colorful biographies of collectors who were lurid, weird, daring, polymathic, and dark, and considers them from every angle in the context of social change. And collectors are a weird bunch. Take Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), whose collections formed the basis of the British Museum. As the last of the "universal" collectors, an inventory of his collection included "stones of the kidney and bladder" (756 of them); "medals, ancient and modern" (23,000 of those); and "miscellaneous things not comprehended with the foregoing, both natural and artificial" (2,098 of those). If Sloane was chaotic, then Linnaeus was the Type A of the collecting world. His taxonomic influence on collections of all kinds cannot be overstated, but even with the few pages that are devoted to him the proportion seems about right—there is too much more to tell.

Having been popular for centuries, the trade in sacred bric-à-brac is given a lot of attention. Twenty-nine sites in Europe alone claim to possess a holy nail from the cross; three sites have claimed to have the holy navel; sixty-nine churches have claimed to have drops of breast milk of the Holy Virgin and eight sites in France have claimed to have the true foreskin of Christ. What do you do when there aren't enough pieces of the Holy cross to go around? You create a myth that explains that the cross, like a starfish, regrows when pieces are removed.

Blom also provides a fascinating chronicle of Giulio Camillo, the Diderot of the Italian Renaissance. Part primitive internet, part performance art installation, Camillo's system of information storage and retrieval was an architectural device into which spectators could insert their heads and look toward an amphitheater's seven rows of seats where various mnemonic devices were displayed. Those who gazed upon the "Theatre of Memory" were said to become fluent orators, having memorized the world's knowledge; in this way, Camillo collected memories. Does this seem odd? Blom depicts Casanova as a collector of lovers and a contemporary opera fan as a collector of philanthropic experiences. He brings all this together as cogent and convincing discourse, balancing skepticism with well-placed respect and a refreshing irreverence toward the follies of the wealthy.

There is so much more of interest here: the early years of the Louvre, J.P. Morgan's books and art (and, incidentally, his nose), Charles Wilson Peale's explanation of what every good collection should contain, the transformation of museums from private holdings to public trusts, all told with a pleasantry of language, subtle humor and a humble erudition.

Are collectors happy? Blom is generous in his assessment of the human condition, with the air of a compassionate caretaker at a state mental hospital. There's nothing that can be done to help collectors, as they cannot help themselves. Happiness isn't found within the objects, as they are "expressions of a state, not its agents." The disillusionment of collecting buttresses us from facing the world, until the next conquest—a rare butterfly, an autograph, a first edition—brings contentment.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003