Many of us keep a tchotchke of some kind on a mantelpiece or dresser in our houses — a stone from a vacation beach, a dime-store gift from a grandchild now in college, a folk sculpture picked up in Mexico, a thing that embodies a memory of a place or a time in our lives. In “Cabinets of Curiosities,” Patrick Mauriès tells the story of some truly awesome collectors.

Precursors of such collections were the relics amassed by medieval churches — a piece of the True Cross, a bone from a saint, a vial of the Virgin’s milk — items that were believed to have miraculous properties. “Something of the atmosphere of the supernatural that belonged to them passed to the cabinets of curiosities, so that alchemy, the occult and magic were never very far way,” Mauriès writes. Indeed, some of the earliest known collectors of curiosities were alchemists or apothecaries, very similar professions in those days. They never knew when a piece of a mummy or a chip of unicorn’s horn, pulled out of a dusty drawer, might prove useful in a concoction.

By the 16th century, the rage for collecting curiosities had spread to the ruling class, and part of the history of such collecting is the shift from private to public display. In Florence, Francesco de’ Medici kept his collection in a windowless room about the size of a modern living room, and items were stored in closed cupboards without any form of identification. Francesco knew what each thing was, and he could explain it to visitors.

North of the Alps, on the other hand, collections of curiosities tended to proclaim the wealth and power of their owners. In Munich, Duke Albrecht V’s collection occupied two well-lighted floors of a large palace. Every item was labeled, and objects were laid out on tables or suspended from walls or ceilings. Access to the collection was readily available to distinguished citizens, artists and fellow connoisseurs.

The presentation of a collection often became a bit of theater. At some places, a visitor would encounter a liveried dwarf, acting both as a guide and as one of the curiosities.

Artists visiting a nobleman’s collection might be looking to sketch a stuffed dodo, or they might be seeking inspiration in a small painting by a celebrated painter. Late Renaissance collections were often chockablock displays of art and nature, with an intricately carved piece of ivory placed next to a jar holding a two-headed cat placed next to an elaborate automaton, with a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling overhead. By the 18th century, such motley assortments were on their way out, with artworks increasingly displayed by themselves and biological specimens sent to the precursors of modern natural history museums. With the Age of Revolution and the fall of monarchies, the cabinet of curiosities again became a private affair, the domain of the connoisseur in his study.

The old chockablock exhibits would have their influence, however, and Mauriès devotes his final chapters to surrealists who created jarring juxtapositions of objects and to contemporary interior designers who revel in a decor featuring animal skulls, pieces of tribal art, portraits made of seashells and the like. Such over-the-top displays are a faint but worthy echo of the Renaissance cabinet. Most of us, having to do the dusting ourselves, will be contented with the vacation tchotchke.

Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y.

Cabinets of Curiosities

By Patrick Mauriès

Thames & Hudson.
256 pp. $45