Julian Barnes On His Favorite Wunderkammer

More Intelligent Life has a new feature titled "Authors on Museums," launching with a piece by famed contemporary UK novelist Julian Barnes. Barnes is fascinated with the Cefalu, Sicily's tiny Museo Mandralisca. It houses the remains of 19th century Baron Enrico Piraino's cabinet of curiosity, the foundation of which was his collection 20,000 sea shells. From More Intelligent Life:

 Files Porcupines2

There is also an extensive display of coins which you can match against a map showing all the different Graeco-Sicilian mints the island once contained. There is a line-up of those earthenware oil lamps, so necessary in the Ancient World, whose subtle differences are nowadays lost on amateur observers. There are 19th-century Cefalu cabinets with naively naughty painted glass panels of loafing, half-clad gods and goddesses. There are a number of rather ordinary pictures. And there is a whole roomful of stuffed animals and birds, many of them long hunted to death on this island. At least, you occasionally find yourself reflecting, the baron didn't collect stone arrowheads.

So why, you might ask, am I recommending this place? Partly for the feel of it, for a sense of the mind of the man who assembled it all, and also a sense of the period when such omnivorous collecting was the natural behaviour of an enlightened person. But mainly because, here and there, it contains items which rise above the general level--and beyond that, two great masterpieces. You might think, for instance, that the stuffed-animal room, in which dozens of less than sprightly looking specimens are displayed against fading painted backdrops, might be a bit of a downer. It is, until you spot three animals which for some reason are not confined behind glass, but casually placed on top of the cabinets: a hedgehog and a pair of porcupines (pictured). The latter are lined up nose to nose, as if in friendship or confrontation (who can tell with a porcupine, especially when stuffed?). Their natural sleekness is enhanced by a doubtless inauthentic glaze which has been applied to their prickliness, and there is something about them--no doubt something rather low and anthropomorphising--which inevitably puts a goofy smile on your face. In the same way, the monotony of massed seashells on display will be suddenly broken by examples of such an eerie elegance that they seem the result of modern high-tech design.

"Julian Barnes Is Very Fond Of An 'Unknown Man'" (More Intelligent Life, thanks John Alderman!)