Curious cabinets

castle

The Memory Palace, a new book by Edward Hollis, continues on roughly the same theme as his previous book The Secret Life of Buildings, this time talking about a concept also used by Tony Judt in his book The Memory Chalet, although for Judt it was purely a mental concept used as a tool to aid recall (Judt used it when he was paralysed and would think up a chapter of his book at night and then use the memory chalet concept – allotting ideas to various imaginary rooms – to keep his ideas in mind until the next day when he dictated his book), whereas Hollis describes actual interiors as aids to memory.

He travels (in the book) from the Palatine in Rome, and the oldest dwelling discovered there, to Westminster Palace, now parliament, to Emperor Rudolf’s Kunstkammer, a room-sized “cabinet of curiosities” full of stuffed exotic animals (and more), to the hidden rooms of Versailles, to the Crystal Palace in London, and to the virtual cabinet of curiosities – the internet. Along his patiently outlined way he enlightens us with the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is named such because medieval kings and their courtiers did their finances on a chequered tablecloth. And he informs us that parquetry is so named because originally the ‘parquet’ was the stage underneath the French throne, but the more liberal-minded Louis XIII decided to extend this flooring across a whole room, giving more access to the throne and hence the king.

hollis

Hollis (above) also describes how medieval paintings of the English royal court rarely show buildings (only furniture) because the court moved around constantly, how at the Great Exhibition in London the Koh-I-noor diamond, at the time the largest in the world, disappointed viewers at the Crystal Palace (we know now because the diamond was entirely inappropriately displayed) and how a model worker’s cottage designed for the working poor was dismissed in print by Charles Dickens, writing under a pseudonym, who wrote that the presumptuous designers should wait “until they [the poor] ask you to be cleansed and fed”.

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