Tag Archives: Versailles

Cabinet of Curiosities


David Roentgen (German, 1743–1807). Berlin Secretary Cabinet, ca. 1778–79. H. 11 ft. 9 3/8 in. (359 cm). Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Inv. nr. O-1962.24). Photograph: Stefan Klonk, Berlin

I am embarrassed to admit my last Cabinet appeared in 2015, however this particular series is dear to my heart and will continue again, with regular updates.

My cabinet is from SteamPunk Tendencies,  a wonderful video that will have you wondering where creativity in furniture production has gone.   Designed by Abraham (1711–1793) and David Roentgen’s (1743–1807) workshop, this masterpiece of craftsmanship located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the finest examples of European furniture making. A writing cabinet crowned with a chiming clock, it features finely designed marquetry panels and elaborate mechanisms that allow for doors and drawers to be opened automatically at the touch of a button. Owned by King Frederick William II, the Berlin cabinet is uniquely remarkable for its ornate decoration, mechanical complexity, and sheer size.cabinet-1

This cabinet, from Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, was featured in the exhibition Extravagant Inventions, on view during October 30, 2012–January 27, 2013, at The Met.


Every February LetterMo celebrates the handwritten letter.  The challenge is to send a hand written letter every postal day during the month.  Renew friendships, reach out to family, and meet new people through this unique challenge.


I miss the handwritten letters of my mother, and still have some squirreled away.  Receiving this type of correspondence transcends the instant gratification of email, giving the sender and recipient a tangible intimate connection.  These 23 little gifts (23 postal days in the month) return the nostalgia of expectation to the mail.  Who isn’t tired of only receiving bills in the mail?  I know I am, and would love more correspondence in the manner.   One of my most popular blog search terms is cursive writing. A fading art, beautiful cursive writing, that will one day be viewed as code to those not educated in this version of text.  Take up the challenge!

In the spirit of hand written text, I wish to share in this Cabinet, Sexy Codicology, and their blog post on Humanistic Script. I stumbled upon Poggio Bracciolini while reading The Swerve, a fantastic story that compels the reader to learn more, a passion of mine.  Credited with saving handwritten texts, painstakingly reproducing the words of many lost Roman humanists, among them the great poem, On The Nature of Things by Lucretius.


Returning this lost manuscript to circulation changed the world beginning in the Middle Ages, when the poem was plucked from a remote monastery in the winter of 1417. History reached across time and beckoned from the gardens of the ancient philosophers to the dark scriptoria of Rome; the vision in these pages shaped the thoughts of Galileo, Freud, Darwin and Einstein, even coming into the hands of Thomas Jefferson, thus leaving its traces on the Declaration of Independence; aside from these possible influences, any book that has a chapter entitled ‘A Pit to Catch Foxes’ is worth a look.



The recent technology activities of the Royal Archives not only brings online access to Queen Victoria’s diaries, ultimately, the veritable treasure trove of King George III will be digitized as well.   America’s “Last King”, suffered from the blood disorder porphyria, producing physical ailments such as insomnia, sensitivity to light and confusion, and leading him to gain the moniker, ‘Mad King George.’  However, there is so much more to this historically maligned monarch.  This BBC documentary gives a rare inside view of the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle.


The King was not only an incredible hoarder but a diligent clerk, squirreling away anything that caught his eye, from classified state documents, maps, theater tickets and scraps of sheet music.  The papers show the king’s devotion to his family and to the great scientists and artists who flourished under his patronage.  He met Mozart and revered Handel all his life.  The planet Uranus was originally named Georgium Sidus – George’s star – discovered by William Herschel in 1781.  The bill for Herschel’s telescope is amongst these archival treasures.


Lastly, for pure escapism, I’ve got the key to Versailles.  Let’s stroll the halls, private chambers, marvel at the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens, and wonder at the magnificence of this storied palace.

Thank you for your continued support of the Cabinet of Curiosities!



What I am watching –  TABOO,  Black Sails

Anticipating – House of Cards

What I am reading –  The Swerve, The Ugly Renaissance

Anticipating – City of Light, City of Poison, Holly Tucker

Anticipating – The Oscars, Tulip Fever

Trending on Twitter @JohnCleese


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Turn the key. Open another door…

Cabinet, antiques, antiquities, Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Roentgen

Cabinet lock from desk designed by David Roentgen

Welcome to this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities, with a special visit to the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Extravagant Inventions, The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens.  As always, the drawers hold even more mysteries, so let’s begin!

antiques, antiquities, Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Roentgen, Abraham Roentgen

Rolltop Desk by Roentgen

Abraham Roentgen, 1711-1793, may have lived life as a cabinet maker, but his works were in the castles and private homes of the aristocracy, such was the outstanding quality.  He was admired in England for his interesting use of inlay, inventive mechanical fittings and the hidden drawers he used in his furniture.

Another feature found at this exhibition is the Automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette which I featured on this blog when the Google Art Project went to the Palace of Versailles.  This exquisite piece was produced by David Roentgen, 1743-1807, Abraham’s son.   Expanding the business with shops in Berlin and Saint Petersburg, David sold furniture to Catherine the Great of Russia.  This suite is believed to still be in the Palace of the Hermitage, the hiding place of so much remarkable and forgotten art.

Versailles, Google Art Project, Queen Marie Antoinette, Automaton

Automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars signaled the end of David Roentgen’s career.  The Revolutionary government regarded him as an émigré, seized the contents of his showrooms and his personal belongings.  Following the invasion of Neuwied, his workshops closed and prosperity never returned; he died half ruined at Wiesbaden in 1807; albeit, the craftsmanship of this family of cabinet makers survived, perhaps to inspire a new generation.

Walters Art Museum, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, New Times, Holland Cotter

Three Mulattoes of Esmereldas, 1599, Andres Sanchez Gallque

“In a fall art season distinguished, so far, largely by a bland, no-brainer diet served up by Manhattan’s major museums, you have to hit the road for grittier fare.”

When an art reviewer begins with the above sentence, it can only mean more to come of a witty, well written article celebrating a new exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe.  Surprising links to ruling dynasties, and long ignored history is the focus of Joaneath Spicer, the museum’s curator of Renaissance and Baroque art.

Agnolo Bronzino produced a portrait of Alessandro de Medici, who ruled Florence for seven years before being assassinated in 1537.  He is considered by historians to be the illegitimate child of Giulio de Medici, Pope Clement VII, and a black or biracial woman.  His dark skin was remarked on by contemporaries who nicknamed him Il Moro.

Walters Art Museum, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe

Portrait of Maria Salviate de Medici and Giulia de Medici, 1539

The portrait of Maria Salviati de Medici and Giula de Medici (1539) shows a child of the Italian aristocracy with black facial features, confirming the intermingling of African and European blood in the Medici family.  My own research on the Journey of the Magi fleshed out the story of Carlo di Cosimo de Medici, 1430-1492.  The illegitimate son of Cosimo de Medici and a Circassian slave name Magdelene.

The reviewer of this exhibition has supplied me with the final explanation of why I prefer historical art: “…one of the saving graces of art – what keeps you coming back – is that it isn’t a bottom-line business.  You think you’ve come to an end, a conclusion, and there’s always more: the exception, the extension.”   Like the many drawers in the cabinet, each waiting to be opened, explored, and imagined.  Thank you Holland Cotter, for taking that trip to Baltimore!

Watson and the Shark, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, coat of arms, history

Watson and the Shark, 1778, John Singleton Copley

Scuto Divino

A coat of arms and this painting tell another great drama from the time of travel on the high seas.  Painted by John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark depicts Brook Watson, 1735-1807, as the young merchant seaman in great peril.  Watson survived, but lost the power of his right leg in the attack.  He went on to great success in business and politics, even serving as Lord Mayor of London.  When he became a Baronet in 1803, Watson specified that the coat of arms designed to mark the honor must include a visual reference to his ordeal more than half a century earlier.  Thus the upper left of the crest depicts the leg Watson lost to the shark in 1749, and the motto Scuto Divino means “under god’s protection.”

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, Chicago Art Institute, Vote Early and Vote Often

Allegory on the Defeat of the Duke of Alva at Brielle

The first flowering of images of “the wolf in sheep’s clothing” type occurred in Germany and the Netherlands during the Protestant Reformation.  While the iconography is now difficult to puzzle out, an anonymous engraving dated 1580 from the Netherlands casts the dastardly Spanish invader, the Duke of Alva, and his forces as foxes in clerical garb, and the courageous Dutch nobles as geese.  These humorously be-spectacled fowl routed the Spaniards back out to sea from the recently captured town of Brielle.  This surprise counter attack occurred on April Fool’s Day, 1572.  The town’s name literally translates as spectacles, so afterwards it was often said that the Duke had lost his glasses on April 1.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s Cabinet of  Curiosities!  A short trip to New York, Baltimore, Boston, and Europe, but with so many interesting pieces of art and vignettes of history to experience.  Museum Monday will be coverage of the Chazen Museum and the Uffizi paintings and tapestries.  I look forward to chatting with you!
A late entry sent to me about the upcoming Vincent Van Gogh movie, Loving Vincent.  Take a moment to watch this unique animation telling his story, it will make you thirsty for more!



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