Petronella’s Cabinet (or a miniature attempt at the semiotics of the dollhouse)


Petronella Oortsman’s house at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam


Deep inside the cantilever of a drawer or the perfumed depth of a wicker basket I still find the remnants of someone’s childhood (not sure exactly whom) in the form of a minuscule pot lid with a minuscule welded handle. Ruffling the contents of said drawer or said wicker basket I find a minuscule wooden spoon. There is also a minuscule teacup and saucer.

(A female member of the family has a deep embarrassing love of small mementos of domesticity)

And the question (the Zeus of questions in a sense):


Why these little things, these scaled versions of familiar, utterly functional objects, robbed of their usefulness by their diminutive size?

If you are not part of the restricted club of dollhouse aficionados or happen to have an encyclopedic knowledge of western European museum spoils, the name Petronella Oortsman must vaguely sound like a character out of Pynchon.


the “L”s roll out in a plastic italian sound.

Petronella Oortsman,

the name of a rich Dutch widow that in 1686 started commissioning the most impressive amphibious object, ½-doll house, ½ cabinet, laboriously built by various trades as if it was a full scale house, furniture makers making very small chairs aided by upholsterers (probably) trained as watchmakers, “capitonaying” very small armchairs. It has infra-cabinets (cabinets-inside-cabinet) filled with mini-Delftware. One can see frescoes that belong on the side of a 13th century prayer book because that’s where they would fit perfectly. A full representation of a world, not exactly the utopia of the domestic life, rather the shrunken version of it.

Petronella’s cabinet (I keep writing here name because of the sound it makes in my mind while I write it: Petronella.) is a theatre for memory, an aid to imagination.

That is what dollhouses really are, a camouflaged toy, not only meant as practice tool for female tasks but as a philosophical charm meant to invoke a million images and sensations: the sensation of decorating a home, choosing the objects that will fill it; the sensation of welcoming guests into your living room, showing them around. The feeling that comes with the tidiness of a well-kept home compacted into a cabinet with glazed doors that one can open and continuously recall.

The dollhouse does not target the whole body but rather the hands and the eyes.


Manipulating this object is supposed to evoke the phenomena of walking through it, but it should also give something extra. Opening a dollhouse is always supposed to be the main experience, a congratulatory feeling of well-succeeded voyeurism: most modern dollhouses open in half giving a happy little girl a rare feeling of control over a whole household as she can view in section every room in one glance. There is no real “promenade architecturale” given by spaces in sequence – nothing could be farther here from a cinematographic experience of space.

However, when the rooms of memory are vaster and more enveloping there is no need for the actual experience of space. The cabinet is a sort of anesthetic from reality, a gateway drug with glass doors.

The fact of the matter is, after considering Petronella’s cabinet,

it’s difficult to as the question (the Zeus of questions in a sense):


Why these little things, these scaled versions of familiar, utterly functional objects, robbed of their usefulness by their diminutive size?

That’s been covered, I hope.

But easier to ask another one:

Why these big things, these rides, these trips, the need for visiting, for meeting people and know the world, the need for nice things to wear, for designed lamps and rugs?

I can only guess we need those things so we have something to remember when we open the cabinet’s doors.



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