Cabinet of Curiosities

September 28, 2012

By Mary Jo Gibson

Augsburg Cabinet at the Chicago Art Institute

This week’s cabinet is from the Chicago Art Institute, known as the Augsburg Cabinet.  The cabinet is from Germany, made by Philip Hainhofer (1578-1647).  The carver is Adam Eck, died 1664.  I have not seen this particular piece on my visits to the Art Institute, but will make it a destination on my next trip to Chicago.  The descriptives make me think this is a piece of art worth exploring to the minutest detail.

A London timepiece surmounts the cabinet, dating from 1715, but probably replaced an earlier clock.  When the drawers behind the clock are pulled out, a set of five canisters for drugs and ointments are revealed, along with twenty-two other utensils – pharmaceutical implements, as well as hammers, scissors and even an astronomical calculator.  The all-purpose cabinet stems from their varied functions.  Increasingly lavish exterior decoration complemented such interior contents as jewelry, gems or rare minerals.  These cabinets became microcosms of art and nature, covered by and containing precious materials from all over the world – in this case, ivory – that were transformed through exquisite craftsmanship into examples of high artistry.

Small ivory panels, locked behind the side door to the left of the clock and fixed across the interior of the main doors, feature hunters holding sporting guns or falcons; surrounding the hunters are various images of prey: boar, deer, foxes, bears, rabbits and birds.  The large arched scenes inside the doors depict some of the dramatic aspects of bird hunting: falcons striking birds in mid-air, beaters and dogs flushing quail.  The sport of hunting with falcons was at the height of fashion in the mid—seventeenth century when this cabinet was made.

Antiochia ad Cragum

A team of researchers that began excavating ruins in Antiochia ad Cragum, which was once a city on the southern coast of Turkey, have unearthed a Roman mosaic made with marble cubes half a cubic inch in size.  The 1,600 square foot mosaic was first spotted in 2002, but only uncovered this summer by Michael Hoff, a professor of Art History at the University of Nebraska.  The mosaic is so large that only about 40 percent of it has been exposed.

Antiochia ad Cragnum was founded by Antiochus IV of Commagene in the middle of the first century.  Dr. Hoff believes the mosaic served as a decorative entrance to an adjacent bathhouse.  His team has been working since 2005 to excavate ruins in the city, but to date the mosaic accurately Dr. Hoff hopes to uncover other artifacts in the area, such as pottery.

A Rare Jeweler

Finding the work of a lost artisan is especially rewarding.  Gustav Manz (1865-1946) is one such individual.  Born in Stockach, Germany near the border of Switzerland, he attended design school in Baden, afterwards studying with master goldsmiths in Paris, Italy and London.  An adventuress soul, he boarded the fast mail boat from Southampton to Cape Town, South Africa, and worked in the area’s diamond and gold mines.  Reemerging in Paris in time for the Exposition Universelle of 1889, he absorbed the design techniques of Rene Lalique and other Art Noeveau artists who would inspire his own jewelry obsession: fauna and flora in their natural habitat.  Traveling further to Cairo, Egypt and the Nile Valley to sketch and assist at tomb excavations, he settled permanently in New York City.

A jeweler’s jeweler, Manz gained a reputation for his remarkable lifelike animal figures carved in precious metal.  His craftsmanship attracted orders from Tiffany & Co, Black Starr & Frost-Gorham, Cartier, Raymond C. Yard and Shreve Crump & Low, as well as commissions from artists of the day, including Sarah Bernhardt, sculptor Sally James Farnham, and tenor Enrico Caruso.  His wildlife and Egyptian themes pieces were exhibited at arts and crafts shows and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  An early member of the New York Zoological Society, Manz befriended the keepers and spent hours observing and drawing his favorite animals.

Pinpointing how much this jeweler produced remains elusive  Manz researchers have not gained access to Cartier and Tiffany records, although his ledgers mention those customers again and again.  There is a treasure trove of design just waiting to be discovered.

Here be dragons

Weird bestiary at the edges of maps was a common motif. The seas were full of monsters in the early days of mapmaking.  Frigates and Galleons are depicted in full sail close to ports or in explored shipping lanes, but further out, a unusual diversity of sea serpents and other creatures make an appearance.  In uncharted territories on land as well, these creatures populated the landscape as legendary figures, pagan and religious, human and otherwise.

This artistic license was a chance for cartographers to fill in the white spaces of the still-unexplored world, and a place to stretch their imagination.  These foam-spouting behemoths were a nice break from tracing the coast of Mexico for the umpteenth time.  They also served as a reminder of the very real dangers faced by explorers of the day.  No one knew what was out there, and many who left never came back.

Take a look at some of these monsters, including the Carta Marina Navigatoria, 1516.   Bought for the Library of Congress for $10 million in 2001, the detail depicts an elephant-like creature in the Arctic Ocean off of Scandinavia, possibly engraved by the artist Albrecht Durer.  This was the artist’s conception of a walrus, based on secondhand descriptions from sailors.  In most of Europe at the time real-life creatures like walruses, giraffes and rhinoceroses would have seems just as fantastic as any sea serpent or dragon.

Demotic Egyptian

Ancient Egyptians did not speak to posterity only through hieroglyphs.  For at least 1,000 years, both the language and the distinctive cursive script were known as Demotic Egyptian, a name given it by the Greeks to mean tongue of the demos, or the common people.

Demotic is one of the three scripts inscribed on the Rosetta Stone, along with Greek and hieroglyphs, enabling European scholars to decipher the royal language in the early 19th century.   Now scholars have complete almost 40 years of research and published online the final entries of a 2,000 page dictionary that doubles the thousands of known Demotic words.  Egyptologists expect that the dictionary’s definitions and examples of how words were used in ancient texts will expedite translations of Demotic documents, more of which are unpublished than any other stage of early Egyptian writing.

The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago has completed a dictionary of Demotic Egyptian, the everyday language of ancient Egypt.  Two modern words that can be traced back to Demotic are ‘ebony’ and ‘adobe.’

Seriously Amazing

The Smithsonian Institute is moving into the digital future with a new marketing campaign.  The theme of the campaign, which includes a new web site, concentrates on social media, and aimed at people aged 18 to 34 because they have the lowest awareness and the most negative perceptions of the Smithsonian, according to surveys.

Officials said they hope the campaign will provoke an immediate reaction of “I didn’t know the Smithsonian did that.”

Two interesting items in their vast collection:

Among a variety of meteorites, is a knife made out of the glittering meteoric iron.  The 17th century Mughal emperor Jahangir had artists carve the knife after one fell in his kingdom in 1621.

The Hapsburg Imperial Wedding veil was commissioned by Queen Marie Henriette from Leon Sacre, a 19th century Brussels lace merchant.  Representing the union of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Rudolf to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, 21 coats of arms border the veil.  The Lion of Belgium and the Austro-Hungarian double-headed eagle crest lie at the center.    It measures 100 inches wide and 123 inches long.

Marjorie Merriweather Post bought the lace veil around 1925 for the wedding of her oldest daughter.  It was donated to the Smithsonian 1964.

There are 137 million artifacts, works of art and specimens in the Smithsonian collection.  Many of the behind-the-scene items are available online for a virtual tour at their website.

Nazi Stradivarius

The final piece in this week’s cabinet concerns looted artifacts.  The New York Times published a piece on a violin presented to Nejiko Suwa in 1943, by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propaganda minister.

The origins of the instrument remain a mystery.  Was it confiscated property, one of thousands of musical instruments plundered by the Nazis, or otherwise obtained under duress from those persecuted during the Nazi era?  Where is the violin listed in Viennese records as an “Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis  faciebat Anno 1722,” confiscated in 1939 from the noted art collector Oskar Bondy?  Or two violins that had belonged to the Austrian composer Johan Strauss II, seized from his Jewish stepdaughter.

The trail of rare violins has not been as closely watched because the market has not been struck by a singular event, like the seizure of a disputed painting by authorities.

An audio recording is available on the site.  The excerpt is from 1951, with Ms. Suwa playing “Violin Concerto in E Minor” by Mendelssohn, whose work had been banned by the Nazis, on the violin given to her by Joseph Goebbels.  An interesting footnote to a story whose ending has not yet been written.

That is all I can fit into this week’s Cabinet. Join me on Museum Monday for the Rick’s Picks exhibit, lots of photos and interesting stories. Until then…



1 Comment

Filed under September

One response to “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. Always fascinating, MJ. Thanks for the great post!

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