Expect a lot of ostriches. Also, a defecating duck. Baroque Era telescopes and astrolabes and the precision-engineered innards of a humanoid automaton who can write her name in a neater hand than your own on a piece of paper: these are the oddities and near-Faustian feats of human ingenuity that fill to overflowing several packed rooms at The Met.
If you visit the museum’s Making Marvels exhibition, you’ll be looking at more than art. You’ll see a stupendous, verging-on-crackpot array of hybrid creations that, for better or worse, laid the groundwork for our gizmo-crowded lives.
From 1550 to 1750, European royals competed fiercely over whose artisans could devise the most sublimely mechanized marvels. The time was right for this kind of thing: the scientific method was on the march from Italy to Scandinavia and those who could wield it were gaining the patronage of monarchs with obscene amounts of wealth -- princes who understood that marvels instilled not just wonder but awe. And with awe, of course, comes power.
Curator Wolfram Koeppe writes in the exhibition’s hardbound catalogue that for “the early modern ruler it was not merely the presence of wealth and titles that conferred authority” but the way they harnessed emerging technologies -- much as companies and countries do today. The 150 marvels now on display at The Met are some of the fruits of a continent-wide competition to compile the coolest Kunstkammern. Koeppe continues:
By building Kunstkammern—thoughtfully selected collections of objects and instruments, each more beautiful, ingenious, or wondrous than the next—and embracing practices that showcased their skill and erudition, princes of the era proclaimed their divine right to govern.
This was also the Age of Exploration, which worked like a slow-rolling acid trip on the Euro-imagination. One day, a sunburned sojourner is presenting pineapples to the queen; the next, a leathery caravanner is dazzling courtiers with his sketches of a preposterous beast called a camel. On these days arrived news of a world that was far stranger than assumed.
Which brings us to those ostriches, products of Europe’s early boom in the mining of precious metals. One of them is cast in intricately detailed gold and holds a horseshoe in its mouth. Why a horseshoe? Maybe the artist, Germany’s Hans Claes I, ingested a fistful of fermented lingonberries and that’s what they told him to do. Then again, the horseshoe was the traditional symbol of the belief that ostriches could eat and digest iron. Like, ingots of iron. (Then, as now, science proceeded unevenly.) Koeppe writes that the horseshoe served as “a metaphor for either fortitude or gluttony.” Either way, the sculpture’s effect is deeply, intriguingly odd.
What brings a smile is that the ostrich body is made from an ostrich egg. The egg’s top half is wrapped in sumptuously crafted wings that support the animal’s neck, head, beak and fearsome eyes. The egg’s exposed bottom half is pockmarked and sun-yellow and rests on muscular legs of gold. The whole thing functions as a decanter: tip the ostrich forward and liquid from the egg belly courses through a hollow gullet and out across the horseshoe in its mouth. That weird enough for you? If not, please consider the exhibition’s other ostrich, the one with a maniacal-looking Cupid who rides it like a jockey. According to Koeppe, this strange motif conveys that “heavenly and earthly love conquer all.”
Koeppe goes on to note that earthly love was not always operant when princes went in search of silver and gold. Some of the precious metals in the exhibition were originally extracted in North America and fashioned by native peoples into sacred objects. And some number of those pieces “were systematically and with no respect for their cultural importance robbed, melted down, and transported to Europe.” Long thoroughly transmuted, the materials have temporarily returned home.
The show builds to sophisticated instruments that parsed the natural world and measured time. There’s a frilly French microscope owned by Louis XV, an early odometer that allowed a Saxon baron to measure his forests, and a “mechanical paradox” from Florence that’s made of beechwood and brass and caused viewers to gasp by showing a wheel defy gravity as it climbed an inclined plane. Koeppe assures us that the key to the trick is cunningly calibrated cones that work “in total accord with the laws of physics.”
And we haven’t even touched on the wildly elaborate timepieces. For instance, see an automaton clock, circa 1620,with the goddess Diana mounted on a chariot pulled by rearing lions as some sort of bear-person repeatedly hoists a golden orb toward its mouth. (No lingonberries needed to absorb the full effect.)
Marvels of such complexity are not robust enough to stand constant operation. Visitors must mostly settle for watching them in action on video monitors. Another caveat: the defecating duck is not part of the show. However, the catalogue has a nicely detailed cross-section showing how the duck passed “food” through “a tiny chemical laboratory inside it in a process that concluded with a seeming excretion.” Delightful!
Finally, you’ll want to contemplate a charmed piece with no moving parts at all. A large and flawless 4-carat gem called the Green Diamond radiates serenely, and perhaps smugly, inside a wall case after not being burglarized by thieves who last month looted the Green Vault Museum in Dresden. The Green Diamond almost surely would’ve been snatched in the heist but was spared because it had been sent on loan to The Met for this very show.
You have a little more than two months to catch Making Marvels: Science & Splendor at the Courts of Europe, which closes on March 1st.