Think of a Kunstkammer as a knowledge database, an outlet for the urge to collect, and a way to impress your aristocratic neighbours. The Kunsthistorisches Museum’s version is truly breathtaking.
- Quite astonishing collection of art and artifacts through the ages
- Everything from 16th-century automatons to rhino horn goblets
- Some pieces leave you in utter awe of the artist’s skill
- See also: Kunsthistorisches Museum tickets & visitor info
Inside the Kunstkammer
The higher purpose of a Kunstkammer was to demonstrate the best of nature and man’s creative abilities. And the Vienna Kunstkammer showcases the standout items of various Habsburg collections put together from the 16th century onwards.
I’m no art fanatic, but many items in there are guaranteed to impress even a Philistine like me. For example, this is the famous Saliera (essentially 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 collection fills the lower eastern wing of the main building of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and reopened in 2013 after years of extensive refurbishment.
Each of the twenty or so 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 carries you along on a journey through changing times and techniques.
Touchscreens also provide further background information, more detail on selected exhibits, and a handy genealogy of the Habsburg 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), then work your way through history by moving down the gallery numbers.
The 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.
Someone used that aquamanile while William the Conqueror’s son still sat on the English throne, and Columbus was still almost 400 years away from reaching America.
Take a look, also, at the ornament embedded with fossil shark’s teeth in Gallery 35: the so-called Adder’s Tongues Credenza from around 1450. 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 shark teeth would sweat or change colour when near poisoned food or drink. A useful property when another aristocratic hobby was to use poison to do away with rivals.
Also 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 incredibly fine detail. A truly astonishing work of art.
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
(Saal XXXII © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)
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’s possible.
This is best illustrated in the ca. 1580 sculpture of two figures by Giambologna, which has a fluidity of apparent movement not seen in earlier bronzes. Giambologna aimed to create statutes that invite you to walk around them; this sculpture illustrates the principle perfectly.
The room also has an early automaton or mechanical model – a female musician from the late 1500s.
Art as propaganda
Gallery 31 features a sensational carved backgammon set from 1537. The pieces depict intricate literary scenes, while the board’s back shows representations of the Habsburg dynasty, its lands, and its spiritual (though not actual) predecessors, such as roman emperors.
Be sure to check the incredible detail, like the small flowers and distant backgrounds accompanying the two horsed emperors.
Here we have a backgammon set as a statement of power and prestige. Can you imagine the Emperor leaning over and asking his guest if he fancied a game of backgammon:
“Do you have a board handy?”
“I think we might be able to rustle something up.”
As you move from room to room, you develop a strong feel for how different art forms progressed at different rates in different regions. Though it felt to me like the rest of Europe was always trying to catch up with Italy.
The mid-16th century winged altarpiece in gallery 30 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 all wear 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.
The 1543 Saliera is a salt and pepper dispenser for the table in the same way a Rolls Royce is a car.
King Charles IX of France gave the Saliera as a present to Archduke Ferdinand II. The King’s grandfather (Frances I) was the original recipient of this allegory for the cosmos in gold, enamel, ebony and ivory.
The Saliera’s fame comes from the glorious and exquisite nature of the piece itself, but also from its unfortunate theft.
During renovations, an opportunistic passer by scaled the scaffolding and disappeared off with the work in 2003. The authorities recovered the Saliera some three years later.
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 precious 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 from 1560/1570, either. Although designed for storing art, it’s 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, one might say.
Part II: The Kunstkammer (Galleries 27 to 19)