Wolfram Koeppe Ed., Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe (New York: Metropolitan Museum & New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), published in conjunction with the MMA exhibition 25 November 2019-1 March 2020. Review by Eleni Vassilika.
If there was ever an exhibition that one regrets not having seen, it was this one at the Met, which closed just before Covid-19 lockdown. However, the consolation is the sumptuous catalogue that charts Europe’s Early Modern Period and the rise of princely collections (Schatz– or Kunstkammer). New wealth, derived from gold, silver and copper mines, the discovery of the New World and the recycling of confiscated ecclesiastical wealth as a by-product of the Protestant Reformation accounts in part for the rise of rich princely and ducal collections. Two types of knowledge, that of certainty and that of the sensory realm of artisanry produced objects that reflected both princely power but also a knowledge of materials and processes and their manipulation. Animals that inhabited the various cosmic zones (water, air and earth) were studied and cast into a variety of materials ranging from precious metalwork to ceramics. Although today we might regard alchemy disparagingly, it was the most Noble Art derived initially from Greco-Egyptian texts via the Islamic world and was studied in tandem with Neoplatonism. It involved the metallic transmutation and refinement of materials (such as metals (not just making gold from base metals or chrysopoeia), dyes, distillations, glassmaking and ceramics). Medical alchemy (paracelsianism) was another form of the art. The princely Kunstkammer might include alchemical labs and workshops.
Select visitors to the Kunstkammer in the 16/17th centuries and to the Met’s exhibition could marvel at the displays of fine geometrical exercises in lathe-turned ivories (many princes were taught this skill), instruments of science and technology especially of time measurement, surveying equipment, astrolabs, sundials, microscopes, clocks and automata. The visitor would have been dazzled by the sumptuous works of silversmiths blazing with gilded, enamelled or gem-set decorations. Ewers and basins, drinking cups, table ornaments or mounts for naturalia (nautilus or snail shells, ostrich eggs, horns, coconuts, Seychelle nuts, tortoise shell, pearls etc) did abound. Caskets and board games in a variety of precious materials were included in this exhibition drawn from over thirty European lenders and numerous US collections, both private and public. The rich MMA catalogue with essays lavishly documents some 150 marvels, while explaining their manufacture, use and iconography.