Watercolours from the Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo

One of the grandest pictorial records of the 17th century was the 'Museo Cartaceo' or 'Paper Museum'. This vast visual encyclopaedia of the ancient and natural worlds, consisting of thousands of drawings and prints, was assembled by the Italian nobleman Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588 – 1657).

In 1622 Cassiano published Uccelliera, ovvero discorso della natura e proprietà di diversi uccelli, an illustrated treatise on the study of birds, written by Giovanni Pietro Olina, and including watercolour paintings by Vincenzo Leonardi (about 1590 – about 1646). Cassiano presented a copy to Federico Cesi, Prince of Acquasparta and founder of the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of the Lynx), the first scientific academy in Europe (established 1603). Soon after, Cassiano was elected to the academy as a 'Lynceo' and his interest in natural history grew apace.

Cassiano accompanied embassies to France and Spain where he visited collections and consolidated a circle of influential correspondents. Cassiano and his younger brother Carlo Antonio acquired paintings and antiquities, medals and sculpture, live animals, natural specimens and scientific instruments, as well as a fine library. Its centrepiece was the Museo Cartaceo (Paper Museum) – a visual encyclopaedia of almost 4,000 studies of antiquities and architecture, 3,000 natural history subjects (focused mostly on studies of actual specimens made from life) and a similar number of prints.

Watercolour, 'Possibly ornate lorikeet, Tricholglossus ornatus', by Vincenzo Leonardi, early to mid 17th century, Italy. Museum no. CIRC.13-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cassiano and his brother continued to acquire watercolours of notable specimens, such as the thorn apple, a previously unknown species of herbaceous plant imported from the Americas. By 1626 Cassiano was showing an interest in citrus fruit. As with the Uccelliera, he encouraged an associate to undertake a treatise on the subject: the Jesuit professor of Hebrew and Rhetoric, Giovanni Battista Ferrari, whose book on horticulture De Florum Cultura appeared in 1633. For this project, Cassiano seems to have acquired a few studies on parchment from the accomplished botanical painter Giovanna Garzoni and may have acquired further sheets from correspondents. However, as before, the watercolours were mostly painted by Vincenzo Leonardi, who was thanked by Ferrari for his ability to 'produce real fruit ... solely for the pleasure of the eyes'.

Watercolour of a thorn apple, maker unknown, from the 'Paper Museum' of Cassiano dal Pozzo, about 1622 – 23, Rome, Italy. Museum no. E.428-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ferrari was fascinated by abnormality, and one of the most striking of Leonardi's watercolours depicts a misshapen digitated or 'fingered' citron, probably deformed by the action of citrus bud mite. Another depicts a sour orange, shown both whole with a flower cluster attached and halved, as was typical of the 81 botanical plates in the treatise Hesperides sive de Malorum Aureorum Cultura et Usu (1646).

(Left) Watercolour of a misshapen or 'digitated' citron, (right) watercolour of a sour orange, by Vincenzo Leonardi, from the 'Paper Museum' of Cassiano dal Pozzo, about 1640, Rome, Italy. Museum no. E.426 & 427-2009 &. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Almost 50 years after Cassiano's death his paper museum was purchased from his heirs by Pope Clement XI Albani. It then entered the collection of the Pope's nephew Cardinal Alessandro Albani in 1714, and in 1762 was purchased – though not in its entirety – by George III. The bulk of the paper museum remains in the Royal Collection to this day, with the exception of a large group of natural history drawings (including these watercolours) that were sold from the Royal Library at Windsor in the 1920s. The V&A acquired three watercolours in 2009 (E.426-2009, E.427-2009 and E.428-2009), and they have joined the museum's important collection of botanical drawings. They can be viewed in the Prints & Drawings Study Room.

This is an edited extract from the forthcoming V&A publication Renaissance Watercolours: From Durer to Van Dyck by Mark Evans and Elania Pieragostini

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(Detail) Watercolour of a misshapen or 'digitated' citron, by Vincenzo Leonardi, from the 'Paper Museum' of Cassiano dal Pozzo, about 1640, Rome, Italy. Museum no. E.426-2009 &. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London