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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Collecting for the Kunstkammer

“It had embossed on its surface the entire history of the world and mankind. Its wondrousness derived from the cumulative effect of diverse subjects and details and from the bringing together in one space apparently dissimilar things.” Thus Homer describes the shield of Achilles, the legendary Greek hero of the Trojan War. The mystical object could have been the keynote piece of a Kunst- und Wunderkammer of the sixteenth century. However, its description also summarizes the theoretical concept of such rooms of art (Kunst) and marvels (Wunder): the Kunstkammer displayed an encyclopedic collection of all kinds of objects of dissimilar origin and diverse materials on a universal scale.

The three ingredients for success in showcasing a collector’s panoramic education and broad humanist learning were naturalia (products of nature), arteficialia (or artefacta, the products of man), and scientifica (the testaments of man’s ability to dominate nature, such as astrolabes, clocks, automatons, and scientific instruments). On the Italian peninsula, the space housing these objects was called a stanzino, studiolo (39.153), more often museo, or sometimes galleria, a name mostly applied to collections of paintings and works of art that could contain curiosities as well, such as the Medici galleria. North of the alpine mountains, these predecessors of modern museums were called Kunst- und Wunderkammer (cabinet of art and marvels) or Kuriositäten and Raritäten-Kabinett or Kammer (cabinet or room of curiosities or rarities). The term Kunst- und Wunderkammer was apparently first employed by Count Froben Christoph of Zimmern and Johannes Müller in their historical account Zimmerische Chronik of 1564–66.

A compilation of remarkable things was attempted as a mirror of contemporary knowledge, regardless of whether those objects were created by the genius of man or the caprice of nature (Ferrante Imperato, Dell’historia naturale, 1599; Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Washington, D.C.). The rarer an item, the more attractive it appeared, be it a colossal “giant’s” bone or a precious find from a mineral vein turned into a sparkling jewel by a famous goldsmith. Monstrosities and Platonic ideals of form and beauty were opposite ends of the same idea, bonded like a Janus-headed figure or the obverse and reverse of a Renaissance medal (1989.12.2,3).

Collecting the extraordinary and mysterious had been part of human evolution since time immeasurable. Suetonius (died 122 A.D.) recalls that the Roman emperor Augustus “had his houses embellished, not only with statues and pictures but also with objects which were curious by reason of their age and rarity, like the huge remains of monstrous beasts which had been discovered on the Island of Capri, called giants’ bones or heroes’ weapons.” Thus, the taste for the utterly abnormal, for bizarre oddities, like the unusually large or the unusually small, for extravagantly exotic shapes and unknown origins (17.190.622ab) or artistic virtuosity, was not a Renaissance invention. However, such collecting was cultivated to an extreme degree during this period.

The Renaissance was the Age of Exploration, a period of rapidly expanding horizons of knowledge and the constant attempt to achieve the seemingly unachievable. “And if there ever was an age when one sees varied and wondrous things I believe that ours is one, for it is an age in which, more than any other, things happen that are worthy of astonishment, compassion, and reproach,” observed Matteo Bandello (1485–1561) in his preface to volume 3 of the Novelle (1554). Much of this was influenced by the discovery of the New World and the heated discussion of a new order in the heavens. The latter spurred the invention of spectacular scientifica. “Sure the sky is as the great wheel of a clock,” declared Philippe de Mornay (1549–1623). No wonder the creation of a complicated clock movement and its constant running were seen as a metaphor for the creation of the universe by the greatest of all clockmakers, God the Almighty (17.190.639). This equating of divine creation and human intelligence was logically followed by the quest of man to produce artificial life, thus attempting to disrupt the constant cycle of renewal through birth and death. The Greek rhetorician Callistratus (third century A.D.) tells us of “a statue of Memnon in Ethiopia that had the power of speech and that saluted the rising day and moaned and shed tears at its departure.” These desires found their most expressive manifestation in the Renaissance automatons of all shapes and refinement (17.190.636).

Some of the princely curiosity cabinets consisted of a whole sequence of interconnected spaces dedicated to the various fields of collecting. Often located near the principal parade rooms, they underlined the sovereign’s mighty status and the need for public representation. While renovating his residence, Ambras Castle near Innsbruck, Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol faced the dilemma of compromising between the appropriate scientific definition of the contents of his new Kunstkammer and the demands of an aesthetic display. The dukes of Bavaria avoided such conflicts by dedicating a separate structure to the Kunstkammer. It was Munich’s first Renaissance building and could be visited by special permission. A description of 1565 from the Zimmerische Chronik alludes to an arcaded courtyard and a “formation of cloister-like ambulatories, with four wings comprising several floors” to house the nearly 3,500 items. The Dresden Kunstkammer of the electors of Saxony was called a “working collection” with a didactic aim. Its contents were seen as a teaching tool to improve the professional skills and stimulate the cultural interests of its public visitors. Emperor Rudolf II (r. 1576–1612) established what was perhaps the most spectacular Kunstkammer of all at the Hradschin Palace in Prague in the late sixteenth century (17.190.467; 41.190.534; 17.190.636; 17.190.745).

Some collectors were particularly fond of elaborate cabinets furnished with many drawers and secret compartments that offered diverse storage opportunities (25.135.112). Designated for wealthy patrons, princes and patricians alike, these furnishings could be part of curiosity rooms. They could also stand on their own, representing in miniature format the diversity of items found in an entire Kunstkammer. The cabinetmakers of the imperial city of Augsburg specialized in producing these cabinets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and delivered them fully furnished with a micro-collection that might include hundreds of items.

The Kunstkammer was undoubtedly a typical product of its time, a manifestation of the thirst for humanist learning. In his essay “On Experience,” Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) reflects: “. . . in my opinion, the most ordinary things, the most common and familiar, if we could see them in their true light, would turn out to be the grandest miracles of nature and the most marvelous examples, especially as regards the subject of the action of men.”