Sunday, December 22, 2019

Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe 

Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 25, 2019 - March 1, 2020

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

During the age before art museums, there were Kunstkammern. These private collections or "cabinets" of art and technology played a huge role in the rise of public museums. It is entirely fitting that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City should be presenting a spectacular exhibition on the Kunstkammern as it prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2020.

Without the Kunstkammern there would be no Met - or at least not as we know it. Nor would there be a British Museum, a Museum of Fine Arts in Boston or any of the other "omnibus" institutions with collections of art works of many types and from diverse cultures around the world. There would likely be no museums dedicated to "natural philosophy" or the sciences either.
The golden era of the Kunstkammern spanned the years,1500-1750, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. This epoch also witnessed the Scientific Revolution and the first stirrings of the age of industrialism. The time-honored theories of Aristotle gave way to the cosmology of Copernicus and Newton.

                                                   Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                                Gallery view of the Making Marvels exhibition at Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Emperor's Monument Clock, 1570.

Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe displays 170 objects, masterpieces of art and science, from this momentous era of history. In many cases, what was state-of-the-art then will leave you astonished and amazed now.

This exhibition is a model of complexity rendered intelligible and of obscure, slightly bizarre artifacts from the past, now made very relevant to the present age. For this we have the Metropolitan Museum curator, Wolfram Koeppe, to thank for organizing an exhibition that is both definitive and singular. There has never been a major exhibit on this subject before and it is impossible to conceive of another or better one than this, for
many years to come.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Metropolitan Museum of Art curator, Wolfram Koeppe

There is one problem, though, with these arcane products of European mechanical ingenuity. You cannot simply insert a key, wind-up the gears and set these ancien regime gizmos ticking, clicking and moving, as their original, aristocratic owners once did. To satisfy – or at least address – our curiosity, the Metropolitan curatorial team prepared numerous videos showing the workings of many of the “Marvels” on display.” This is an information-rich exhibition but one which constantly delights.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
The Picture Puzzle of King Christian V of Denmark & Norway, 1685

One of the most playful, yet sophisticated scientific instruments in the exhibition is The Picture Puzzle of King Christian V of Denmark and Norway. This initially appears to be a rather conventional royal painting, viewed through a spy glass. Queen Sophie Amalie of Denmark, Christian's mother, is shown, surrounded by eight royal ancestors. 

This lackluster grouping is totally transformed when it is viewed through the faceted lens in the eyepiece. Using the principles of perspective and refraction, a small fragment from each of the surrounding portraits is combined by the lens into a portrait of Christian V at the center of the group portrait, upstaging Queen Sophie Amalie.

The Metropolitan's video, accompanying the Picture Puzzle of King Christian V shows how this incredible feat of optical illusionism was accomplished. Even with this impressive reference aide, however, many viewers are still going to be astonished that such "special effects" could have been achieved long before Adobe Photoshop.

A major share of the exhibition is devoted to non-mechanical objects which none-the-less were proudly displayed in the Kunstkammerngleaming silver and gold plate, jewel-encrusted swords, rarities from the natural world brought to Europe during the early voyages to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, suitably mounted for display.

                                            Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                                
Turban Shell Cup with Foot in the Form of a Dragon, mid 17th century

From a region much closer to the courts of Europe came a precious material used to make one of the exhibition's most eye-catching, if non-mechanical, works of art. Amber from the Baltic Sea area was used to create a gleaming playing surface for games of chess and backgammon. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Chess and Backgammon Game Board, 17th century

This exquisite work, dating to the 1600's, sports small medallion-shaped scenes from mythology. Kunstkammer artifacts all possessed some special mark of skill and human ingenuity, like these tiny tableaux, to proclaim the merit of their placement in the collection. The unknown craftsman who made this game board infused this masterpiece with value far-in-excess of the gold and silver content of other objects.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Backgammon Game Board, detail.

Enlightenment and enjoyment: these were the goals of the patrons who sponsored the creation of these instruments and objects d'art. Just as important was the function of these treasures to assert their owner’s status in the elite ranks of Europe’s rulers.

Self-regarding pride had long been a feature of the monarchs and nobles of Europe. The roots of Kunstkammern collecting reached back to the Middle Ages, as can be seen in the glistening insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece, owned by Frederick Augustus II of Saxony. The late-medieval Order of the Golden Fleece had been founded in 1430 by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The House of the Hapsburg, rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, traced their pedigree to the Burgundian court. Faithful supporters like Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, received the Golden Fleece for their devotion to the Empire.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Order of the Golden Fleece, owned by Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony,1741

Even in the age of the Enlightenment, to receive an award such as the Order of the Golden Fleece was a badge of honor like few others. Proud recipients like Frederick Augustus II lost no time in commissioning stunning copies of the original. This version, studded with diamonds and jacinth stones, was created in 1741.

A number of the exhibition artifacts belonged to major political players like the eccentric Holy Roman emperor, Rudolf II (1552-1612), including The Celestial Globe with Clockwork, mounted on the back of the winged Pegasus. An ornate microscope made by Claude-Siméon Passemant (1702–1769) for King Louis XV of France (1710-1774), is also on view. By the eighteenth century, practical science was beginning to push mythology to the margins of court life, even at Versailles.

Most of the objects on view in Making Marvels originated from German states like the powerful Electorate of Saxony or the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel, a small province which maintained its independence by renting out its formidable infantry regiments as mercenaries, most notoriously during the American Revolution.

 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) "Invention" Mask of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony,1709

The spectacular “Invention" Mask of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, had nothing to do with science or technology. The lavish court festivals held in Dresden during the reign of Augustus II (proud Knight of the Golden Fleece, like his son, Frederick Augustus II ) were called “inventions.” Augustus visited Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, in 1687. This radiant mask is made of gilded copper, as befits a ruler who could only aspire to be the center of the universe as Louis XIV certainly thought he was.

Much more impressive, if less striking, is the Equation Clock made in 1591, for the astronomy-minded Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, William IV.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Equation Clock of the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, William IV, 1591

This impressive timepiece has a number of “firsts” attached to its resume. According to the exhibition text, it “was the first clock in history with a moon mechanism based on Nicolaus Copernicus’s theory of the lunar orbit.”  As if this was not enough of a claim to fame, the Equation Clock had the unique capacity to enable astronomy savants like William IV to “read the difference, or ‘equation,’ between the true and mean movements of the sun and moon from the clock’s hands.”

I suspect that such intricate calculations were beyond the skill level of most of the visitors to the Kunstkammer of William IV. The “wow” factor, alone, of this stunning work of art and science was enough of an attention grabber.

Only in retrospect did people realize that a “Scientific Revolution” had taken place. It was a gradual process but William IV, his court astronomer, Christoph Rothmann, and Jost Bürgi, the Swiss  mathematician and master craftsman who made the Equation Clock, did have a sense of what today we would call the “march” of scientific progress.

Along the sides of the Equation Clock are eight silver reliefs depicting scenes in the history of astronomy. Beginning with Thales of Miletus c.624-546 B.C., the Greek philosopher who is regarded by many as the world's first scientist, the episodes conclude with Copernicus and his heliocentric theory. 

These eight scenes are easy to overlook given all the gilded brass, esoteric numbers and moving clock hands.The Equation Clock was indeed a working instrument of scientific measurement which William IV was proficient in using. But the idea that he grasped the continuum of human knowledge and appreciated their own role in the infinite journey of science – that is truly revolutionary!

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Armillary Sphere, 17th century

The Scientific Revolution is brilliantly illustrated in the Met exhibition by contrasting two objects, similar in appearance. The Armillary Sphere (above) from the seventeenth century was used to plot the movements of the planets and the Orrery Clock, dating to 1790, had a comparable function.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Orrery Clock of  the Duke of Orléans, 1790

At the center of the rings of the Armillery Sphere, we can see the globe of the Earth, adhering to the ancient cosmology of Aristotle which placed the Earth at the center of creation. The Orrery Clock correctly places the sun at the center of the universe, testifying to the "march" of scientific knowledge from Copernicus to Galileo and ultimately to Newton.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Orrery Clock of the Duke of Orléans, detail

As with the Equation Clock, the really fascinating feature of these two devices is in the "details." In this case, it is the dates of these devices that is key. By the time the Armillery Sphere was made, the heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) had been public knowledge for over a century. The fierce debate on the issue climaxed with Galileo's trial and arrest in 1633 for affirming his support of Copernicus. 

The "heresy" factor which motivated Catholic Church authorities to incarcerate Galileo was based on the fear of social upheaval and political revolution, more so than theological disagreement. The date and ownership of the Orrery Clock shows that their fears were not entirely misplaced.

Louis Thouverez made this sophisticated instrument in 1790 as the French Revolution gained momentum. The owner had little lime to enjoy it. The Duke of Orléans, cousin of the king of France, followed King Louis XVI to the guillotine in 1793. The Duke had renounced his royal blood, changing his name to Philippe Égalité, and voted for the execution of Louis XVI less than a year before he suffered the same fate.

That the Scientific Revolution did contribute to "turning the world upside down" is beyond dispute. The savants, artisans and scholars saw it differently. The clocks, orreries, odometers, etc., were viewed as confirmations of an all-powerful, if remote, deity, who had designed the universe to perfection and then set it "ticking-tocking" for the benefit of humankind.

This view of the nature as a model of intelligent design found its ultimate expression in the writings of the English philosopher William Paley (1743-1805). Paley contended that if we found a watch lying on a field or country road, then we would have to assume that someone had made the watch. So too for the universe. Paley wrote:

There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use... Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

Paley cogently expressed what the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution, Isaac Newton for one, had already contended, that God was the "divine watchmaker."  Now, however, technological genius was being devoted to making machines in the shape of a human being. The first, unwitting effort of men to "play God" took its first, halting step.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Gallery view of the Making Marvels exhibition, showing The Moving Monk

The final galleries of Making Marvels are the most amazing and provocative of an already marvel-filled exhibition. Three automatons and their accompanying videos will spark much head-shaking mirth - at first - and then some deep reflection later.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
The Moving Monk, attributed to Juanelo Turriano, mid-16th century

The earliest of the automata, The Moving Monk (ca. 1550), was made, ironically  for religious reasons. According to legend, King Philip II of Spain commissioned Juanelo Turriano to create a walking, worshiping monk to acknowledge the role of St. Diego in curing the heir to the Spanish throne from a deadly disease.

It was a particularly Spanish notion to conceive of an automaton as a "miracle for a miracle." When Friedrich von Knaus (1724-1759) presented his Miraculous Writing Machine to Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna in 1760, it was to celebrate the Enlightenment world view, human thought turned to deed by way of writing.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Miraculous Writing Machine, made by Friedrich von Knaus, 1760

According to the exhibition text:

A brass figurine holding a quill sits atop a globe. Inside the globe is a pin drum on which a sequence of letters can be set by hand. Driven by a spring mechanism the automaton is capable of writing up to 68 stored letters by itself. The control mechanism also ensures that the writing support advances after each written letter and after every completed line. Curved discs acting as templates make sure that the mechanical quill executes the correct stroke for each letter.    

Finally, there is The Draughtsman-Writer, made around 1800 by the Swiss clock-maker and technician, Henri Maillardet. Working in London, Maillardet endowed this doll-faced automaton with the largest mechanical "memory" (stored in "cams" or brass disks) ever achieved. The Draughtsman-Writer is capable of inscribing four drawings and three poems (two in French and one in English). 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
The Draughtsman-Writer, made by Henri Maillardet, ca. 1800

By the time The Draughtsman-Writer entered the collection of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1928, it was a mass of broken parts. The epic, decades-long effort to restore The Draughtsman-Writer to "life" is beyond the scope of this review - already one of the longest Art Eyewitness reviews ever. But this story needs to be told.

I am planning an essay on the rise of public museums to celebrate the bicentennial of the Prado this year and the 150th anniversary of the Metropolitan Museum in 2020. We will be meeting up with The Draughtsman-Writer in that essay, along with some of the other marvels from this great exhibition. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Gallery view of the Making Marvels exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the meantime, having exhausted my store of superlatives in commenting upon Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe, I can only offer one piece of advice.

Get to the Met and experience Making Marvels for yourself.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd. All rights reserved                                                                                           
Image of Celestial globe with clockwork, 1579, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.C.

Introductory Image:                                                                                              

Gerhard Emmoser (German, active 1556– 84). Celestial Globe with Clockwork, 1579. Partially gilded silver, gilded brass (case); brass, steel (movement). Overall: 10 3/4 × 8 × 7 1/2 in. (27.3 × 20.3 × 19.1 cm); Diameter of globe: 5 1/2 in. (14 cm). Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (17.190.636) 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Emperor's Monument Clock, 1570. Attributed to the workshop of Wenzel Jamnitzer. Metal (gilded), silver (gilded, enameled), ironwork, ebony, inlays of jasper and lapis lazuli :16 1/8 × 5 7/8 in. (41 × 15 cm) Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Metropolitan Museum curator, Wolfram Koeppe.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) The Picture Puzzle of King Christian V of Denmark & Norway, 1685. Oil on panel, gilding, metalwork: 33 7/8 × 22 1/2 × 25 9/16 in. (86 × 57.2 × 65 cm). Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art video analyzing The Picture Puzzle of King Christian V of Denmark & Norway, 1685. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Turban Shell Cup with Foot in the Form of a Dragon, mid 17th century. Green turban snail shell (Turbo marmoratus), Chiragra spider conch shell (Harpago chiragra), silver (gilded): 0 1/4 × 7 1/2 × 5 1/2 in. (26 × 19 × 14 cm). Kunstkammer, Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Chess and Backgammon Game Board, 17th century. German, possibly Königsberg. Amber, ivory, brass, ebony: Overall (closed, confirmed): 12 1/2 × 12 1/2 × 3 in. (31.8 × 31.8 × 7.6 cm); Overall (open, confirmed): 24 3/8 × 12 1/2 × 1 1/2 in. (61.9 × 31.8 × 3.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Gustavus A. Pfeiffer, 1948. Accession Number:48.174.4

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Backgammon Game Board, detail. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Order of the Golden Fleece, owned by Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, 1741. Jacinth stones, diamonds, gold, silver: Overall height: 6 in. (15.2 cm). Grünes Gewölbe, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  "Invention" Mask, made by Johann Melchior Dinglinger for Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, 1709. Copper (chased, gilded): 19 5/16 × 18 1/8 in., 1.3 lb. (49 × 46.1 cm, 0.6 kg). Rüstkammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Equation Clock, made by Jost Bürgi for the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, William IV, 1591. Brass (gilded), silver (engraved), iron: 4 5/16 × 6 1/8 × 6 1/8 in. (11 × 15.5 × 15.5 cm) Astronomisch-Physikalisches Kabinett, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Armillary Sphere, made probably in Italy, 17th century. Brass (gilded), walnut wood, beechwood (stained): Sphere Diameter: 7 5/16 in. (18.5 cm); Height: 13 3/8 in. (34 cm); Width: 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm). Museo Galileo–Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Florence.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Orrery Clock, made by Louis Thouverez for the Duke of Orléans, 1790. Cast and gilded bronze, Carrara marble, copper, brass, steel, enamel: 19 × 9 1/2 in. (48.3 × 24.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bequest of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2019. Accession Number:2019.283.73

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Making Marvels exhibition at the Metropoltan Museum of Art, showing The Moving Monk, attributed to Juanelo Turriano, mid–16th century. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) The Moving Monk, attributed to Juanelo Turriano, mid-16th century. Wood, iron. Figure: 16 × 5 × 6 in. (40.6 × 12.7 × 15.2 cm). The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Miraculous Writing Machine, made by Friedrich von Knaus, 1760. Iron, brass, bronze (cast, some colored), paper, wood (with marbleized stucco, gilding): 70 7/8 × 42 1/8 × 38 9/16 in. (180 × 107 × 98 cm). Technisches Museum, Vienna.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) The Draughtsman-Writer, made by Henri Maillardet, ca. 1800. Brass, steel, wood, fiber. 58 × 34 5/8 × 22 3/8 in. (147.3 × 87.9 × 56.9 cm, 181437g). The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Making Marvels exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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