And We’ll Never Be Royals

Every Wednesday is Community Day for Lipscomb University Global Learning in Vienna. That means we go to our normal classes at the Austro-American Institute of Education in the morning, and in the afternoon, we take a field trip somewhere in Vienna. March 5th it was the Kunsthistorisches Museum, or the Museum of Art History. My roommate and I left the apartment a little bit too late, and then we got lost in the Museum’s Quarter because we had no idea at the time what the word “Kunsthistorisches” meant. And in case you don’t remember from my previous post about the Hofburg Palace complex, the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Naturhistorisches Museum are right across from each other, and they look EXACTLY THE SAME. You could say we weren’t quite as prepared as we should’ve been. We ended up trying to convince the guard at the Natural History Museum to let us in so we could find our group, a group he insisted was not present in his museum. He wasn’t giving in to our pleas, which was a really good thing, because as soon as we turned around, desperate to find a secret entrance or a nicer guard, we saw our group across the way at the opposite museum (oops) and practically sprinted to meet up with them.


March 5th

Our mission for the day was to see the Kunstkammer Wien exhibit, which is affectionately known among the art community as the most important collection of its kind in the world. I don’t know much about art, but what I did see in the exhibit blew me away. And let me just preface by saying that I didn’t even get through half of the exhibit in the three hours I stayed there, which for me, is a kind of torture. I love museums, and Vienna has so many great ones, but there is simply not enough time to see everything in every museum when you are studying as well as traveling.

“Kunstkammer” means “Cabinet of Art.” Since the Habsburg Dynasty came to power in Europe in the 1400s, the emperors and their family members began collecting exotic and uncommon materials, such as precious stones, ostrich eggs, and sharks’ teeth, among other things. With these materials, they often would commission masterpieces by great artists to display in their personal collections, their personal “Kunstkammern,” all over the world. One of the first emperors to assemble a collection was Ferdinand II of Tirol (1529-1595). Along with his own commissioned treasures, he assembled together older collections of Emperors Friedrich III, Maximilian I, and Ferdinand I at his Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, Austria.


Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) assembled his Kunstkammer in Prague Castle during his reign there. His collection included many of the gold, bronze, and lapidary (stones, minerals, and gemstones formed into decorative items) that are found in the exhibit today.

Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (1614-1662), regent of the Netherlands, contributed to commissioning many Italian paintings that are featured in the Museum’s Picture Gallery, and he also collected many of the Renaissance bronze sculptures and small stone and wooden sculptures that are on display in the Kunstkammer exhibit.

In 1875, Emperor Francis Josef I ordered that all the various collections from the family be brought together in Vienna to be displayed in the new Kunsthistorisches Museum, which he opened in 1891. The original Kunstkammer collection was called the “Collection of Art and Industrial Objects,” but in 1990, it was given the permanent name it has today, simply the “Kunstkammer.”

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, almost 800 wall tapestries that originally decorated the imperial palaces were added to the exhibit, and in 1938 the estate of Gustav von Benda, a Jewish industrialist and art collector from Vienna, enhanced the collection with numerous major works from the Early Florentine Renaissance.

In 2002, the Kunstkammer was closed for structural and technical renovations. It was reopened March 1, 2013 with 20 galleries displaying over 2,200 artworks, including goldsmith’s art, cut stones, ivory sculptures, bronze works, wooden and stone sculptures, automatons (self-operating machines, toys, and clocks), miscellaneous items such as game boards and pieces, exotic artifacts, and tapestries.


Here are descriptions of some of the pieces that stood out most to me:

1. “Sogenannte Saliera” by Benvenuto Cellini; or the “Cellini Salt Cellar.” It is a part-enameled, gold table sculpture made in 1543 for Francis I of France. It came into the possession of the Habsburgs when it was given as a gift to Archduke Ferdinand II of Tirol by Charles IX of France. It is the only remaining work of precious metal that can be attributed to the Florentine artist, Cellini. It is said to be an allegory of the cosmos, in which the sea is represented by the reclining male figure, the god Neptune, beside a ship for holding salt. The earth is represented by the female figure, the goddess Tellus, beside the receptacle for pepper. The work is insured for an estimated $68.3 million.

In 2003, the Saliera was stolen from the museum, which offered a reward of 1,000,000 Euros for its recovery. It was found in 2006 buried in a lead box in a forest near Zwettl, Austria, about 90 km north of Vienna. It is now the representative artwork for the Kunstkammer exhibit.


2. “Drachenschale” by Gasparo Miseroni; or the “Dragon Bowl.” It is made of precious stones: Lapis lazuli, which gives it its beautiful blue base; gold; enamel; rubies; emeralds; pearls; and garnets. Miseroni established his workshop for precious stone vessels, such as this one, in Milan in the mid-1500s. The skill required to cut the precious materials and fashion them into such pieces was only mastered by a handful of artists, making these kinds of objects some of the most-highly prized in royal collections. Emperor Maximilian owned over 60, many of which were the works of Miseroni.


3. “Apollo and Daphne” by Jakob Auer, 1688. This piece was my favorite in the ivory sculpture collection. Auer, a Tyrolese master craftsman, carved this miniature version modeled after a life-sized sculpture by Bernini. The sculpture tells a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (I have studied Ovid, so I think that’s why this piece was notable to me). The god Apollo tries to pursue the nymph Daphnis, who escapes his advances by asking the goddess Diana to turn her into a laurel tree.


4. “Zweifigurigeraptusgruppe” by Jean Boulange, aka Giambologna; or “Raptus Group of Two Figures.” Giambologna carved this famous statuette out of bronze around 1580 in Florence, Italy. It depicts the abduction of a woman with “weightless elegance” and “ideal beauty.” I simply thought it was beautiful.


5. “Bellerophon Taming Pegasus” by Bertoldo di Giovanni. This is one of the most famous small bronze statues of the Renaissance, created in Florence around 1481. Giovanni was a student of Donatello and a teacher of Michelangelo. The story goes that riding on Pegasus, Bellerophon tried and failed to reach Mt. Olympus. The story and the statue alike are meant to signify human arrogance. It’s quite ironic then that it came into the hands of the Habsburgs, one of the richest and most powerful families in European history.


6. “The Rape of the Sabine Woman” by Giambologna. One of the main attractions in the Kunstkammer exhibit, this work is a bronze reduction created in Giambologna’s studio of his original life-sized masterpiece carved out of marble and put on display by Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in the late 16th century in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. In this context, the word “rape” is translated from the Latin “rapito,” meaning “abduction,” not sexual violation. The story behind the artwork is the legend that shortly after the founding of Rome by brothers Remus and Romulus around 750 BC, Romulus’ male followers sought wives in order to establish founding Roman families. The Sabines populated the area at the time but refused to allow their women to marry the Romans for fear of the emergence of a rival society. Thus, the Romans planned to abduct the Sabine Women during one of their festivals honoring the god Neptune. This was a popular story during the Renaissance, symbolizing the importance of marriage for the continuity of family and culture. This was undoubtedly a very significant concept to the Habsburgs, who expanded their empire largely through the peaceful means of strategic marriage.


7. “Spielbrett fur Schach und den Langen Puff mit 20 Spielsteinen”; or “Game board for Chess and Backgammon with 20 playing pieces”. This game board is thought to have come from Venice in the first half of the 14th century. Very few such game boards have been preserved from medieval times, and this one was the first documented in the Ambras collection of Archduke Ferdinand II in 1596. It is made of wood, jasper, and bone, among other materials, with painted clay reliefs and miniatures under rock crystal. Design motifs include references to music, hunting, courtly love, and the fight against monsters.


8. “Cisterspielerin” or “Cittern Player.” This automaton is thought to be of Spanish origin from the second half of the 16th century. It is made of painted wood, iron, linen, silk, and a clock-like mechanism on the inside that allows the girl to play the cittern, turn her head, and walk. Automatons in this time symbolized man’s ability to imitate Nature. The artists thought themselves as sorts of demi-gods capable of their own divine creation. Emperor Charles V collected many automatons and clockworks during his reign. This is the most famous in the Kunsthistorisches Museum today.


9. “Vanitas” by Michel Erhart (ca. 1470-1480). It is very difficult not to be shocked by this artwork. I think out of all the pieces I observed, I lingered the longest at this one. It depicts three small, wooden figures standing back-to-back. The first two are a young boy and a pregnant girl, while the third is an old, decrepit woman, all her beauty and youth long lost to the sands of time. A Vanitas is a type of symbolic work that was common in medieval times, reflecting a cultural obsession with death and decay. Vanitas means “vanity” and was used to depict the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. In other words, pleasure is futile, and death is imminent. Obviously, this message was lost on the royals, who shamelessly consumed the many fruits of their wealth.


The wealth and variety of objects collected for each respective royal’s Kunstkammer were a sort of universe on a small scale, a compilation of the knowledge and aestheticism of the day. Obviously, it is no secret that the Habsburgs loved beautiful and precious things. It is curious, however, that today, while Europe is rich with history, artifacts of the past fill its many museums, its churches and architectural masterpieces attract millions, and Europeans are proud of it, as a whole the European community has begun moving away from a materialist culture. Personal wealth pails in importance when compared to societal stability and a more simplistic, relaxed way of life. Meanwhile, in America we are obsessed with wealth and status in a way reminiscent of the age of the Kunstkammer. Maybe because Europe is privy to the artifacts of a long history of monarchial rule and imperialism, the people can be constantly reminded of the long journey home, to a collection of nations focused more on the human. They finally heard the whispers of the Vanitas. Is it our turn yet?


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