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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…



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Cabinet of Curiosities

By Mary Jo Gibson

July 27, 2012

After weeks of struggle with computer issues, I am pleased to be back with a new Cabinet of Curiosities.  Realizing that banging my head on my desk wasn’t solving the problem, I decided to make an additional contribution to the economy of Dell and order a new laptop.  Now I can get back to what I enjoy doing the most, research and blogging.  Let us peruse what is in the hidden drawers of this week’s Cabinet.

I don’t care if the monkey is biting the maid, I am having my portrait painted.. shh

Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia is hosting ‘Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado‘ featuring masterworks by Velaquez, Goya, Melendez, El Greco and Ribera.  This spectacular painting belongs to Princess Isabella Clara Eugenia, eldest daughter of Philip II of Spain.  The full length portrait by Alonso Sanchez Coello was commissioned to immortalize one of the most important women of the Hapsburg dynasty.  And it shows, from the incredible period costume she wears, the jewelry on her hands, the cameo of her father held between her fingertips, all speak to the wealth of Spain during this period of history.

Kneeling beside the Princess is the family servant, Magdalena Ruiz; her appearance is part of a long tradition of portraits in which servants, pages, jesters and dwarfs appear with members of the royal family.  This painting is coded with the symbolism of power and conquest, at a time when the absolute belief in the rule and perpetuation of the monarchy was paramount.  Propaganda in art is evident all through history, but the monkeys?  That is really an over the top statement; nevermind that the Princess appears to be petting her servant’s head.


Virtual Tourism

This week, Andreas at TravelWriticus, wrote about his adventures touring the Bildean region of Austria.  Tempting pictures of local cuisine, numerous sights, and classes, all made for a virtual tour for the rest of us. He made latte art, distilled schnaps, and slept in a ‘haunted’ castle.   His photo of Salzburg set against the mountains is breathtaking; cue Julie Andrews and the Sound of Music.


Old Pictures, Treasure Waiting to be Discovered

Boxes of old family photos tend to hold interesting stories.  I received a small collection of old family pictures that I have spent many hours reviewing.  Each grouping tells a story of my family and their descendants, the places they lived and their daily activities.  I would caution anyone that is considering throwing out these historical items.  With a little research, donations can be made to appreciative historical societies.    What’s That Picture is a great blog with vintage photos, mysteries and discoveries all based on the photographs that someone once discarded.  There may be treasure hidden in those dusty boxes; I found a long forgotten Uncle, and a murder mystery worthy of my research efforts.


The Thirst for Intellectual Stimulation is Ubiquitous

The History Channel has been languishing in their recent programming, Swamp People, Ice Road Truckers, and every possible film clip of aliens created in a conspiracy theorists’ shed, just to mention a few of the disappointments.  I did find a nice addition to their website The History Channel Club featuring History Made Every Day.  The clips are short sound bites, but with some expansion, I think they can make this into a worthy project.  Why don’t they consult the Book of Days website for deeper content, is a question I would pose to their researchers.  History isn’t just about the current collective memory of your audience.


Vexed Man at The Getty Museum

How many artists over time have suffered with some kind of mental illness?  The number seems to be unbalanced in comparison with other lifestyle choices.  This bust is one of a series of 69 portrait busts produced in the last thirteen years of Franz Messerschmidt’s life while he was suffering from mental illness.  A contemporary wrote that the artist told him while making the character heads, his hope was to ward away the evil spirits that invaded his mind.

In an interesting aside, the Getty also holds in its collections “Irises” by Vincent Van Gogh, painted while residing in an asylum at Saint Remy, France.


Beautiful Libraries

Gazing around at the unruly collection of books scattered in many areas of my house, I wonder if they will ever end in a library like the ones depicted on Beautiful-Libraries.com, the showcase of some outstanding places where books live.  The English Country House Libraries page shares some spectacular photos; some just appear to be showplaces, while others look like a room that is truly being used for a purpose.


Google some Antarctic Streetviews to keep cool during the hot days

The huts and surrounding landscape of the great South Pole expedition of 1911-1912 can be viewed on the Atlantic magazine site, with interactive Google Streetview capability in the pictures.  I find it fascinating that these capsules of time are still intact, all the artifacts laid out on the tables to peruse.  Looking at the sunlight rooms, it seems unimaginable that the summer weather is 60 degrees below zero, the time when Google bravely ventured on their expedition.


The Harvard Museum of Natural History

Harvard University has an item or two that one would not expect to find in a Natural History Museum.  The institution houses a collection of 3,200 hand crafted glass models of flowering plants created between 1866 and 1936 by German glass artists Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka.  Not on display are 430 glass models of marine invertebrates, such as this glass model of a Portuguese man of war, which Harvard acquired in the late 19th century.  A collection such as this should be on display, at least on line, a unique contribution to natural history by disciplined glass artisans.


iPad App Feature

The Life of Art app has been taken to a new level at the Getty Museum.  Taking selected objects from the museum’s collection, and perceived in different ways.  Encouraging viewers to spend time in examination, understanding how they were made and functioned, why they were collected and how they are displayed.  For each item, the app provides historical notes and the ability to rotate the item on screen and see it from different angles.  The basic app can be used at any time, while visitors can use a special version that adds augmented reality features.  The goal is to learn whether these apps will encourage visitors to spend more time with pieces of art.  Myself, the only discouragement to viewing art for longer periods of time would be the hours of the museum, and maybe time constraints imposed by teenage impatience.


And in the last drawer…

Since the Olympics are taking place in London this year, there is no shortage of news concerning all things on the storied isle.  I managed to find an interesting video on YouTube discussing the City of London, as opposed to London itself.  Confused?  The witty piece reminded me why I appreciate their idiosyncrasies.

Extra bonus, in case you missed the opening ceremonies, the Queen and James Bond.

James Bond and the Queen

James Bond and the Queen


On this whirlwind of curiosities I have taken you to the South Pole, Australia, private libraries in England, Harvard University, Austria, California, London and the City of London. I don’t know about you, but I need a frappucino after all this virtual tourism! I hope you enjoyed my Cabinet of Curiosities, join me next Friday to see what I have collected. What unique things have you collected on your virtual tours?

Mary Jo

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