Vienna - The spirit of the West in the Hapsburg 'Kammer' Featured

The reopening of the Kunstkammer in Vienna provides a valuable insight into the Hapsburg personality, and a precise portrait of European cultural identity


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06 May 2013

Visiting the new Kunstkammer or “chamber of art” in Vienna is rather like living in a tale by Hoffmann or Mérimée. (In the title photo above: Master of the Furies, Fury, c. 1610/20, Salzburg?, ivory, 37.4 cm x 25.4 cm x 25 cm, © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien).

Protected by a fine glass cabinet, the crew of a richly-ornamented miniature ship, (photo 2 above, automaton in the form of a ship, 1585, Augusta, silver, gilding, brass, oil paint, movement in iron, h. 67 cm, length 66 cm) designed to add decoration to the imperial table, seems to be suspended in time, as if for ever crystallized while performing their roles.

In the same way, a centaur ridden by the goddess Diana (photo 3 above, ) is immortalized with a profusion of silver at the instant at which she is preparing to shoot an arrow, while a gilded Minerva, seated on a horse-drawn chariot accompanied by satyrs and a monkey, enchants the spectator with her inquisitive smile, made even more enigmatic by her absolutely static pose (photo 4 below: attributed to Achilles Langenbucher (1579-ca. 1650), Automaton, so-called Triumphal Chariot with Minerva, ca. 1620, Augsburg, gilded copper alloy, silver, enamel, ebony, iron, tin).

But once we have launched the videos on the tablets fitted onto the seating near such automatons (photo 5 below, one of the 33 seating units, each of which has two tablets, which can be used along the Kunstkammer itinerary), we discover all the functions of these pieces and their hidden movements. By means of complex mechanisms inside its structure, the galleon can amuse guests with pleasant music, during which the crew on the decks begins to move in an orderly dance; at the same time, its cannons fire broadsides towards a diner, who, thus chosen, is required to empty his cup of wine.

In the same way, the silvery centaur can release an innocuous arrow from his bow, and the guest who receives it will have to pronounce a witty motto, suitable for the regal occasion. We discover that Minerva can move her eyes, while the horses rear, and her bizarre cohort of followers move rhythmically in time to the sound of a mechanical organ.

These are just some of the remarkable automatons that, from 1 March, can be admired at the Kunstkammer, the historical core of the collections at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (often abbreviated to KHM), the Historical Art Museum in Vienna, location of the priceless materials that once belonged to the Hapsburg dynasty. The Kunstkammer, which had been closed for 11 years, has been reopened with a completely new layout, supervised by the general manager Sabine Haag and the curator Franz Kirchweger. The exhibition design enhances the beauty of the individual pieces, and reveals their secrets by means of state-of-the-art technology and educational systems.

The event is of an importance that exceeds all local or regional connotations. Totally erroneous is the opinion of those who believe that the restoration of the 20 rooms presenting the Hapsburg treasures reflects a sort of nostalgic and anachronistic glorification of the like-named dynasty, at the heart of Austrian history for many centuries, right up until 1918. The project was made possible by the Republic of Austria, its taxpayers and its cultural institutions.

Wunderkammer, the marvels of the world

The reasons for this fallacy can be found in the nature and functions of the earliest museum collections, which were very different from the criteria applied in modern collections. While the basic principle of the Wunderkammer, or 'chamber of marvels,' was to create a sort of theatrum mundi, a miniature image of the creation and its extraordinary variety, beauty and eccentricity, reflecting the desire to classify knowledge in a proto-scientific way, it is also true that the principal function of this type of collection was that of creating a prestigious talking point for important visitors.

A glance at the ancient guest-books signed by visitors to the 'Kunst- e Wunderkammer' in the castle of Ambras in Innsbruck, also founded by a Hapsburg, Ferdinand II of Tyrol (1529-95) clears up any shadow of doubt that may remain. Of course, visitors to this type of sancta sanctorum were the crème de la crème of the day. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they included Montaigne, Christina of Sweden, and of course, the ubiquitous Goethe.

The universal nature of a sovereign's collections were important for his or her legitimization. The period in which Wunderkammers reached their height of popularity coincides with that of the great explorers. It is widely known that the empire of Charles V (1500-58), which included both the Hapsburg and Spanish dominions, was so vast that on it the sun 'never set.' From these exotic locations, which five centuries ago were hidden by an aura of magic and mystery, arrived objects exhibited in the Kunstkammer of Vienna, such as the gigantic double coconut (photo 6 above, Anton Schweinberger, setting, attributed to Nikolaus Pfaff, Ewer made of half a Seychelles nut, 1602, Prague; Seychelles nut setting: partly gilt silver, h. 38.5 cm, © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien), and the equally large ostrich egg (photo 7 below, Clement Kicklinger, Ostrich egg goblet, c. 1570/75, Augsburg, ostrich egg, coral, gilt and partly painted silver, h. 56.8 cm, © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)

Another such exhibit is the legendary bezoar (photo 8 below, in gold, emeralds and rubies), to which were ascribed formidable curative properties, and the power to neutralize poisons. In actual fact, this fascinating stone with almost lunar appearance is nothing but a calcareous growth found in the stomachs of goats and llamas.

Regal prestige

The automatons described in the opening paragraphs also played a role in this programmatic intention, because these startling mechanical devices, far ahead of their time, enabled rulers to savour a taste, albeit far removed, of divine creation. This accompanied another characteristic shared by all Wunderkammer collections and the sovereigns who instituted them, namely objects commissioned and made in the toughest materials, those hardest to work. This was probably performed not just to win the admiration of observers, but also to express how Nature can be softened by Culture. This suggests a sort of paradisiacal beatitude attainable only through by a messianic intervention, once again identified with the sovereign. This trend is demonstrated by a remarkable series of priceless objects, such as a cup in lapislazzuli, gold and other precious materials, shaped into a dragon by Milanese gemcutter Gasparo Miseroni (photo 9 below, Gasparo Miseroni, Lapis Lazuli Dragon Cup, c. 1565/70, Milan, Lapis Lazuli; setting: gold, enamel, rubies, emeralds, pearls, 2 garnets, 17.2 cm x 18.9 cm x 10.9 cm, © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien).

Another example is the ivory statuette in which Jakob Auer depicted a dynamic instant in Daphne's transformation into a laurel tree in order to prevent her violation by Apollo (photo 10, below, Jakob Auer, Apollo and Daphne, c. 1688/90, Vienna, ivory, h. 43.9 cm © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien).

In this and in many other pieces, Ovid's Metamorphosis is the source of the sculptural subjects used by the artist as inspiration. There are the bronzes by Giambologna, and the famous salt-cellar made by Benvenuto Cellini for Francis I of France, later becoming part of the rival Hapsburg collection as a regal gift (photo 11 below: KHM General Director, Dr. Sabine Haag with Benvenuto Cellini's Saliera/Salt Cellar, 1540-43, Paris, gold, enamel, ebony, ivory, 26.3 cm x 28.5 cm x 21.5 cm, © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien). This piece was stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in 2003, and recovered only three years later.

We should also mention the rock crystal sculptures of almost superhuman virtuosity, and other virtuoso mineral masterpieces such as the view of Hradčany castle in Prague depicted using semi-precious stones, made by Tuscan artist Giovanni Castrucci, summoned by Rudolf II (1552-1612) to work at his court in Bohemia. In the photo below: Giovanni Castrucci (documented in Prague 1598, d. 1615), View of the Hradčany, Prague, after 1606, Prague, various kinds of agate and jasper on slate, h. 11.5 cm, w. 23.8 cm, © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.


Rudolf II, a reluctant emperor

Rudolf II was probably the most complex personality amongst the emperors and archdukes that you meet in the Viennese Kunstkammer. His detractors had no problem in describing him as crazy, in part justified by his ancestry which had links, through two branches of his family, to Joanna the Mad of Castile. One thing is certain: he preferred spending his time cultivating the arts rather than politics. He was relatively untroubled by dynastic duties, limited to a supposed infatuation with a princess in the distant Grand Duchy of Moscow, a convenient method of walking away from the nuptial arrangements planned by his aged mother.

Given the situation, it is easy to understand why Rudolf's court, and the emperor's pages, preferred to ignore diplomatic relations and passed their time directing innocuous balls at the heads of illustrious guests, such as the prince of Transylvania, Stephan Bocskay, who would later declare war on the Hapsburgs.

Rudolf, science and horology

Rudolf was also interested in science, which in the late 16th-early 17th centuries was still indissolubly linked to astrology and alchemy, not yet banished by the Enlightenment. His interest in astronomy and astrology brought the most distinguished specialists of the day, Tycho Brahe and Kepler, to Prague. He was fascinated by timepieces, and was himself an amateur clockmaker. Room 27 of the Kunstkammer (photo 13 above, Gallery 27, © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien), the hall that best expresses the spirit of Rudof II, presents some rare horological masterpieces, such as a table clock made in 1596 by Christoph Margraf, with an ingenious movement in which time is measured by the passage of metal balls within a zig-zag circuit (photo 14 below, first clock using rolling spheres, 1596, Prague, wood covered in black velvet, brass, gilding, glass, silver mineral, varnish on parchment, iron movement, 40.3 cm x 28 cm x 23 cm).

Also in Room 27 is a bronze bust of the emperor (photo 15 below) crafted by Adriaen de Vries, a sculptor working in Prague, who, after Rudolf II's death, found another generous patron in the mercenary captain Wallenstein. These events date to the Thirty Years' War. It is for this reason that most of the statues by de Vries can be seen not in Prague, but in the palace of Drottningholm in Stockholm. The Royal Armée of Sweden sacked Prague and the building owned by Wallenstein towards the end of the conflict, in 1648. The portrait of Rudolf II in the guise of Vertumnus, Etruscan god of the harvest, by the mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldi, famous for his anthropomorphic compositions of fruit, vegetables and other objects, is likewise now in the castle of Skokloster in Sweden. In the photo below: Adriaen de Vries, Emperor Rudolf II, dated 1603, Prague, bronze, 112 cm x 70 cm x 41 cm, © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.

Some of the objects at the Kunstkammer reflect the Hapsburgs' cultural heritage, that included the Germanic Holy Roman Empire: for example, the sculpture of the pelican feeding its chicks with its own blood, in reference to the figure of Christ (photo 16 below: Centrepiece in the form of a pelican, 1583, Ulm, gilded silver, partially painted).

Another piece with religious significance is that in which an attractive young woman is accompanied by her own image as an old woman, expressing the concept of vanitas (photos 17/18 below: Michel Erhart / Jörg Syrlin the elder, Vanitas, c. 1470/80, Ulm, polychromed wood, h. 46.5 cm, © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien).

There are other, more enigmatic objects, such as the statuette of a bear holding a rifle: the animal is no longer hunted, but has become the hunter (photo 19 blow). This idea of an 'upside-down world' can also be found in the paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in his 'Dutch Proverbs.' Perhaps it is no coincidence that the KHM has the largest collection of Brueghel paintings in the world. In the photo below: Gregor Bair / Valentin Drausch / Heinrich Wagner, The Bear as Hunter, 1580-81, Augsburg and Munich, silver, musk, gold, enamel, emeralds, rubies, sapphire, pearls, h. 21.3 cm, © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.

The idea of an upside-down world expressed by this type of object can be found in many areas of European culture, as has been shown by Ernst Robert Curtius. It runs right back to Archilocus and Virgil, up to the modern epoch, including the Middle Ages (as in Carmina Burana to mention the most famous example). Possibly the bust by Francesco Laurana depicts Petrarch's Laura, the idealized woman described by the poet who perhaps more than any other represents the continuity between ancient and pre-Renaissance culture. In the photos below: Francesco Laurana (1430-1502), Female Bust, Ideal Portrait of Laura (?), c. 1490, Milan, marble, partially painted wax, h. 44 cm, w. 42.5 cm, © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.

Links with Flanders

The link between the Kunstkammer and Flanders began during the reign of Margaret, governess general of the Low Countries (1480-1530), when the earliest Hapsburg art collections began to develop in that area of Europe. When the Kunstkammer was reopened, a representative of Flanders said, "This collection cannot be considered merely from a local or regional viewpoint, because the objects at the Kunstkammer in Vienna are an expression of the whole world." This awareness will lead to a programme of loans, in which each year an important Flemish work of art will be presented in the Viennese museum.
The rooms in which the Kunstkammer objects are exhibited today are not the same in which the Hapsburgs presented their collection. They are now in an eclectic building commissioned by Emperor Franz Josef in 1891, used for his own collection. The German studio HG Merz designed original solutions to suggest the magic of the original Kunstkammer in the 19th-century building.

Other Wunderkammer collections

Other Kunstkammer collections can be seen in their original locations. One such example is in Innsbruck, at the castle of Ambras (also managed by KHM). Another is at the fort of Forchtenstein, in Burgenland, with part of the Esterházy family's collections (another part can be seen at the National Gallery of Budapest); at Halle in Germany, there are the Francke Foundation collections, in attractive cabinets decorated according to the theme of the objects exhibited. The Green Vault of Dresden merits a visit.
Hegel said that private property is an individual's mode of self-expression in objects, and this is certainly true of the Kunstkammer. The objects that belonged to the Hapsburgs offer a remarkable portrait of the passions and idiosyncrasies of the exponents of this dynasty. In this article, I have mentioned just a few of the 2,200 objects on display, and so I recommend a visit to Vienna to see them first-hand. Ideal for anyone who loves art, culture and history.

Alberto Gerosa

Useful information

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien
Maria Theresien-Platz
1010 Vienna

Opening times
Tuesday-Sunday, 10.00 a.m.-6.00 p.m. (open until 9.00 p.m. on Thursdays). Closed on Mondays.
To visit the Kunstkammer, a ticket for a specific timeslot is required, in addition to the standard ticket for the other halls of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Further information at