If the first part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s Kunstkammer seems impressive, the second part takes it up to another level.
- A real chamber of marvels, particularly the automatons and the artwork integrating exotic items from afar
- Look out for the extraordinary ivory pieces (but spare a thought for the elephants)
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The sum of human achievement
Gallery 27 holds items from the Prague collection of Emperor Rudolf II. He had no head for politics – his brother eventually had to step in as Rudolf stumbled from one political disaster to the next.
However, Rudolf did have a good head for art and science. He encouraged both and built a quite astonishing collection of rare items, many of which we can now enjoy in the Kunstkammer.
The displays again show how art, science and engineering began to combine, best evidenced in the various automatons on display. See, for example, the mechanical ship from 1585 (the sails are miniature paintings) in the video at the bottom of this article.
Elsewhere in the room, you’ll find mechanical clocks from the late 1500s and early 1600s, sundials (if you forget to wind up the clocks), vessels made of precious stone (believed to have healing or restorative powers), and much more.
Everything’s a highlight, really, but don’t miss the narwhal goblet from 1600/1605 – made of narwhal ivory, gold, enamel, diamonds, rubies, and agate. Or the extraordinary detail on the gilded silver and enamel ornamental ewer and basin from 1601/1602.
I was pleased the ewer and basin carries the designation “ornamental”, because the idea of someone using it for actually holding food would be the extreme of decadence (although quite plausible when it comes to European royals).
Be sure to view the bronze figure of Flying Mercury by Giambologna from 1585, too. The Roman god stands on the toes of one foot…a weighty challenge when sculpting in metal. Compare the piece with the German Mercury figure in the neighbouring cabinet – there’s no competition.
“Stone age” art
After the last gallery you may feel both drained and exhilarated by the variety and quality of the collection. But take a deep breath and move on to Gallery 26.
This covers the stonecutting arts with, for example, 17th century landscapes and cityscapes built mosaic-like from precious agate, jasper, and hornstone.
A small private altar from 1590/1600 features Christ and the Woman of Samaria, constructed from a “who’s who” of precious gems and metals: rock crystal, jasper, agates, lapis lazuli, emeralds, amethyst, gold, enamel, gilded silver, and pearls.
You would not want to drop it.
Animal? Mineral? Or both
Having an extended family ruling large chunks of Europe had many advantages. One was access to the items brought back by seafaring explorers.
The Habsburgs on the Iberian peninsular had the best pickings, of course, which often found their way to the rest of the family as gifts (a little classier than a tie and socks).
Gallery 25 houses some of these items.
The sumptuous settings reflect the rarity of such things as rhino horns and ostrich eggs. Europeans often attributed medicinal and magical powers to these items.
The artistic settings served to emphasise the exotic (to Europeans) nature of each piece, as illustrated, for example, through a figure of an African below an ostrich shell.
The 1611 silver goblet made from rhino horn and decorated with warthog tusks looks like something normally found in Mordor:
(Lidded rhinocerous horn goblet with warthog tusks, Nikolaus Pfaff, 1611, Prague (rhinocerous horn – white rhino or square-lipped rhino Ceratotherium simum), tusks of an African warthog, setting: silver, gilt, partly enamelled 49.7 cm x 27.5 cm x 17.7 cm © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)
Other highlights here include a giant 1592 basin and ewer decorated with pearl and garnets. Look round its edges for metal casts of frogs and insects.
You also have a large bezoar on a gold, emerald and ruby base from the late 1500s.
Bezoars are indigestible masses found in the gastrointestinal system of animals. In the 1500s, they believed putting one in a drink got rid of the poison. (Always astonishing how some beliefs can persist despite all evidence to the contrary.)
Art from the Archduke
The next gallery (24) features items from the 16th century Innsbruck collection of Archduke Ferdinand II. I enjoyed the so-called hand stones: pieces of ore with biblical or mining scenes carved into them, full of decorative elements and models.
The side room here features a lot of glassware and crystalware from Milanese workshops (e.g. Saracchi and Miseroni). It also continues the theme of intertwining nature and art.
Many pieces mimic the human body, plants, animals, and shells and often incorporate natural materials and surprisingly practical functions: a tortoise becomes a powder flask, a nautilus shell becomes a drinking vessel.
Me! Me! Me!
As you pass into Gallery 22 and the 17th century, you might notice a change of focus.
The earlier collections may have played a representative role, but you also get a clear feeling that the items were valued for their novelty, rarity or artistry. They seem to reflect a genuine awe of man and nature’s capabilities and a stronger motivation than just a game of royal “my art is better than your art”.
Now it seems a bit more about self-representation: impressing visitors and demonstrating legitimacy and righteousness through the medium of art, often through models, bronzes and similar of the collectors themselves. It adds a cynical note to the joys of what you see.
Of course, there are still many delightful items to admire, particularly the gorgeous ivory statuettes by an unknown artist known only as the Master of the Furies. Which is the name I’m going to use next time I order pizza.
Have a peek at the ivory phoenix from 1610/1620. The rough plumage turns your perception of ivory carvings upside down – no milky sheen or smooth lines. Delightful and irritating in equal measure.
Paintings take precedence
The later rooms are the beginning of the end for the Kunstkammer, literally and figuratively. Paintings now began to take over as the “art of choice” for well-financed royals.
Which is not to say that these galleries aren’t worth seeing. In Gallery 23 (to the side of Gallery 22), for example, you’ll find 17th century clocks and scientific instruments from the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. His nephew, Emperor Leopold I, was a big fan of ivory, as you can tell in Gallery 20.
Again, we’re now firmly embedded in a world of art pandering to the self-glorification of the Habsburgs. See, for example, the impressive ivory piece from 1700 depicting Leopold adorned with angels, with a foot resting on his vanquished foes following the famous defeats of the Ottoman armies, most notably at Vienna in 1683.
Leopold was, of course, nowhere to be seen at the Siege of Vienna, having fled well before the first scimitar was pointed at the Vienna city walls. (But I’m sure he was there in spirit.)
I loved the detailed ivory and cedar reliefs by Ignaz Elhafen from the late 1600s and early 1700s (see the battle of Amazons, for example, with its mind-blowing detail) and the ivory reliefs by Johann Ignaz Bendl, who also contributed to the famous plague column in Vienna’s city centre.
The last gallery in the Kunstkammer is 19, itself designed to impress visiting dignitaries with its ceiling painting by Julius Victor Berger. You’re pretty much done.
And if a few hundred years of art, politics, history, science and coconuts haven’t tired you out, it’s time to move on to the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s other collections.
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