Friday, October 19, 2007

The Lure of Antiquity, the Cult of the Machine, and the Kunstkammer

Bredekemp positions the Kunstkammer on a continuum that spans:

Natural formations – Ancient sculptures – Works of art – Machines

In particular, he uses a plate from Besson’s work that depicts a series of mechanical devices being used to salvage architectural relics from an underground cavern (although it’s unclear whether the ornamentation was a contribution from Besson or from Du Cerceau).

Bredekamp also uses a portrait of the Cardinal Mazarin from 1659 to indicate the growing institutional maturity of machines. Mazarin is depicted in his study. Behind him stretches a gallery filled with classical statues and paintings from the modern masters. The study itself includes various mechanical artifacts such as globe, a clock, and dividers. Bredekamp uses this painting as a point of departure. No longer were machines considered as the product of the base mechanical arts but rather as an indication of artifice and mastery that was an appropriate metaphor for royalty.

Of particular importance for the emergence of the kunstkammer (and collecting in general) was the publication of Samuel Quiccheberg’s “Inscriptiones vel tituli theatric amplissimi” in 1565. The first section of Quiccheberg’s model deals with ruler and realm and includes genealogies and portraits of the royal families; maps and views of the ruler’s cities and domains; depictions of wars and campaigns; memorabilia of court celebrations and triumphal processions; illustrations of animals; and models of buildings and machines. The second section is dedicated to arts and crafts, including ancient and modern artwork of all kinds. This section might also contain novel artifacts such as precision instruments, clocks, and turned objects. Coins, medals, and ornaments of all sorts also fall into this category. The third section is dedicated to the three kingdoms of nature: animal, vegetable, and mineral. The fourth section—and perhaps the most important from my perspective—is dedicated to technology and anthropology. It includes musical instruments, measuring devices, industrial machines, tools for writers and surgeons, playthings, exotic weapons, exotic clothing, and jewelry. The final section is devoted to visual representation and includes oils, watercolors, engravings, tapestries, and inscribed panels. Quiccheberg also recommends complimenting the collection with a workshop, a foundry, a mint, and exhibits of craftsmen’s tools and machines.

The kunstkammer emerged at the same time as the theatrum machinarum and arguably sprung from the same cultural and social roots. In 1573, for example the Archduke Ferdinand of the Tyrol began the construction of the first complex of buildings exclusively devoted to housing a collection.

The automata of the kunstkammer were particularly influential among scientists. Bredekamp notes that Kepler was highly impressed by automata of drummers and buglers and that these figures may have been important for Kepler’s emerging mechanistic views. Turned objects were particularly popular:

“These wood turner’s creations, the ‘beauty’ of which derives from the ‘complexity’ of their construction, represent a playful introduction to the presentation of machines. Such products of the wood turner’s workshop were some of the most popular items in the Kunstkammer, since they had been passed down as works of royalty, starting in the early 16th century. The ruling houses of Europe, particularly the Habsburgs, used magnificent wood-turning lathes to emulate the demiurge, the ‘first wood turner,’ who had created the world with such artistry.” (pg. 39-40)

Machines and human-crafted artifacts were placed on par with both the magnificence of nature and with the accomplishments of antiquity. Bacon, for example, described a plan for a great Elizabethan collection that was to include a library, a garden, a zoo, and a workshop with designs for all of the “mills, instruments, furnaces, and vessels” employed by man.

Novelty was also crucial to the collection. Bacon articulated the importance of these “errors, vagaries, and prodigies of nature” in The New Organon of 1620. These novel cases represent change and evolution, a constant force in the emerging regimes of the Renaissance. Playfulness was also an important consideration as identified by the introductions of both Besson and Rameli. Bredekamp notes:

“Playful pleasure in artificial creation not primarily guided by usefulness was thus associated with godlike elements. By the same token, the urge to collect in order to form one’s own world in miniature was attributed the character of emulating divine playfulness.” (pg. 72)

The kunstkammer stumbled in the face of utility. Novelty and playfulness became insufficient motivations for collection. Bredekamp points to Perrault’s Parallele des Anciens et des Modernes, published in four volumes, between 1688 and 1697 as the first recognition that modern accomplishments outstripped those of antiquity. By 1724, Jakob Leupold criticized the kunstkammer as the “foolish stuff” of “windbags.” Goethe noted of his first journey to Italy in 1786 that “the time of the aesthetic has past; now only necessity and strict need make demands of our days.” (p.85)

I’m getting a sense of vertigo in my understanding of the TM. After checking out the plates of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (the Carceri d’Invenzione of c.1760), I have a very different feeling for machines. The work of Piranesi seems to represent a growing unease with machines, particularly his vision of antiquity superimposed with industrial modernity. It’s not quite Blake’s “dark satanic mills” or Frankenstein but it’s something. This dark vision of modernity seems to arise in contrast with an increased purity in technological representation. Compare Piranesi’s plates to the geometrical purity of Monge. The dark side is contrasted by the sanitized representations of technocrats, increasingly obsessed with reductionist approaches to representation including graphs, nomographs, and engineering drawings. But the theatrum machinarum predated all of this. The genre should be viewed more as Disney’s views of the future than as engineering plans.


Bredekamp, H. (1995). The lure of antiquity and the cult of the machine the Kunstkammer and the evolution of nature, art, and technology. Princeton: M. Wiener.