The Met becomes a giant Kunstkammer as masterpieces of innovation and decoration from European courts come together in a new exhibition.
They’re status symbols. They tell time and act as calendars. They play music and games. They’re useful, entertaining, and at times distracting. They store information. They employ the latest technology. They have parts made of precious metals. They took years for designers and engineers to craft. They seem easy to break. They’re certainly not iPhones and shame on you if that was your first thought (but the similarities are striking, no?). They’re the dazzling artistic and technological treasures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe.”
The show, which opens on November 25 and runs through March 1, exhibits a plethora of exquisite and entertaining objects collected by the royal families of Europe between 1550 and 1750. It provides a glimpse into a time before the so-called Age of Revolution, when the spending and power of the courts went unrivaled. A time when the Age of Enlightenment blossomed and scientific and philosophical ideas were pondered and tested. Together the 170 objects on view—clocks, automata, furniture, scientific instruments, and more—showcase decadence and innovation at their apex, complementing each other like a charming power couple. The works are broken down into four categories—precious metalwork, Kunstkammer (cabinet of wonders) objects, princely tools, and self-moving clockworks or automata—with examples from the Met’s own collection and from important collections throughout Europe.
The show begins with The Imser Clock (German, circa 1554–61, copper [gilded, silvered], brass, iron) in a room by itself. Digital clock radio this is not; it is designed to indicate the position of all the sky’s heavenly bodies and their movements over time in accordance with Ptolemy’s ancient view of space and does so with a system of complicated toothed gearing. It comes to the Met from the Technisches Museum in Vienna and is one of only four 16th-century planetary clocks still extant. It’s been in Vienna ever since its sale to Emperor Ferdinand I in 1561. Otto Henry, Count Palatine and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire after 1556, commissioned the clock but died before its completion. Philipp Imser, a mathematician at the University of Tübingen, began work on the Renaissance wonder in 1554–55, and clockmaker Gerhard Emmoser was involved in its construction. If interpreted, the clock provides all the relevant information required for reading a horoscope: the hour, date, day of the week, the positions of the seven classical planets in the zodiac, which house the planets lie in, and whether they’re below the horizon, near the ascendant, or mid-heaven. The piece is topped with a two-tiered octagonal tower complete with an elaborate system of figural automata, including a woman who circles the tower each hour and a silvered celestial globe that turns once per stellar day.
Another of the many spectacular clocks in the show, the Musical Automaton Clock with Spinet and Organ (German, Augsburg, circa 1625, silver, brass, iron, gilding, ebony, hardwood, various other woods and metals, parchment, leather, color textile, paint), has been in the Met’s own collection since 2002. “It’s usually in the musical instrument department,” explains Wolfram Koeppe, the Marina Kellen French curator in the Met’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and the show’s curator. “It has the earliest miniature organ and the earliest miniature clavichord.” Behind the clock’s ebony facade (it bears the guarantee mark EBEN, which the Augsburg guild used to ensure real ebony rather than the much cheaper ebonized fruitwood that was more readily available), there is an ensemble of miniature instruments operated by a pinned brass cylinder. The tunes played are originals from the early 17th century. On the hour, five dressed and painted commedia dell’arte figures merrily dance or jump, as if giddy from the passage of time.
There are two automata in the show—Automaton in the Form of Diana and the Stag (German, Augsburg, circa 1620, case: silver [partially gilded], enamel, paste jewels; movement: iron, wood) in the collection of the Met and Automaton Clock in the Form of Diana on Her Chariot (South German, probably Augsburg, circa 1610, case: ebony, bronze [gilded]; dials: silver; movement: iron, brass) in that of the Yale University Art Gallery—that depict Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt. Though later also associated with the moon, fertility and chastity, the maiden daughter of Jupiter and Latona (Leto) was most closely tied to nature and was believed to have ability to command and communicate with animals. In the Yale example, Diana, her bow drawn, sits atop a chariot pulled by two leopards. In the Met’s sculpture, the goddess is perched on an impressively antlered stag, her hounds at her feet. The deer was especially sacred to her, and she is often depicted with the stag due in part to the myth of Actaeon. The stag also bore significance for European nobility: it was the symbol of princely hunting. As such, silver statues of Diana gained popularity among Europe’s rulers, Koeppe says, because “hunting was a favorite pastime and a strongly guarded privilege of the aristocracy—if someone else were to go hunting, he would maybe get a pheasant, but he wasn’t permitted to hunt deer, bears, or wolves.”
But the exhibition’s two Diana sculptures aren’t merely sporting trophies. During this period, Augsburg was a center for silversmithing, watchmaking, and the development of automata, and thus, naturally, a leading producer of ornate objects used in courtly drinking games. The stag of the Met’s example is actually a discreet wine vessel, with a hollow body and removable head. Whoever the automaton stopped in front of at the table was obliged to lift the stag off its base by its back legs and drink from it. Similarly, the chariot of the Yale example would move on its own across a table, with Diana’s eyes simultaneously moving from left to right. When the clock on the sculpture stopped, Diana would shoot her arrow. “Whoever it landed near had to drink out of a tankard or something,” says Koeppe. “The game ends with a headache in the morning, I’m afraid.”
The princely life, however, was not all fun and games. As the exhibition showcases, the pursuit of knowledge and technological advancement was not only fundamental to a member of the nobility’s education, but also to the sovereignty of his kingdom. Among the exhibition’s many dazzling scientific instruments are several examples dedicated to the so-called noble art of alchemy. Though alchemy, a precursor to chemistry, was generally concerned with the combination and transformation of matter, its primary pursuit was the creation of gold from base metals, a process called chrysopoeia. Its philosophical roots were ancient, but its—pun intended—golden age was the 16th and 17th centuries. The Medici, the Habsburgs, the rulers of the Palatinate and Brandenburg, and the electors of Saxony all had court alchemists, but the princes themselves participated in alchemical pursuits, as well. “In some cases, the prince was a practitioner, who, under guidance, was performing these sorts of experiments,” says Koeepe. “He was involved with the pursuit of natural experiments and physical knowledge, but it’s all tied still to mythology connections.”
Such connections are exemplified in the Alchemical Table Bell of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (Hans Bulla, Prague, circa 1600, metal alloy [gilded] iron). Bulla made the bell for Rudolf II from electrum, an alloy composed of the seven metals known to the classical world, each associated with one of the classical planets. According to Paracelsus, a German Renaissance alchemist, the metals were only to be combined under specific alignments of the planets. Its decoration evinces its creation, with depictions of the seven planetary gods, their corresponding signs of the zodiac, magical signs, and planetary symbols. Inside the bell and on its clapper are cryptic Greek and Hebrew letters, which perhaps point to the object’s mysterious function. Per Paracelsus, when a bell of electrum was rung, a spirit appeared, meaning that its function was necromancy. The show also includes the Alchemical Furnace of Augustus, Elector of Saxony (German, Dresden, circa 1575, brass [cast, chased, engraved], steel [engraved], chamotte) and Alchemical Distilling Stove of Moritz, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, which is attributed to Christoph Müller with engraving by Hans Jacob Emck (German, circa 1600, copper-bronze [gilded]).
Important to “Making Marvels” is its exhibition of ivory objects. However Koeppe is quick to point out the vast difference between the present-day poaching of ivory and its use in the 16th and 17th centuries. “Today we deal with not only the poaching of elephants but also sport hunting, but then elephants were venerated in the countries they came from and prized as symbols of wisdom and humanity in the rest of the world.”
Then, a mathematical-cum-artisanal process called ivory turning was also an essential part of princely education. The working of raw ivory into intricately sculpted forms with the use of a lathe—a machine typically used for furnishings that cut and formed a workpiece while it spun about an axis of rotation—was a way skilled artisans taught young members of the nobility geometrical principles and measurement, deftness, and precision. But it was also symbolic: pieces of artfully turned ivory exhibited the technological mastery of a ruler’s court, its place in the world, even its dominion over nature and matter itself. “One needed a very steady rhythm of the foot to move the lathe’s wheel and a steady hand for the knife—very easily the ivory could crack,” says Koeppe. “If one became a ruler and made a little crack, it was seen as a very bad omen.” Because ivory during was so linked to progress and the objects it produced were considered so precious, its practice was closely guarded. “It was so highly regarded, it was a secret, sort of like espionage today,” says Koeppe. “For instance, one artist who worked in Munich took his wisdom and tools and went to Saxony, and in his absence he was sentenced to death.” Included in the show is a Lidded Tankard (Vienna, 1654) turned by Archduke Leopold Ignaz, future Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, when he was 14.
The Kunstkammer objects in the show also feature rare and exotic materials, often adorned with precious metals. There’s a cup and cover made of a green turban snail shell, gilt-silver and cast, partially gilded brass (cup and cover: probably German, circa 1600; stand: German, Mecklenburg, before 1753), a ewer made of an ostrich egg and gilt silver (Hans Clauss I, Nuremberg, circa 1630), a drinking vessel made of a buffalo horn and cast, embossed, engraved, and gilded silver (German, circa 1540–50). From Portugal in the last quarter of the 16th century comes a Seychelles Nut Vessel (gilded silver, Seychelles nut). The Seychelles nut, which then had only been found as flotsam on the beaches of the Maldives, was so rare and its origins so unknown, it was thought to originate in the bottom of the ocean, where it was guarded by dragons. The coconut, or “Indian nut” as it was called then, was also rare, and thought, like the Seychelles nut, to have healing properties. A Grotesque Wild Boar and Coconut Cup (German, Nuremburg, 1603–09, silver-gilt, coconut) features a figure of a ferocious-looking boar complete with little wings. Silver zoomorphic forms like this were rather popular in the 17th century, and princes often kept a collection for use as hunting cups. This particular example was part of the dowry of Maria Eva Johanna Josefa Faust von Stromberg in her 1738 marriage to Anselm Casimir Franz von und zu Eltz and had already been in her family for several generations. It comes to the exhibition from the collection of Burg Eltz, the medieval castle their family has owned for 34 generations.
One of the most spectacular pieces in the Met’s show is the Green Dresden (Dresden and Prague, 1769; older elements Vienna, 1746), an incredibly rare almond-shaped celadon-green diamond that is approximately 41 carats. The flawless stone was found in India’s Golconda region, cut in London, and purchased at Leipzig’s Easter Fair in 1742 by Frederick Augustus II, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania, and Elector of Saxony, for 400,000 thalers, a value equal to four tons of gold. “Let me try to put things in relation,” says Koeppe. “In 1779, when Mozart became court organist and concertmaster in Salzburg, his annual salary was 225 thalers.”
In the exhibition, the Green Dresden will be seen in its current iteration, set in a hat ornament with two round, brilliant-cut diamonds (one approximately 6.28 carats, the other of unknown weight) and 411 medium to small diamonds. The jeweler Franz Michael Diepach made the stunning piece, which incorporates rococo and classical forms, in 1769. However, this isn’t the jewel’s first incarnation. After Frederick Augustus II acquired the diamond, it was initially set in a badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece by Johann Freidrich Dinglinger. In 1746, that piece was broken apart and a new Golden Fleece was made by the Genoese goldsmith André Jacques Pallard, which also featured the 49-carat Saxon white diamond. It was following the Seven Years War that Frederick Augustus I of Saxony—Frederick Augustus II’s grandson, who assumed sovereignty in December 1768—had the Golden Fleece jewel broken up. The Saxon white remained intact and set in a shoulder knot still extant today.
The Green Dresden, however, makes its way to the Met this month, a trip that’s not easy to arrange. “It’s only allowed to leave the country with the permission of the German government,” says Koeppe. “I think it will be quite a showstopper.”
By Sarah E. Fensom