By Xinyi Wen (@HPSWarburgian)
Red, umber, carmine, massicot yellow, ultramarine… in a 15×15 inches humble drawer, 63 kinds of pigments constituted a vibrant, colourful world. Each pigment was held in a labelled paper box lining inside the wooden grid, indicating these ingredients’ mobility and their flexibility of spatial arrangement. This drawer, together with other 28 counterparts of seeds, stones, fruits, roots, and animal parts, made up the cabinet of John Francis Vigani (c. 1650–1712), the first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge.
In the 1680s, this Italian chemist arrived in England and started teaching chemistry at Cambridge, where he was formally appointed as a university professor in 1703. Shortly after his promotion, Vigani, supported by Queens’ College, commenced this materia medica collection mainly for teaching chemistry and exhibiting materials that contemporary chemists worked on. Preserved at the same College, the cabinet we see today remains its layout which is believed to be Vigani’s original design. This cabinet showcases the richness of material knowledge and culture in the early eighteenth century: from everyday food like peas and nutmeg, to exotic materials like Indian red and China root, let alone the wonder drugs like Terra Sigillata and snake stones – that is, clay carved with images and stones with snake-like spiral shape, commonly used as antidote since antiquity. Inside the cabinet are also numerous bills, receipts, and correspondences, which reflected Vigani’s extensive network of material providers and worldwide acquisition of samples.
The cover photo of Vigani’s Cabinet is taken by the author.
About the author: Xinyi Wen is a PhD student at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge