Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 25, 2021
Julius von Schlosser Art and Curiosity Cabinets of the Late Renaissance: A Contribution to the History of Collecting Ed. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann; trans. Jonathan Blower. Texts & Documents. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2021. 232 pp.; 7 color ills.; 103 b/w ills. Paper $65.00 (9781606066652)

Although the German phrase Kunst- und Wunderkammer has become a standard expression in anglophone scholarship on early modern collecting, it has taken more than a hundred years for a full English translation of the pioneering Die Kunst- und Wunderkammern der Spätrenaissance by Julius von Schlosser to appear. First published in German in 1908 and republished in a modified version in 1978, von Schlosser’s book was translated into French, Italian, and Spanish before its English edition finally appeared in the Getty Research Institute’s series Texts & Documents in 2021. It was due to this book that the term Kunst- und Wunderkammer, which translates as “art and curiosity cabinet,” became established in research on collecting in Europe and has been applied to collections throughout (and beyond) German-speaking countries, despite the fact that the expression was not commonly used during the early modern period itself. In an introduction to the translation by Jonathan Blower, the volume’s editor, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, traces the term to two sources, both related to the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II, which were central to von Schlosser’s study in the history of collecting.

Die Kunst- und Wunderkammern der Spätrenaissance presents in-depth research on Renaissance collections at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, Austria, contextualizing them in relation to contemporary Kunstkammern at the imperial court in Prague and places such as Dresden, Berlin, and Gottorp. Von Schlosser situates his discussions of cabinets of curiosity with an introduction that frames Greek and Roman temples as well as medieval churches as “museums.” Redefining Renaissance collections as precursors to modern museums, the book not only offered the first cultural history of European collecting from ancient times to the late nineteenth century but also significantly modernized the study of artifacts at the time, paving the way for later interdisciplinary material culture studies by drawing on a range of disciplines such as art history, archaeology, anthropology, and psychology. The publication of the English version is thus timely, given the field’s current interdisciplinarity.

In his introduction, Kaufmann outlines von Schlosser’s relation to the Habsburg monarchy’s heritage, contextualizing the author’s position as curator of the imperial collections in the publicly accessible Hofmuseum Vienna and his later role as a professor at the University of Vienna. Kaufmann points not only to the dissonance between von Schlosser’s work as keeper of the court collections and modern intellectual life in fin de siècle Austria but also to his marginalization in anglophone histories of the Vienna School. In German-speaking parts of the world, von Schlosser’s book enjoyed an impactful revival after 1978, when it was published in a modified version that, according to its publisher, Klinkhardt & Biermann, followed a revised manuscript by von Schlosser discovered in an antiquarian bookshop in Vienna (with further additions by Ulla Krempel and a significant enrichment of illustrations). Despite its somewhat inauthentic character, the 1978 edition made von Schlosser’s writings accessible and known to a wider German-reading audience, beyond specialist circles and across disciplinary boundaries. It would have been interesting to learn more about how this episode in the afterlife of the work affected the reception of Die Kunst- und Wunderkammern der Spätrenaissance in the anglophone world.

While Kaufmann’s introduction includes “a sampling of the literature” (48n158) on von Schlosser’s work and scholarship on early modern collecting, it is not always clear why some “samples” have been chosen over others. One wonders, for example, why Horst Bredekamp’s influential Antikensehnsucht und Maschinenglauben: Die Geschichte der Kunstkammer und die Zukunft der Kunstgeschichte of 1993 is not mentioned at all. Translated into English in 1995 as The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine: The Kunstkammer and the Evolution of Nature, Art, and Technology, this work has had a major impact on the historiography of early modern collecting. Recent work on the Kunstkammer as a site of representation, as a laboratory, and in relation to statecraft is acknowledged in Kaufmann’s introduction as enriching, challenging, and correcting some of von Schlosser’s views on Renaissance collecting that were deduced from a limited number of examples, but new insights into the role of mnemonics and the importance of art agents and merchants in the formation of court collections are not addressed. Kaufmann also only briefly mentions the “attention [von] Schlosser paid to artifacts made by peoples outside Europe, whose significance and quality he recognized” (2). In a footnote we learn that von Schlosser called some of these artifacts “schöner (very fine)” (37n8), but how far this justifies the book’s alleged significance as “a harbinger of world history and art history” is not fully discussed (2). In spite of these missed opportunities for further elaboration and some minor points (such as the spelling of “Sammlung für Plastik und Kunstindustriellen Gegenstanden” on page 20, which should be “Sammlung für Plastik und kunstindustrielle Gegenstände”—but upon second reading appears to be an artificial amalgamation of “Sammlung kunstindustrieller Gegenstände” and “Sammlung für Plastik und Kunstgewerbe”), Kaufmann’s essay is a highly insightful, admirably comprehensive, and formidable introduction to von Schlosser’s work and its reception.

Blower’s translation of Die Kunst- und Wunderkammern der Spätrenaissance deftly meets the challenge of a book that is written in German but abounds in terms unfamiliar to the average German reader and, by extension, to anglophone audiences. Such terms include expressions derived from early modern German, such as Handstein, as well as a large number of Italian and Latin words. In some instances, Blower imitates the by now anachronistic terminology of von Schlosser while adding information valuable to the contemporary reader—for example, by translating “Polyhistorengenie eines Leibniz” to “polyhistor genius of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz” (160). In other cases, he chooses to somewhat simplify terms for the sake of modern readers, as when he transforms the untranslatable Lustbrunnen to an “ornamental fountain” (162). Given the immense complexity of the task Blower has mastered, it is perhaps nit-picking to point to small issues in the text. Nevertheless, it seems that the term Lackarbeiten, which he translates as “enameled pieces” (131), might have been more adequately translated as “lacquerware,” while the use of “hanging scrolls” (136) to translate the original term Wandbehänge in relation to a number of Chinese paintings veils the fact that early modern collectors (and possibly also von Schlosser himself) might have seen these images on silk as more closely related to wall hangings than to frameable works for display in a gallery. These are minor observations and do not diminish Blower’s careful interpretation of terms such as Vexierkrug (“puzzle jug”) and Schnakenköpfe (“funny heads”), which have exceptionally limited translatability.

The book combines original black-and-white illustrations from Die Kunst- und Wunderkammern der Spätrenaissance with new photographs of objects illustrated in the original book that have been restaged for the purpose; some of the new pictures are larger than the originals. It would have been interesting to learn more about the criteria for the treatment of the imagery. In some cases, most notably the “tabletop from Ambras” that is now in Vienna’s Museum für angewandte Kunst (132, fig. 54), the replacement of von Schlosser’s illustration with a new photograph would have significantly improved the legibility of the image and, by extension, the object itself. Then again, this intervention might have falsified the reading experience of the text as a historiographic source in its own right.

Blower and Kaufmann are to be thanked and congratulated for mastering complex decisions of linguistic (and, to a minor extent, pictorial) translation from one source to another and for their thoughtful framing of an important text in the historiography of art. This volume is a significant addition to the Getty Research Institute’s Texts & Documents series. To date, this series has published twenty period sources on art and art collecting as well as historiographies of art and art collecting translated from Latin, German, Dutch, French, Italian, and Spanish, at least one of which was “printed in China.” At a time when some of the biggest challenges facing the history of collecting and museum studies are posed by issues of transcultural provenance in research related to non-Western art, one wonders when the Getty’s series will feature its first translation from a non-Western language.

Anna Grasskamp
Assistant Professor, Academy of Visual Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University