Niccollo Niccolli was a Renaissance humanist (1364-1437) of Florence and lived in the company of its wealthiest families – the Medicis, the Pittis, and the Brancaccis.
Obsessed with Roman antiquity, he filled his elegant Florentine apartment, not with relics of Christian saints and martyrs, but with antique marble busts and torsos, goblets, glassware, cameos, and other treasures of ancient Rome. More passionately, he collected classical and patristic texts of ancient Rome and left eight hundred of them when he died at the age of seventy-three. A trailblazer, he became one of the first Europeans to collect antiquities as works of art.
Niccolli however was not a rare bird in the world of collecting. Ever since our days as hunter-gatherers, we have collected what we needed, appreciated or desired. In excess of what we needed, we collected to establish a sense of human identity, to fill emotional, intellectual, even spiritual longings, to complete selfhood.
Collecting, according to Susan Pearce, “sustains our sense of ourselves as meaningful people passing through time.” And when one loses a collection, William James declared that it produces “a sense of the shrinking of our personality, a partial conversion of ourselves into nothingness.”
The history of collecting is a narrative of tangible objects sewn into the fabric of humanity’s lifetime experiences. Carl Jung declared that collecting is an instinctive, universal impulse and Henry David Thoreau added that the objects we behold “make our world.”
This insight was foreshadowed exactly by what happened in 1853. Austen Henry Layard (British) and Harmuzd Rassam (Chaldean Christian), archaeologists with deep interests in the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia, discovered in the mounds of Mosul (a city in Iraq) the great cities of Nimrud and Nineveh. They found the great treasures of King Ashurbanipal (ruler of Assyria from 668-627 BC) – a collection of kiln-baked tablets covered with intricate cuneiform scripts used in ancient Mesopotamia, walls covered with alabaster, the magnificent reliefs of large bulls with human heads called Lamassu, and the breathtaking beauty of the Lion Hunt Scenes.
The finds and the decryption by George Smith of the cuneiform in 1872 changed the way we see the world. They enabled us to see a civilization with images, beliefs, literature, names, and history. Martin Puchner declared: “Such a world is almost impossible for us to imagine. Our sense of history, of the rise and fall of empires and nations, would be completely different. Most philosophical and political ideas would never have come into existence, because the literature that gave rise to them wouldn’t have been written. Almost all religious beliefs would disappear along with the scriptures in which they were expressed.”
Everything in the world passes through history. Gathering and reframing their many parts for the future is the enchanting world of collecting. And we have never been orphans in that world as empires and villages collected, saints and scoundrels collected, and we collected rarities and bric-a-brac.
The Ptolemaic Pharaohs collected books for the great Library of Alexandria. Aristotle collected plants for his herbarium. Louis IX of France (1214-1270) collected relics of saints. The Renaissance banker Lorenzo de Medici collected art that rivaled the collections of popes and princes. The Third Reich collected an estimated 650,000 booty artworks from conquered Europe. J.P. Morgan collected exquisite gemstones. Norton Simon and Jennifer Jones amassed 8,000 collectibles spanning 20 centuries of artworks from Europe to Asia. John Reznikoff collected celebrity hairlocks including those from Lincoln, Beethoven, and Einstein. Nabokov collected butterflies. And Becky Martz simply collected banana stickers.
In the Philippines, Rizal collected 346 seashells from the wilds of Dapitan. Lepidopterist Julian Jumalon of Cebu collected butterflies including the rare ‘Birdwing of Palawan.’ Ed Flores collected more than 2,000 bululs (carved wooden rice gods) from the Cordilleras. Luis Ma. Araneta collected numerous antique santos. Ting Mendoza-Escobar collected pre-Spanish, Spanish and heirloom jewelry. Danny Dolor collected vintage Philippine movie posters. And Larry Gotuaco collected 14th century blue and white trade wares.
There is no single nor simple explanation why people collect. One may generally say that they collect for happiness, love, immortality, piety, pride, money, competition, the thrill of the hunt, psychological security, greed, addiction, beneficence, fame, conquest, or simply for fun.
Bryan Petrulis, an avid autograph collector and former outfielder of St. Mary’s University (Minnesota), explained: “The thrill of the chase, seeing who will sign that day. Second, the collecting aspect, trying to put together the best autograph collections around. And finally, feeling more connected with the game because I actually meet the guys playing it instead of just seeing them on television.” Then he confessed: “It gets addictive….” The thrill, the joy, the connection, the camaraderie, the competition, the triumph, and the addiction – it said a lot.
But such overt drives do not yield the deeper impulse to explain why people collect. G. Thomas Tanselle provided an answer: the human need to find order. He explained: “The starting point for thinking about collecting is recognizing the human feeling of wonder that things seem to exist outside the self – the amazement and curiosity aroused by the apparent infinitude of animate and inanimate things that constantly impinge on one’s consciousness…… In one fashion or another, at some level of the mind, everyone responds to the puzzle of whether the self is, or can be, connected to what seems to be outside it. The infant grasping and tightly holding a teddy bear, the expert in Old Master drawings pursuing and capturing another example for a collector, and all other acquisitions of tangible things are proving to themselves that they can make physical contact with that outside realm and, by seizing them from it, can subjugate one small part of it and to that extent render it more controllable and orderly. The process gives pleasure by conveying the sense that one is in some measure mastering one’s environment, that one is less disoriented in the face of confusion. There is an accompanying and insatiable need to repeat the process, both because one seeks continued reassurance and because each instance brings renewed pleasure.”
A collector then is able to bring tangible things from the outside world into the orbit of his more personal appreciation, encoding them with his own more intimate narratives. Having transited them from the vast outside world into the more ordered world of his collection, the collector has created a sense of order that is now more familiar, more manageable, more pleasurable. That is haruyo, the enchantment in the world of the collector.