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Vienna's Chamber of Wonders

Adrian Mourby welcomes the return to public view of the Habsburgs’ esoterica.

Inside one of the Kuntskammer roomsIn March this year Vienna reopened its Kunstkammer, a chamber of curiosities within the city’s museum of art history. For more than 10 years this strange symbol of Habsburg prestige had been kept from public display.

The Habsburgs, a family of aristocrats originating in modern Switzerland, ruled the Holy Roman Empire and then the Austrian Empire for over 600 years, during which time they accumulated an unusual collection of works of art. These were kept and sometimes displayed in what was known as the Kunst und Wunder Kammer (literally ‘chamber of art and wonders’, but also taken to mean a chamber of curiosities). Strictly speaking there never was one Kunstkammer until the late 19th century. Objects in the family’s collection had been divided between different properties over the years and further subdivided between descendants, only to be amalgamated again when someone in the next generation had the authority and desire to gather everything together again in one place.

Much was lost over time. (Where today, for example, is the silver fountain in the shape of the imperial crown that entered the collection in 1538?) Some were sold off or exchanged, many were plundered.

The first true collector among the Habsburgs was Ferdinand I (1503-64), who in 1537 had issued an instruction that ‘antiques, instruments and artworks’ should be acquired. In 1554 one of his chamberlains recorded that a number of objects had been brought from Graz and placed in the ‘Kunst Camer’ and in 1558 there is a record of the construction of a ‘khunstkhamer’ [sic] on the site of Vienna’s Hofburg. But Ferdinand was only providing space for a family treasury that had been documented as far back as Duke Albert II (1298-1358), son of the first Habsburg emperor, Rudolf I (1218-91). Many royal families in Europe put together these collections, but the Habsburgs did it first and did it best.

Rudolf II (1552-1612), the grandson of Ferdinand I, made the Kunstkammer internationally famous when he consolidated the whole collection at Prague’s Hradcany Castle. Visiting diplomats and VIPs would be shown the treasures as a mark of favour, but also as proof of what Habsburg wealth could buy.

After Rudolf’s death his brothers invoked Majoratssiftung (primogeniture) to stop the collection being divided up again, but before it could all be transported to Vienna much was destroyed in the wake of the Thirty Years War. First the Bavarian and Saxon armies and then Swedish soldiers destroyed or plundered all that had been left in Prague, which is how so much of it passed into the possession of Queen Christina of Sweden.

It was Franz Joseph II (r.1848-1916), one of the least intellectually curious monarchs in European history, who created what we now think of as the Kunstkammer. In 1891, after completing the new Kuntshistoriches Museum, just across Vienna’s Ringstrasse from the Neue Burg palace, the emperor surveyed all that he had inherited and moved items like the Mexican headdresses to the new Museum of Ethnology. All the outright curiosities, including humorous drinking vessels and portraits of people with horrific disabilities, were gathered in Ambras Castle near Innsbruck. The remaining 8,000 pieces of idiosyncratic art were then moved into the new Kunstkammer, where they were piled up on shelves with only natural light for viewing. It must have looked like a jumble sale, albeit one awash with gold, diamonds and rubies.

The collection dazzles in its new layout. Two thousand pieces – a mere quarter of the whole collection – is housed in the original rooms off the museum’s grandiose marbled lobby, but a total rethink of the manner of display shows everything off in crisp detail. Tall, brilliantly lit glass cabinets now throw everything but the objects into shadow.

Pride of place has to go to a 17th-century unguentarium (oil container) carved out of a single 2,680 carat piece of Colombian emerald. Or perhaps to a silver automaton clock of Diana riding a centaur designed to move across a table surface on the hour. There is also a tankard made from the tusk of a narwhal decorated with 16 rubies and 36 diamonds and a silver writing box with 10 compartments, each decorated with life-size silver insects.

There are quite a few objects made from natural exotica, such as a goblet fashioned out of an ostrich egg supported by red coral and a tortoiseshell drinking flask in the shape of a heart, which is trimmed in Indian silver.

Among the more grotesque objects are commedia dell’arte figures in Murano glass standing eight and a half inches high and three painted carvings, 10 inches taller, depicting a young man, young woman and an ancient hag standing back to back (what they represent is a matter of conjecture). Far too many landscapes are rendered entirely in precious stones and it seems almost anything can be carved out of ivory, but taste is something of an irrelevance in the Kunstkammer.

Many of these objects appear to have been made simply to see if such ideas were possible. One of the best known is a saliera by Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71). This golden cruet set, 12 inches long, depicts Neptune and an Earth goddess seated naked, head to toe, a box for pepper near her right hand and a ship containing salt in his right. Cellini was told by his original patron that the design was impossible to realise, but in 1543 he found a Habsburg relative willing to put up the necessary gold.

Today it is difficult to imagine just how important it was for a ruler to gather every kind of object under one roof. Cabinets of curiosities were not just for prestige, they were for knowledge, the kind from which power derives. According to Sabine Haag, director of the Kunstkammer collection, Rudolf II instructed his agents to cross Europe, Asia and the Americas to bring him ‘objects of unrivalled quality, exclusivity and rarity’ and that is clearly what he got.

In the days before we had fully grasped the concept of curating a collection, the Habsburgs collected with zeal, building a baggy but comprehensive picture of the world at its most extreme, in both beauty and ugliness.

The family themselves are commemorated in many types of portrait. Charles V is depicted armless, just a bronze head stuck in a suit of armour, as was the 16th-century fashion. Joseph I is represented by a 12-inch marble figure on a horse crushing a vanquished Fury beneath its hooves. Ferdinand III is a life-size painted waxwork.

An hour and a half in the 20 refurbished rooms proves overwhelming. Once again visitors can be awestruck by the craftsmanship, amazed by the sheer wealth of Habsburg patronage and yet also reduced to hilarity at times. Why lavish an enamelled gold stand, lid and intricate clasp on a five-and-a-half-inch bezoar stone from the intestines of a cow? Maybe ‘because we want and can afford anything’ – which seems to be what the Habsburgs are telling us.

Adrian Mourby is an opera producer who writes widely on European culture.

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