Houses of Nature: cabinets and laboratories in late 16th-century Medici Florence

It is well known that the Renaissance was characterised by a naturalistic turn, be it in the arts, philosophy or literature. In spite of this, the Renaissance views of nature, and especially their impact on activities such as experimentation, have not been thoroughly investigated. This talk will focus on Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici (1541-1587) and his dedication to a programme of investigation into nature, which sought to yield highly practical outputs. Francesco was so keen on this subject that he became one of the chief prince-practitioners of the late 16th century.

In the context of this talk, I will primarily look at images of nature and the naturalist as depicted in his Studiolo and the Casino di San Marco. The coherence of views will be discussed and compared to those prior and posterior to the Renaissance. I will address the important role alchemy played in this perspective and the wide view of alchemy that emerges from it. I will also briefly reflect on the concept of enclosing nature in a built space, such as Francesco did in the cabinets, laboratories and workshops he used or set up.