Image Gallery: Royalty
Image Gallery: Royalty

Image Gallery: Royalty A painting, circa 1710, of Czar Peter the Great of Russia. Peter was widely known for his cabinet of curiosities. See more pictures of royalty.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You know that dodgy part of town, the run-down area where artists compete side-by-side with panhandlers for handouts? Say you're walking around there, and you enter an odd little shop. You're greeted by a bust of a classic Whitley Strieber alien sporting an Elvis pompadour and bloodied vampire fangs. If you think, "I'm home," then you would've had a fine time living in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.

It was during these centuries that a trend developed of collecting odd, unnerving, surprising and exotic items and stuffing them into cramped areas with no rhyme or reason to their arrangement. These collections, called wunderkammern (or "wonder chambers") -- known in the West as cabinets of curiosity -- often were presented in cabinets. In other instances, these cabinets were actually large rooms, filled from floor to ceiling with exotic (and sometimes repulsive) items. The concept of displaying unique and unusual items in rooms may sound a bit familiar; wunderkammern were the direct predecessors of the modern museum.

 In fact, several famous museums in Europe can trace their heritage directly back to wunderkammern. In 1675, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University opened, receiving its first collection from the vast wunderkammer (singular) of John Tradescant. And the first museum in Russia's history, the Kunstkamera, opened to the public in 1719. Russian Czar Peter the Great decreed its construction. The Kunstkamera was based around the bizarre items found within Peter the Great's famous cabinet of curiosities.

Peter, who ruled Russia from 1682 to 1725, was known for his thirst for knowledge as much as his disregard for human life. He was a lover of science who used his peasantry as targets for live ammunition military exercises. But Peter was a dilettante in respect to the men of learning who compiled the collections that he purchased and coveted.

Read about these men and the strange and often morbid items that comprised their wunderkammern on the next page.