Think of a Kunstkammer as a knowledge database, an outlet for the urge to collect, and a way to impress your aristocratic neighbours.
Call that a salt and pepper pot? THIS is a salt and pepper pot (albeit not dishwasher proof):
(Salt cellar (Saliera) Benvenuto Cellini 1540-1543, Paris, gold, enamel, ebony, ivory 26.3 cm x 28.5 cm x 21.5 cm © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)
The higher purpose was to demonstrate the best of nature and man’s creative abilities. And the Vienna Kunstkammer showcases the best of various Hapsburg collections put together from the 16th century onwards.
I’m not an art fanatic, but there are items in here that are guaranteed to impress even a Philistine like me (like the Saliera above).
The collection fills the lower eastern wing of the main building of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and was reopened in 2013 after years of extensive refurbishment.
(Gallery 20 © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)
Each of the twenty galleries has an overview explaining its theme and/or relevance to art and history, while each item has an accompanying (short) description. The design and layout is excellent, carrying you along on a journey through changing times and techniques.
Touchscreens provide further background information, more detail on selected exhibits and a handy genealogy of the Hapsburg dynasty (so you know your Rudolfs from your Maximilians).
Audio guides are also available in the museum entrance hall. And it’s all in both English and German (see here for general visitor tips for the museum).
So what should you look out for?
The early years
It’s best to start with the oldest Kunstkammer items (Galleries 36 and 37, on your left after you enter the main museum), then work your way through history by moving down the gallery numbers.
These two starting galleries feature mainly ecclesiastical items (which dominated early art) from the 11th to 14th centuries. My favourite is the griffon-shaped “aquamanile” (basically a water jug used for the ritualistic washing of hands) from around 1125 in Gallery 37:
(Aquamanile in the form of a griffon, workshop of Roger von Helmarshausen (?) 1st third of the 12th century, Lower Saxony, gilded bronze, damascened silver, niello, garnet 17.3 cm x 14.5 cm x 8.5 cm © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)
Someone was using that aquamanile when William the Conqueror’s son was sitting on the English throne, and Columbus was still almost 400 years away from finding America.
Take a look, also, at the ornament embedded with fossil shark’s teeth in Gallery 35. When they weren’t oppressing the peasantry, the aristocrats tried to outdo each other in demonstrations of wealth using every means possible, including through such items as sideboard decorations.
Back then they thought the teeth would sweat or change colour when near poisoned food or drink. A useful property when another aristocratic hobby was using poison to do away with rivals.
Highlight: Check the tiny boxwood rosary pendant displaying the Passion of Christ: I’m pretty sure they didn’t have laser technology in the early 1500s, so I have no idea how they got such fine detail. Time travel?
Among the 15th century figures and busts in Gallery 34, you’ll see the Vanitas Group of three figures carved from a single piece of limewood.
It represents the beauty and (unfortunately) transience of youth: the figure of the older woman is like a bucket of cold water on the soul.
Tucked away innocently in this room is also a bronze statue of “Bellerophon taming Pegasus” from around 1481 by a chap called Bertoldo di Giovanni.
Take a look also at the collection of plaquettes (small bronze reliefs): in the 15th century and later, they served a similar purpose to today’s baseball trading cards and collectible plates. So it’s nice to know that nothing really changes.
The shift to secular
Gallery 32 is where you begin to see how art spreads beyond its original – mostly religious – context, and artists start to push back the borders of what possible.
This is best illustrated in the 1580 sculpture of two figures by Giambologna, which has a fluidity of apparent movement not seen in earlier bronzes. Giambologna’s aim was to create statutes that invite you to walk around them.
He nailed it.
This room also has an early automaton or mechanical model – a female musician from the late 1500s.
Art as propaganda
Highlight: Gallery 31 features a frankly astonishing carved backgammon set from 1537. The pieces depict detailed literary scenes, while the board’s back shows representations of the Hapsburg dynasty, its lands and spiritual predecessors, such as roman emperors.
(Gallery 31 © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)
It’s not so much a backgammon set as a statement of power and prestige. Be sure to check the incredible detail, like the small flowers and distant backgrounds on the two horsed emperors.
As you move from room to room you get a strong feel for how different art forms progressed at different rates in different regions. Though it always felt to me like the rest of Europe was trying to catch up with Italy.
The highlight in Gallery 30 is the mid-16th century winged altarpiece. It looks like it might have been created yesterday, such is the bright and colourful condition.
The many panels depict the story of the bible, but the people are all wearing 16th century clothing – presumably a treasure trove of fashion fun for modern researchers.
The most famous exhibit
Move to Gallery 29 to find the famous Saliera by Benvenuto Cellini (also known as the Cellini salt cellar), mentioned at the start of this article.
Highlight: The Saliera is a salt and pepper dispenser for the table in the same way a Rolls Royce is a car.
An allegory for the cosmos, it’s made of gold, enamel, ebony and ivory, and was a present to Archduke Ferdinand II from King Charles IX of France. The latter’s grandfather (King Frances I) was the original recipient in 1543.
Its fame comes from the glorious nature of the piece itself, but also from its unfortunate theft. During the recent renovations, an opportunistic passer by scaled the scaffolding and disappeared off with the Saliera in 2003. He turned himself in in 2006 and led police to where he’d buried the item in a wood.
Gallery 28 continues the theme of progress measured through Kunstkammer art, with the appearance, for example, of measuring instruments. Allow yourself a little wry smile at the 16th and 17th century carved coconuts gilded with silver (it seems coconuts were a little rarer in Europe back then).
Don’t miss the wood, bronze and pearl cabinet, either. It was designed for storing art, but is also art in itself, and displayed in a museum that might legitimately claim to be a work of art, too. Art in art in art. Nice.
Next: The Kunstkammer (Galleries 27 to 19)