We enter the bona fide world of trickle-down economics. Everyone from hoarders to the acquisitions curator at the Louvre amasses prizes, objets d’art, hobbyist collections, shoe boxes of gingham squares. Depending on their value, or the value you place on them, these collections may be tchotchkes or knick-knacks, doodads or bric-a-brac, gewgaws or gimcracks, frippery or baubles, fandangles or gauds. Or curio cabinets and kunstkammers.
If you were Hans Sloane, preparing to die in 1753, you might take a last stroll through your rooms full of curio cabinets so fabulous that the Enlightenment learned curiosity in your parlor. And when you willed this collection to the Crown, no one cried “Tchotchkes” and recommended burning the lot in Covent Garden. No, you intended to invent the British Museum, the first public museum in the world, one which grew out of the Enlightenment’s enchantment with curios, curiosity, science, mechanics, astronomy, odd-shaped leaves, new devices for navigation, bizarre clocks, shells, skulls, mummies, sculptures from the ancient world, dissected frogs, stuffed birds, flowers from far-flung gardens.
Indeed, so in love were you and your colleagues with this new enthusiasm for learning that you completely forgot that such collections had been built and treasured at least since the Renaissance. Ah, you counter, but those collections were not Enlightenment collections. They were not meant for the people, for the newly literate, for those who invested in the new-fangled Encyclopedia Britannica so they could learn about plowing, how God got all those animals on the ark, and how to cure drowning. No, the Renaissance collections were for princes, and they were generally made up of gifts from princes to princes. They intended to show off wealth and power, not knowledge and a rambling, curious intellect.
If you don’t believe there’s a distinction between the Enlightenment attitude about its intelligence and the Renaissance attitude about its wealth, both of them expressed in the form of collections put on display, skip over from the Brit’s wonderful new rooms devoted to the miscellany of an Enlightenment collection to the new exhibit in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.
This exhibit takes the notion of the curio cabinet a step or three hundred higher. The show fills some twenty or thirty rooms and presents a chronological display of several centuries of Hapsburg imperial collecting. Once upon a time, these collections contained organic material—stuffed animals, maybe a few bugs—but all that remains are the gilded and precious.
This forerunner to the curio cabinet is called a Kunstkammer. And in the Hapsburg’s thirty room kunstkammer you will find, among other riches, Benito Cellini’s famous salt cellar, all gold, ivory, precious stones, and vitreous enamel. After it was stolen and recovered a few years ago, it was insured for $60 million. (There may be one copy by Cellini’s hand though the man who showed it to me in Rome some years ago was coy about its provenance. But then, zillionaires with money from real estate, art, and gun trafficking often are.)