Curiouser and Curiouser

A rhinoceros made of tortoiseshell, coral, pearls, and seashells, based on a woodcut by ­Albrecht Dürer, early seventeenth century
Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Wiesentheid/Michael Aust
A rhinoceros made of tortoiseshell, coral, pearls, and seashells, based on a woodcut by ­Albrecht Dürer, early seventeenth century

In the early sixteenth century, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I declared, in one of the semi-autobiographical romances he wrote to promote his accomplishments and the providence of his reign, that rulers should establish their authority over vassals and subjects by gaining “secret knowledge and experience of the world.” His royal successors and emulators “proclaimed their divine right to govern” by collecting “objects and instruments, each more beautiful, ingenious, or wondrous than the next” and by “embracing practices that showcased their skill and erudition,” as Wolfram Koeppe writes in a catalog essay for “Making Marvels,” an exhibition he curated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The wide-ranging and eclectic show presents rare, costly, and sometimes bizarre objects from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries that belonged to aristocratic families throughout Europe and that signaled their access to precious materials, exquisite craftsmanship, and scientific and occult learning.

Early modern royals acquired exotic natural artifacts such as bezoars—digestive stones produced in the intestines of large ruminants and believed to possess healing qualities. They commissioned lavish clocks encased in silver; they purified metals in alchemical laboratories; they studied, and sometimes made important contributions to, astronomy. Princes were taught crafts such as turning ivory on a lathe, which was thought to improve one’s ability to govern because it required precision, concentration, and a steady hand. “Making Marvels” includes a dozen intricate and whimsical ivory pieces made by royalty and their instructors; with wobbly, stacked forms, nested polyhedral shapes, and improbable shifts, they look more like something out of a Dalí desert scene than a sixteenth-century court.

Three of these pieces are the handiwork of the Saxon elector Augustus I (1526–1586), the son of Henry IV the Pious, who established Lutheranism as his dukedom’s religion. Augustus serves as the exhibition’s guiding spirit. He was firmly rooted in medieval aristocratic traditions but was also committed to the humanistic and scientific spirit of his century. For instance, though he participated in fifty-five “jousts of war,” in which combatants used sharp lances, he eventually replaced jousting with less dangerous equestrian competitions. The size of Saxony’s armory grew tenfold during his reign, but he also amassed tools and manuals relating to every type of trade.

Called “Father Augustus” by his subjects, he sought to strengthen his realm not through conquest but through economic development. He introduced agricultural reforms and conducted extensive surveys of his lands to better exploit their deposits of silver, iron, serpentine, and alabaster. (An early odometer in the exhibition was used to record distances during these surveys.) Augustus also oversaw improvements in Saxony’s mining industry; De Re Metallica, widely considered the first scientific…

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