This is a scene in an Antique Dealer's collection, taken from Honoré De Balzac's philosophical novel "The Wild Ass's Skin", where he outlines the uncanny and alluring effect of a multitude of collected objects -not yet divested of historical allusion or meaning, nor icily institutionalised- contained in a small, compressed private space, and set upon by an eager imagination.
“At first sight the showrooms offered him a chaotic medley of human and divine works. Crocodiles, apes and stuffed boas grinned at stainless glass windows, seemed to be about to snap at carved busts, to be running after lacquer-ware or to be clambering up chandeliers. A Sevres vase on which Madame Jaquetot had painted Napoleon was standing next to a sphinx dedicated to Sesostris. The beginnings of creation and the events of yesterday were paired off with grotesque good humour. A roasting-jack was posed on a monstrance, a Republican sabre on a medieval arquebus. Madame du Barry, painted in pastel by Latour, with a star on her head, nude and enveloped in cloud, seemed to be concupiscently contemplating an Indian chibouk and trying to divine some purpose in the spirals of smoke which were drifting towards her.
Instruments of death, poniards, quaint pistols, weapons with secret springs were hobnobbing with instruments of life: porcelain soup-tureens, Dresden china plate, translucent porcelain cups from china, antique slat-cellars, comfit-dishes from feudal times. An ivory ship was sailing under full canvas on the back of an immovable tortoise. A pneumatic machine was poking out the eye of the Emperor Augustus, who remained majestic and unmoved. Several portraits of French aldermen and Dutch burgomasters, insensible now as during their lifetime, rose above this chaos of antiques and cast a cold and disapproving glance at them.
All the countries on earth seemed to have brought here some remnants of their sciences and a sample of their arts. It was a sort of philosophical midden in which nothing was lacking, neither the Red Indian's calumet nor the green and gold slipper of the seraglio, nor the yatogan of the Moor, nor the brazen image of the Tartar. There was even the soldier's tobacco pouch, the ciborium of the priest and the plumes from a throne. Furthermore, these monstrous tableaux were subjected to a thousand accidents of lighting by the whimsical effects of a multitude of reflected gleams due to the confusion of tints and the abrupt contrasts of light and shade. The ear fancied it heard stifled cries, the mind imagined that it caught the thread of unfinished dramas, and the eye that it perceived half-smothered glimmers. Lastly, persistent dust had cast its thin coating over all these objects, whose multiple angles and numerous sinuosities produced the most picturesque of impressions.
To begin with the, the stranger compared these three showrooms, crammed with the relics of civilizations and religions, deities, royalties, masterpieces of art, the products of debauchery, reason and unreason, to a mirror of many facets, each one representing a whole world. After registering this hazy impression, he tried to make a choice of specimens he enjoyed; but, in the process of gazing, pondering, dreaming, he was overcome by a fever which was perhaps due to the hunger which was gnawing at his vitals. His senses ended by being numbed at the sight of so many national and individual existences, their authenticity guaranteed by the human pledges which had survived them.
The longing that had caused him to visit the shop was satisfied: he left real life behind him, ascended by degrees to an ideal world, and reached the enchanted palaces of ecstasy where the universe appeared to him in transitory gleams and tongues of fire; just as, long ago, the future of mankind had filed past in flaming visions before the gaze of Saint John of Patmos.
A multitude of sorrowing faces, gracious or terrifying, dimly or clearly described, remote or near at hand, rose up before him in masses, in myriads, in generations. Egypt in its mysterious rigidity emerged from the sands, represented by a mummy swathed in black bandages; then came the Pharaohs burying entire peoples in order to build a tomb for themselves; then Moses and the Hebrews and the wilderness: the whole of the ancient world, in all its solemnity, drifted before his eyes. But here, cool and graceful, a marble statue posed on a wreathed column, radiantly white, spoke to him of the voluptuous myths of Greece and Ionia. Oh, who would not have smiled, as he did, to see upon a red background, in the fine clay of an Etruscan vase, the brown girl dancing before the god Priapus and joyously saluting him? Facing her was a Latin queen lovingly fondling her chimaera! The capricious pleasures of imperial Rome were there in every aspect: the bath, the couch, the dressing-table ritual of some indolent, pensive Julia awaiting her Tibullus. Armed with the power of Arabian talismans, the head of Cicero evoked memories of republican Rome and unwound for him the scroll of Livy's histories. The young man gazed on the Senatus pupulusque romanus: the consul, the lectors, the purple-edged togas, the fights in the Forum, the plebs aroused to wrath. All this filed past him like the insubstantial figures of a dream.
Then Christian Rome became the dominant theme in these presentations. One painting showed the heavens opened and in it he saw the Virgin Mary bathed in a cloud of gold in the midst of angels, eclipsing the sun in glory, lending an ear to the lamentations of the sufferer on whom this regenerate Eve smiled gently. As he fingered a mosaic made of different lavas from Vesuvius and Etna, in imagination he emerged into sun-drenched Italy: he was an onlooker at the Borgias' feasts, he rode through the Abruzzi, sighed after Italian mistresses, worshipping their pale cheeks and dark, elongated eyes.
Espying a medieval dagger with a hilt as cunningly wrought as a piece of lace, with rust patches on it like bloodstains, he thought with a shudder of mighty trysts interrupted by the cold blade of a husband's sword. India and its religions lived again in an idol dressed in gold and silk with conical cap and lozenge-shaped ear-flaps folded upwards and adorned with bells. Near this grotesque figure a rush mat, as pretty as the Indian dancer who had once rolled herself in it, still exhaled the perfume of sandalwood. The mind was startled into perceptiveness by a monster from China with a twisted gaze, contorted mouth and writhing limbs: the creation of an inventive people weary of unvarying beauty and drawing ineffable pleasure from the luxuriant diversity of ugliness.
A salt-cellar from Benvenuto Cellini's workshop brought him back to the bosom of the Renaissance at a period when art and licence flourished together, when sovereign princes found diversion in torture and prelates at Church Councils rested from their labours in the arms of courtesans after decreeing chastity for mere priests. He saw the conquests of Alexander carved on a cameo, the massacres of Pizarro etched on a match-lock arquebus, the wars of religion -frenzied, seething, pitiless- engraved on the base of a helmet. Then the charming pageantry of chivalry sprang up from a Milanese suit of armour, brightly furnished, superbly damascened, beneath whose visor the eyes of a paladin still gleamed.
For him this ocean of furnishings, inventions, fashions, works of art and relics made up an endless poem. Forms, colours, concepts of thought came to life again; but nothing complete presented itself to his mind. The poet in him had to finish these sketches by the great painter who had composed the vast palette on to which the innumerable accidents of human life had been thrown in such disdainful profusion.”