Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why should I long for things of this world?

My father's voice came back to me first: "The power of reason . . . breaking down fear and superstition . . . Kunstkamera is a temple of knowledge." And then I remembered our maids calling Peter's museum a cursed place, one that would bring bad luck on our heads. Were they right when they sneered at my father's words?

I pushed away these thoughts. I would not cry, I vowed.

The first thing Professor Stehlin pointed out to the Grand Duke in Kunstkamera was a glass dome covering a hill made of skulls and bones. Two baby skeletons propped on iron poles looked as if they were preparing to climb it. Beside them another skeleton, bow in hand, seemed about to start playing his violin. A wreathe made of dried arteries, kidneys, and hearts hung above them, with a a calligraphed inscription that said: Why should I long for things of this world?

"Anatomical art," Professor Stehlin called it. "So why should we think of death when we are still in our prime?" he asked his pupil.

The Grand Duke rubbed his hands and grinned. He remembered word for word what I had read to him days before.

To make us aware of the brevity of life. To remind us that we will have to account for our deeds well beyond the moment of death.

Professor Stehlin nodded with a smile.

— from The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak.

It feels right to be reading this when it's cold. These last weeks have been dark. There has been death, and also violence. It's been a sad time, and morbid too.

The description of this museum disturbed me. The book is historical fiction. At this point I had to investigate: how much is historical, how much is fiction?

Kunstkamera is real, situated across the Neva from the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. It is Peter the Great's personal collection of anthropological artefacts. Something of a freak show.

Much of the extensive and gruesome collection of anatomic specimens is viewable online.
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