A Noble Collection of Art and Wonders of the 1600s in the Spanish Netherlands
a digital humanities project, perpetually in construction, updated 23 March 2017
Entry Hall of Arms and Armor, announcing commitment to noble values of family honor; the collector's private Collector's Private Study where intricate small objects were kept close at hand; and a more spacious Chamber of Art and Wonders or Constkamer, as such a space was known in the Spanish Netherlands, where scholars and other special guests gathered to marvel at, examine closely, and discuss remarkable treasures and other extraordinary wonders, both marvels of nature and marvels of human ingenuity from every part of the known world, in principle anything that incited curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge. Regardless of whatever balance might be sought between these these two, often intertwined themes, such collections always reflected the worldview and enthusiasms (or pretended enthusiasms) of the collector, and in that framework constituted a particularly elaborate form of self-fashioning, framing his own sense of place within the widening circles of society, nation, part of the world, the earth and cosmos.
This encyclopedic collection is intended to reflect the worldview, enthusiasms, and status of courtiers close to the sovereigns Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, to whom the Southern or Spanish Netherlands were ceded by her father, King Philip II of Spain, and are portrayed in the Walters' painting, The Archdukes Visiting the Collection of Pierre Roose of ca. 1621-23 (image left). Both were members of the Habsburg family, which dominated much of Europe. Albert was the son of the previous Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (and brother to HR Emperor Rudolf II) and the Southern Netherlands actually lay within the Holy Roman Empire.
The privileged place of arms and armor, in part based on the installation at the Habsburg palace Schloss Ambras just outside Innsbruck, Austria, reflects traditions of
“First, the collecting of a most perfect library, wherein whosoever the wit of man hath heretofore committed to books of worth…may be made contributory to your wisdom. Next, a spacious, wonderful garden, wherein whatsoever plant the sun of diverse climate, or the earth out of divers moulds, either wild or by the culture of man brought forth, may be…set and cherished: this garden to be built around with rooms to stable in all rare beasts and to cage in all rare birds; with two lakes adjoining, the one of fresh water the other of salt, for like variety of fishes. And so you may have in a small compass a model of the universal nature and private. The third, a goodly, huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity, chance, and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature has wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included. The fourth shall be a still-house, so furnished with mills, instruments, furnaces, and vessels as may be a palace fit for a philosopher’s stone.” Gesta Grayorum (1594)
Wonders that delighted and astonished viewers were part of many 17th-century collections, whether those of scholars, princes, or schoolboys. A wonder could be anything out of the ordinary—thus extra-ordinary—that provoked wonderment. For many, this sparked curiosity, which led to the desire for knowledge. A collection might be conceived as a personal world in which every object played its part, as everything in the larger universe was believed to do, thus being a “theater of the universe,” as proposed in the first (1565) treatise on museums and collecting by the Flemish physician Samuel Quiccheberg (1529-1567), librarian to the duke of Bavaria, Albert V. Taken together, the assembled objects could be considered a kind of portrait that reflected the collector’s taste and sense of self. If one enjoyed high status (or wanted to), the objects should demonstrate magnificence as a sign of worthiness and power.
A collector might want to display in his Kunst und Wunderkammer (German for room or chamber of art and wonders): 1) extra-ordinary marvels from the natural world; 2) amazing and ingenious objects made by human beings that demonstrated virtuosity or “art”(in the sense of special knowledge, as in “the art of diplomacy”), including objects from distant, exotic cultures; and 3) remarkable objects reflecting one’s own perspective, family, society, and religion. This focus on the remarkable included even the furnishing; the development of the table-cabinet or Kunstschrank as itself a virtuosic object for the display of objects demonstrating virtuosity is representative of the times. Through the variety and profusion of the objects displayed, this room was a place for the pursuit of learning and discovery as a form of virtue. Concepts of "discovery" and "invention" were nearly synonymous then (as they are not today) binding the experience of viewer and creator together. In regard to the latter, instructive sayings were often inscribed over the doors--in this room THROUGH SUCH VARIETY IS NATURE BEAUTIFUL (Georg Hoefnagel [Flemish, 1542–1601], inscribed on various drawings and prints of natural history subjects) and TO VIRTUE, ADD KNOWLEDGE (Second Letter of Peter [1:5])--and inscriptions including EX LABORE GLORIA ORITUR ("Glory comes from labor") actually engraved into the 16th-century ceiling of the Chamber which comes from palazzo Alverti, Milan.
The historical context is critical to understanding the fascination of the encyclopedic collection. Arguably the single most important factor (to be very brief) was the unleashing of the spirit of inquiry and curiosity that took place gradually in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance in Europe, resulting in successive waves of discoveries more or less rewriting the accepted understanding of the visible world and the assumptions about the ordering of the universe and the existence of a divine plan. Galileo’s observations confirmed that the earth was not the center of the universe; voyages of discovery and conquest resulted in unsettling contacts with distant cultures that could not be traced to the biblical first parents; and, within Christianity, Protestants challenged doctrines of the Catholic Church, resulting in a vigorous response that provided significant opportunities for Flemish painters. Such events influenced how individuals understood their world. Many sought understanding in the study and pursuit of the extra-ordinary—in the natural world and in demonstrations of human ingenuity and virtuosity.