Cabinet of Curiosities

October 7, 2011

By Mary Jo Gibson

Taking a week off did nothing to lighten my workload, but the break was well worth the relaxation I earned.  I am starting this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities with a visit to Sweden.  Perhaps these images will fuel your imagination in the never-ending quest for more knowledge, and perhaps a story or two of your own creation.

Augsburg Cabinet

The Augsburg art cabinet was a gift from the Protestant governors of Augsburg to Gustavus Adolphus, presented when the King marched into the town in the spring of 1632 during the Thirty Years War.

The Cabinet is 240 cm high and 120 cm wide with an ebony veneer.  The upper part rests upon an under section of drawers and compartments that rotate with the assistance of a rudimentary ball bearing, allowing the observer to sit back comfortably while the Cabinet rotated.  There is a drawer that can be turned into a step ladder making it easier to reach the top of the cabinet.  The many objects can be studied on a fold out table in the under section, and there is a small cushion to rest one’s arm if the work becomes tiring.

The cabinet is crowned by a mountain formed out of material from the animal and mineral kingdoms.  Sitting astride this, an exotic and particularly exclusive Seychelles nut, constituting the cup of a drinking vessel encased in silver.  The cup is raised to the highest point on the cabinet by a statue of the sea god Neptune. Drawers and doors are adorned with paintings, bronze reliefs, inlays of silver and stone.  On the upper section rests a virginal, a keyboard instrument with an automatic musical mechanism.

Gustavus Adolphus died only a few months after receiving his exclusive gift from the protestant councilors at Augsburg.  The cabinet arrived after a hazardous journey to Sweden in 1633 ending at Svartsjo Castle in Faringso outside of Stockholm.  A carpenter traveled with the cabinet and maintained it until his death in 1651.

Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities
Palazzo Strozzi

Recounting the birth of the modern banking system and the economic boom that triggered it, this reconstruction of European life and the continent’s economy centers on the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  The daily life of families that controlled the banking system and the perceptions of the ongoing clash between spiritual and economic values are featured in the artwork.  Art patrons were closely linked with the bankers who financed the ventures of princes and nobles alike, and this convergence provided the incubator where some of the leading artists of all time were able to flourish.

The visitor can see the roots of the Florentine power in Europe while also exploring the economic mechanisms that allowed the Florentines to finance the Renaissance and dominate the world of trade and business 500 years before modern communication methods were invented.  Analysis of the systems the bankers used to build up their immense fortunes and the ways they handled international relations sheds light on the birth of modern art patronage, which began with the church only to turn into a tool for wielding power.

Masterpieces by Botticelli, Beato, Angelico, Piero del Pollaiolo, the Della Robbia family and Lorenzo de Credi, the cream of Renaissance artists are exhibited.  A great review of the show can be found at Three Pipe Problem, an engaging blog full of historical references and the stories behind art.

Museo Cerralbo

This unique residence was shared with me by Gemma Garcia, cultural guide extraordinaire from Madrid.

The 17th Marquis of Cerralbo, Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa (1845-1922), an aristocrat, active member of the Carlist party, collector and innovative archaeologist, bequeathed his mansion and collections to the Spanish state, now known as the Cerralbo Museum.

Traveling throughout Europe in the company of his family, Enrique visited museums and acquired works of art in order to assemble a magnificent collection exceeding 50,000 pieces.  Because of its quality and diversity of genre, at the time it was considered to be the most complete collection of art in Spain.  Paintings, sculpture, ceramic pieces, glass, tapestries, furniture, coins, medals, drawings, clocks, arms and archaeological objects confer a special charm to the palace.  An image gallery of the Museum is available for the virtual tourist with a selection of the most outstanding pieces grouped in 15 different sections for better contemplation.  A plugin with Java is required for viewing, and the descriptive text is in Spanish, but well worth the time spent to view this incredible time capsule of Spain.

Hidden Treasures in the Louvre

Mona Lisa may be the most visited artwork at the Louvre, but always being on the lookout for hidden gems, I was pleased to discover the museum has published a book to reveal their secret treasures, Louvre: Secret et Insolite, by Daniel Soulie.  Here are some choice artifacts:

Charles V‘s gold scepter carried by France’s Kings on the day of their coronations.  The majority of France’s royal gold was melted down, or disappeared during the wars of religion and the French Revolution,  the survival of this piece is a rare exception.

A white marble sculpture of Diana, the goddess of the hunt, where the American expatriate writer Edith Wharton met Morton Fullerton, her cad of a lover.  Nude and reclining, Diana sits atop a fountain in a quiet room off the Richelieu wing on the main floor.

Vestiges of Khorsabad Palace, of what is now Iraq, includes a colossal Assyrian hero choking a lion, lifting its head and baring its teeth, depicted on the facade of the throne room.

Virgin and Child with Saints
National Gallery
Parmigianino, 1535-40

Parmigianino was the leading painter of Parma Italy after Correggio, and is celebrated as one of the originators and leading exponents of Mannerism.  He was influenced by the work of Raphael and Michelangelo, evolving his own personal manner and expressive style that would later influence painters in Italy and throughout Europe.  Active in Parma before moving to Rome in 1524, then continuing to Bologna after the sack of Rome in 1527, his later years were spent in the pursuit of alchemy according the diarist of the times, Vasari.

The Francke Institute

Kunst-und Naturalienkammer in Haller, Germany began in 1598, founded by August Hermann Francke.  The collection survived centuries of neglect, only rediscovered in 1909, the year of this photograph.  The Cabinet of Artifacts and Curiosities is considered Germany’s oldest museum.  Created for teaching purposes, the museum concept of the 18th century has been refurbished at the original location.  During the 17th and 18th centuries, Cabinets of artifacts and curiosities were not unusual, across Europe the nobility and middle classes possessed these cabinets as an item of prestige, their aim to create a micro-cosmos that was as complete as possible in order to investigate the world they perceived as the “wonder of creation”.

At the end of the 17th century, August Hermann Francke began to set up a Cabinet of arts and curiosities in the orphanage building of the Francke Institute; he was supported in this by the Brandenburg Elector Friedrich III.  He amassed curiosities from various regions with the help of worldwide connections.  Although originally designed as a collection of materials for the instruction in the humanities and natural sciences lessons in the Foundations’ schools, the Cabinet quickly gained significance as a public museum.  Since 1741 it was housed on the top floor of the Historical Orphanage.  Gottfried August Grundler, painter and copper-plate engraver, designed the layout and catalogued the collection.  He was also responsible for the rich and colorful decoration of the painted individual display cabinets.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities. I have been inundated with museum suggestions and look forward to sharing them with you over the coming weeks. Please feel free to share your comments, I love hearing the stories from my readers!





Filed under October

4 responses to “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. The leopard diorama for the Francke Institute is bizarrely interesting, between the leopard’s grin and the cavalcade of companions dancing below it many thoughts of an Alice in Wonderland variant spring to mind. Thanks for sharing these intriguing items with us Mary Jo!

  2. Thanks Gene! I am constantly amazed at the incredible wonders I find while researching something else. I love the internet, cheaper than airfare.

  3. Such an incredible collection of pieces. I love the Diana. Beautiful.

  4. Wow, that Augsberg cabinet is something else. Glad you explained about the Seychelles nut, because I was having a hard time figuring out what it was. It’s interesting to think on a time when something like that was considered the height of fashion and taste!

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