The wonder of man – the wonder of nature:
a seventeenth-century Nautilus cup

Luisa Coscarelli


I still remember vividly the first time I visited the V&A’s silver galleries – one long corridor located on the museum’s second floor laden with shiny silver and golden objects. Pilgrim bottles are displayed in a row close to the room’s ceiling, a huge wine basin demands attention in the middle of the gallery corridor, and around those objects are displayed hundreds more – dishes, cups, nutmeg graters, caskets, toiletry objects, the list is endless. This is also the location of our magnificent object of the week: a Dutch seventeenth-century nautilus cup.

Nautilus cup, unknown maker, ca. 1620, Dutch, engraved nautilus shell set in a silver gilt mount enamelled in white and blue, Museum no. M.179:1, 2-1978, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Nautilus cup, unknown maker, ca. 1620, Dutch. Engraved nautilus shell set in a silver gilt mount enamelled in white and blue, Museum no. M.179:1, 2-1978, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The cup is made of a mount, which is silver-gilt and enamelled with white ground and dark blue decorations. These are made up of rows of flowers and leaves, amongst which sit various kinds of insects. One finds moths, bees, and small bugs rendered in incredible detail and a very naturalistic style. The mount itself consists of a foot and two arms that hold the nautilus shell in a tender embrace, barely touching the fragile object. The arms are fixed to the foot with hinges, thus possibly allowing for the shell to be disconnected from its mount. Why this is interesting, and why this might allow for the addition of another function to the object will be discussed after having had a closer look at the nautilus shell.

Detail of the nautilus cup from the back.

Detail of the nautilus cup from the back. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Nautilus pompilius, Image © Wikimedia Commons, 2014.

Nautilus pompilius, Image © Wikimedia Commons, 2014.

Detail of side of nautilus cup.

Detail of side of nautilus cup. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A frequent feature of nautilus cups is that the shell’s natural brown elements are eliminated in favour of an all-pearly-white look. In this example the artisan has carefully conserved some of the light brown parts and integrated the natural occurrence of colour in his carved design. While most of the shell shines with a pearly sheen, curving lines that mimic some of the decoration on the enamel cover the shell. These are not only distinguishable due to their colour, but also because they are raised elements, thus revealing the different layers of the shell. Furthermore, a variety of insects are painted onto its shimmering parts. Among moths, a bee, and a spider, one also finds a ladybird, all rendered in minute detail, and creating a visual connection between the nautilus shell and its mount.

The beauty and delicacy with which the paintings on and carving of the object are executed is breathtaking, and in the first instance almost lets one forget the oddity the object’s decoration. Why would an artisan use a nautilus shell – an exotic and highly prized object – as a canvas for drawings clearly emerging from natural observation? Would it not have been more appropriate to have eternalised sea creatures on the pearly surface? In order to attempt to answer these questions one has to look at the spaces in which one would have encountered these objects in the seventeenth century: the Kunst– or Wunderkammer.

Francesco Calzolari's cabinet of curiosities, 1622, Image © Wikimedia Commons, 2014.

Francesco Calzolari’s cabinet of curiosities, 1622, Image © Wikimedia Commons, 2014.

Princes, monarchs, natural scientists, and professionals of various other disciplines established cabinets of curiosities. These were a pan-European phenomenon and could function to legitimise a rulers supremacy, as well as help someone of a lower social class to climb the social ladder.

“Diversity, abundance, a love for the singular, the odd, and the uncommon – these were the traits of […] cabinets of curiosities.”[1] This quote describes perfectly which kinds of objects would have found their way into a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Wunderkammer. Unusual objects made by nature or man were sought after. The breadth of things collected – religious relics, corals, gems, painting and sculpture, strange-looking or deformed animal, human and plant specimens – created a kind of encyclopaedia through which the owner of the collection and its visitors could study the wonders of nature, and the creative capabilities of man.

Detail of the phragmocene (chambered part of the shell).

Detail of the phragmocene (chambered part of the shell). Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Scholars in the Renaissance expressed the belief that the acquisition of comprehensive, universal knowledge about the world was indeed possible, and cabinets of curiosities were a locus where such knowledge could be acquired. The Wunderkammer was seen as a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm of the whole world, the universe even, and therefore providing the perfect place for scholars for example. However, there was also a layer of competition inherent in these cabinets, and the aim to place (and keep) man at the centre of this micro – and thus the macrocosm.

Objects like coconut cups, cups made with ostrich feathers, and like our nautilus cup were often displayed next to the raw material.[2] Therefore, a direct comparison was created between the work of nature and the work of man – ultimately showing not only how man rivalled nature, but how man was able to enhance and rule, and thereby surpass nature. I believe that this is very clear in this nautilus cup. The artisan, or artisans, who made this piece clearly wanted to show the diversity of materials they were able to work in, including mastery of enhancing the beauty of the shell by carving and painting it. The knowledge and understanding of nature is also present in the exquisitely painted insects on the shell, showing that the artisan observed nature and could replicate the exact appearance of very small animals on this medium.

Due to their small and detailed nature, and the fact that the arms of the shell’s mount have hinges, I would like to suggest that this object did not only function as a beautiful piece of craftsmanship displayed in a cabinet of curiosities, or similar setting, but also as a specimen for close observation. The hinges of the arms, and missing connection between the shell and the surface ‘holding’ it mean that the shell is only loosely connected to the mount, and therefore could be removed easily. Once removed, someone studying the object could have taken the shell and observed it more closely in order to be able to appreciate the detail of the carving and painting.

Towards the end of the seventeenth-century the popularity of the Wunderkammer declined. Encyclopaedic collection came to be viewed as inappropriate and inefficient – to natural scientists discovering that nature worked according to general laws, the common object was enough.[3] Yet, no matter how scientifically minded our world may have developed to be, objects like this nautilus cup still let us marvel at the skill of nature and of man.




[1]Joy Kenseth, “A World of Wonders in One Closet Shut”, The Age of the Marvelous, (Hanover; New Hampshire: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 1991), pp. 81 – 101 (82).

[2]Kenseth, “A World of Wonders”, p. 95.

[3]Kenseth, “A World of Wonders”, p. 97.


Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A.  If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us:


Luisa Coscarelli –

Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.


© Luisa Coscarelli 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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