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Exhibitions/ Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe/ Art in Motion

Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe

At The Met Fifth Avenue
November 25, 2019–March 1, 2020

Art in Motion

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Musical Automaton Clock with Spinet and Organ

Veit Langenbucher (1587–1631) and Samuel Bidermann and Son (1540–1622). Musical Automaton Clock with Spinet and Organ, ca. 1625. German, Augsburg. Silver, brass, iron, gilding, ebony, hardwood, parchment, leather, textile, paint. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Clara Mertens Bequest, in memory of André Mertens, 2002 (2002.323a–f)

Each part of this marvel, a combination of clock, musical instrument, and automaton, would have added to its expense. Its production required the cooperation of several artisans. The clock's case is marked "eben," which the cabinetmaker's guild used to indicate real ebony (and not a cheaper substitute), and its corners are embellished with fine silver caryatids (female supporting ornaments). Clocks like this one—the earliest surviving example of its type—made it possible to enjoy recorded music at home.

A multisensory entertainment for the noble classes, this piece has a clockwork mechanism that plays three jaunty original compositions (one of which can be heard in this video) on a spinet and an organ. It also sets in motion a cast of commedia dell'arte figures that dance in a circle or spin and jump on the hour. The mirrored panels behind them are positioned to create the illusion of a large ballroom; the trick is simple yet effective.

Automaton in the Form of a Monk

Possibly circle of Juanelo Turriano, (ca. 1500–1585). Automaton in the Form of a Monk, ca. 1550. Probably Spanish, ca. 1550. Hardwood (stained beech or poplar), traces of enamel, leather, metals, paint. Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.

Though its origins are shrouded in mystery, one legend proposes that this marvel was made after a relic of the Franciscan brother Diego de Alcalá miraculously cured the young Spanish prince Don Carlos. The prince's father, Philip II, vowed "a miracle for a miracle" and commissioned this automaton representing the monk, who was canonized as a saint (San Diego, namesake of the California city). The king's comparison of clockwork to a miracle references the contest between human clockmakers and the divine, a popular concept in the Renaissance.

Sensitively carved and painted in human likeness, the monk figure walks slowly and steadily. He beats his chest in penitence and regularly lifts his left hand toward his lips. As shown in this video, the figure once wore the robes of a Franciscan friar and probably kissed a miniature cross on a rosary (now lost).

Planetary Clock (The Imser Clock)

Philipp Imser (1500–1570), with Gerhard Emmoser (active 1556–84). Planetary Clock (The Imser Clock), ca. 1554–61. German. Copper (gilded, silvered), brass, iron. Technisches Museum, Vienna

Commissioned by Otto Henry, Count Palatine and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, and later sold to Emperor Ferdinand I, this planetary clock is unsurpassed in its complex mechanisms and was celebrated as a technical marvel in its time. Designed by mathematician Philipp Imser, its delicately engraved faces provide an overview of the entire cosmos at a glance; the clock represents the apparent motion of the planets in real time, visualizing even the subtle nonuniformity of that motion as seen from Earth.

Along with accurate astronomical displays, this piece features five mechanical figures (automata) powered by the clockwork. This video shows the female figure that circles the tower once an hour, her outstretched arm serving as the minute hand. Over the course of the hour, she passes four doors that reveal in turn the three ages of man (child, adult, elder) and a skeleton—a reminder that time is up. The videos also feature the sound of the movement and the chimes.

Automaton in the Form of Diana and the Stag

Joachim Friess (German, 1579–1620). Automaton in the Form of Diana and the Stag, ca. 1610–20. German, Augsburg. Cast and chased silver, partially gilded and painted with translucent lacquers, 13 x 9 9/16 x 10 in. (33 x 24.3 x 25.4 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds donated anonymously and the William Francis Warden Fund, Frank B. Bemis Fund, Mary S. and Edward Jackson Holmes Fund, John Lowell Gardner Fund, and by exchange from the Bequest of William A. Coolidge

This automaton was prized, though not unique; other versions survive, all targeted at the wealthiest clientele. A windup mechanism moves the group forward on hidden wheels, vibrating it in a lifelike way. Removing the stag's head reveals two drinking vessels. When the piece stopped, the nearest guest had to lift the creature off its base and empty it. The powerful Habsburg family bolstered their uneasy truce with the infringing Ottoman Empire through sizable gifts of automata like this.

Automaton Clock in the Form of an Elephant

Automaton Clock in the Form of an Elephant, 1600–1610. German, Augsburg. Metal (gilded), bronze (silvered), copper, steel, enamel, wood (ebonized), glass, paint. Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago, Gift of Mrs. Thomas Stamm with deep appreciation and affection in recognition of Rev. John J. Piderit, S.J., 22nd President, Loyola University Chicago, Martin D'Arcy, S.J., Collection

The mahout (elephant keeper), the turbaned Ottoman warriors, and the crowning crescent all allude to the Eastern origins of the elephant. Within the Kunstkammer the elephant represented rulership. This automaton clock, which strikes at both the quarter hour and the hour, is driven by a movement connected to a wheel mounted on the walkway of the howdah (saddle). On the hour, the four Muslim warriors revolve around the brickwork tower. The mahout thumps his arm up and down, as though he were leading the animal, and his counterweighted eyes move back and forth as the machine travels.

Reproduction of the Chess Player (The Turk)

Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804). The Chess Player (The Turk), original ca. 1769. Austrian, Vienna. Wood, brass, fabric, steel. Collection of Mr. John Gaughan, Los Angeles

Touted as an android that could defeat chess masters, Wolfgang von Kempelen's famed illusion debuted at the court of Empress Maria Theresa during wedding celebrations for her daughter in 1769. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the chess player (known in its time as The Turk for its costume) won games against Catherine the Great and Benjamin Franklin. When Napoléon Bonaparte tried to cheat, it wiped all the pieces from the board. The mysterious machine sparked discussions of the possibilities and limits of artificial intelligence, and it inspired the development of the power loom, the telephone, and the computer. The original and its secrets were destroyed in a fire in 1854.

The subject of more than eight hundred publications attempting to uncover its secrets, Kempelen's illusion also inspired a 1927 silent movie, The Chess Player, directed by Raymond Bernard. In the sequence shown here, the inventor presents his creation at court. The year of its release, this early science-fiction drama attracted more attention than Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a now-legendary film that also involves an android.

Wire-Drawing Bench

1: Leonhard Danner (1497/1507?–1586). Wire-Drawing Bench, before 1565. German, Nuremberg. Various woods, wood marquetry, iron, steel (gilded, etched). Musée National de la Renaissance, Château d'Écouen. 2: Leonhard Danner (1497/1507?–1586). Drawing Winch, before 1565. Niello on metal alloy (engraved, partially gilded). Rüstkammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. 3: Leonhard Danner (1497/1507?–1586). Wire Roll, 1560–90. German, Nuremberg. Wood, metal alloy. Rüstkammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. 4: Leonhard Danner (1497/1507?–1586). Lifting Jack, 1565. German, Nuremberg. Ebony, niello on metal alloy. Rüstkammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

The bench is designed for the production of thin wire from gold, silver, and other metals. The end product was used in the decoration of weapons, furniture, and vessels, and for weaving and embroidery. Threaded through a draw plate, the metal was pulled with pincers and wound around a drawing winch to be cranked along the bench. The process was repeated through successively smaller holes in the draw plates to obtain the desired diameter. Goldsmiths had used tools of this type since the late Middle Ages, but this unusually large example would have outperformed the smaller models in most workshops. With it, a skilled artisan could also cut screws, springs, and fine moldings. It is unclear whether Augustus used the bench himself, but he and his guests would have appreciated its state-of-the-art design.

Musical Automaton Clock

Musical automaton clock, ca. 1777. Movement: Jan Carel Lambreghts (before 1751). Flemish, Antwerp. Metal (gilded), bronze, copper, silver, glass paste (cut), enamel. The Al Thani Collection Foundation Limited

Duke Charles Alexander of Lorraine, who bought this automaton clock in 1777, collected luxury objects made in his realm that demonstrated local technical advances. The self-moving components of this timepiece represent the height of Flemish invention in a fashionable Neoclassical style. Mechanically complex and visually impressive, this sparkling clock was a worthy addition to the duke's collection of timepieces and scientific instruments.

This video shows the movement of the dials for hours, minutes, and seconds; days of the month; and phases of the moon, as well as that of the seven dynamic design elements. The cross-of-Lorraine pendulum swings steadily over the main dial, underneath a dancing letter M. Above the calendar dial turns a Catherine wheel, while the four dragons supporting the obelisk flap their wings and spit pearls. Another Catherine wheel spins above the moon-phase dial, and the entire obelisk is topped by a rotating planetarium. The fourth dial shows the maker's signature.

The Draughtsman-Writer

Henry Maillardet (Swiss, 1745–1830). The Draughtsman-Writer, ca. 1800. Brass, steel, wood, fiber. Franklin Institute, Philadelphia

Androids capable of writing and drawing, which embodied Enlightenment ideas about links between mechanical and human action, continue to inspire poets, artists, and engineers to this day. This creation became the basis for Brian Selznick's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), which Martin Scorsese adapted into the award-winning film Hugo (2011). Long a mystery, the android's maker was revealed during restoration in the twentieth century; when the clockwork motor is set in motion, the figure signs his drawing "the automaton of Maillardet."

Maillardet hid the mechanics of his lifelike Draughtsman-Writer, a seamless blend of art and science, in a cabinet rather than in the figure. This allowed for larger machinery and greater memory than in earlier efforts: an unprecedented three poems and four drawings are translated by the action of the figure, through a technology that foretold the computer.

Miraculous Writing Machine

Friedrich von Knaus (1724–1789). Miraculous Writing Machine, 1760. Austrian, Vienna. Iron, brass, bronze (cast, some colored), paper, wood (with marbleized stucco, gilding). Technisches Museum, Vienna

Presented to Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna in 1760, this automaton was made at the height of the "century of writing." Written communication connected scientists, dignitaries, scholars, and artists across long distances, and the act of writing was celebrated in every form. This piece is the last in a series of increasingly complicated ones that Friedrich von Knaus produced during his tenure as Austrian court machinist; he presented other examples to dignitaries such as the French king Louis XV and Duke Charles Alexander of Lorraine.

The machine writes through the hand of the small statuette seated at its top, one of the first mechanical writing figures in human form. This video shows the mechanisms inside the sphere that produce its precise movements. Up to 107 words can be preprogrammed by the arrangement of pegs on a barrel. The figure can also be set via a hand-worked control to appear to write from dictation; this technology that presaged the first typewriter.

Mechanical Paradox

Mechanical Paradox, third quarter of the 18th century. Italian, Florence. Beechwood, mahogany, walnut wood, palisander, brass. Museo Galileo–Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Florence

An ingenious instrument used to link theory with observable phenomena, this sophisticated object, the product of both the cabinetmaker's and instrument maker's arts, demonstrates a trick of physics: the double climbing cone (also known as a mechanical paradox). The Habsburg grand dukes of Tuscany commissioned mechanical models like this one from the best artisans in order to confirm their position at the top of the social order and present themselves as dynastic rulers with scientific interests.

While it seems impossible when viewing the stationary object, this animation shows how the pair of brass cones rolls from the low end of the frame upward, appearing to defy gravity. The motion is the result of the law of mechanics: as the two cones travel, their resting points shift toward the tips, lowering the center of gravity and drawing them up the incline. During this journey, the tips of the cones descend by about half an inch.

Picture Puzzle of Christian V, King of Denmark and Norway

Picture Puzzle of Christian V, King of Denmark and Norway, 1685. Bendix Grodtschilling the Elder (Danish, 1620–1690) and Bendix Grodtschilling the Younger (Danish, 1650–1707). Oil on panel, gilding, metalwork. Stiftung Schleswig–Holsteinische Landesmuseen Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig

Duke Frederick III of Gottorf's Kunstkammer featured several optical and mathematical instruments, including this picture puzzle. The piece playfully demonstrates the laws of perspective and light refraction. The panel pictures Queen Sophie Amalie of Denmark surrounded by eight royal ancestors. Gazing through the faceted lens in the eyepiece, however, one sees her son King Christian V of Denmark and Norway. Guessing the trick would have been an amusing game for the duke's guests.

This animation conveys the experience of looking through the scope to find the king's image, then demonstrates how it is created in the lens. Each of the multiple refractions made by the faceted lens in the eyepiece captures one small fragment of every portrait surrounding Queen Sophie and the shards are reassembled for the viewer's eye into Christian V's likeness.

Automaton Clock in the Form of Diana on Her Chariot

Automaton Clock in the Form of Diana on Her Chariot, ca. 1610. South German, probably Augsburg. Case: ebony, bronze (gilded); dials: silver (partially enameled); movement: iron, brass. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Gift of Mrs. Laird S. Goldsborough in memory of Mr. Laird Shields Goldsborough, B.A., 1924

One specialty of Augsburg clockmakers was the combining of timepieces with silver sculpture to create automata. Diana, goddess of the moon and hunt, was a popular subject among European nobility because hunting ws a privilege and a pastime of rulers. The two harnessed leopards drawing the chariot here refer to Diana's reputed ability to command wild animals.

Automata played a role in drinking games at courtly banquets. The effects that can be seen and heard here—the chimes sounding the quarter hour, the chariot's operation, the animals' action, and the steady movement of Diana's eyes—are all generated by one mechanism inside the ebony base. When the contraption stops, the goddess shoots her arrow: the guest nearest its landing place must drain his or her cup of liquor.


Fountain, third quarter of the 16th century. Austrian, possibly Innsbruck. Bronze (engraved, chiseled), iron, copper, natural and dark artificial patination. Castello del Buonconsiglio, Monumenti e Collezioni Provinciali, Trento

Bearing the coat of arms of the powerful Madruzzo family of Trento (on the base), this fountain was used to impress guests during courtly festivities. Portable despite its size, it likely spurted wine or water, in either a garden or banquet hall. At the top stands the hunter Actaeon midway through his transformation into a stag at the hands of the goddess Diana, the story of which is recounted in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Pipes inside the bronze column would have provided liquid to the various spigots from a source hidden higher up, ingeniously employing gravity rather than a mechanical pump. This animation re-creates the sprays the fountain would have produced to delight and surprise noble passersby. The jets' exaggerated thinness and asymmetry, created by the placement of the spigots, are characteristic of the late sixteenth-century Mannerist style.


Marquee: Gerhard Emmoser (German, active 1556–84). Celestial globe with clockwork, 1579. Austrian, Vienna. Partially gilded silver, gilded brass (case); brass, steel (movement); 10 3/4 x 8 x 7 1/2 in. (27.3 x 20.3 x 19.1 cm); diameter of globe: 5 1/2 in. (14 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.636). Diamond: Franz Michael Diespach (before 1725–ca. 1791), incorporating pieces by Jean Jacques Pallard (1701–1776). Hat Ornament with the "Dresden Green" from the Diamond Garniture (detail), Dresden and Prague, 1769; older elements Vienna, 1746. Almond-shaped celadon-green diamond of 160 grains (approx. 41 carats); two round, brilliant-cut diamonds, one of 24 1/2 grains (approx. 6.28 carats), the other of unknown weight; 411 medium to small diamonds; silver; gold, 5 1/2 x 2 in. (14.1 x 5 cm). Grünes Gewölbe, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (VIII 30)