Art and Curiosity Cabinets of the Late Renaissance: A Contribution to the History of Collecting

When, in 1908, Julius von Schlosser published Art and Curiosity Cabinets of the Late Renaissance (originally Die Kunst- und Wunderkammern der Spätrenaissance), he had been working for more than 15 years in what is now the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where he became Director of the Collections of Arms and Applied Industrial Arts in 1901. Although at the time Schlosser was also lecturing at the Universität Wien, he regarded the curatorial work as his main occupation. Indeed, the museum experience deeply inspired his scholarship and most of his studies, including the present volume.

Contrary to what the title suggests, Schlosser’s discussion of art and curiosity cabinets is not limited to the late Renaissance, but spans from ancient history to the 19th century. Following a strict chronological order and covering all Europe (with a particular focus on Austria and Germany, but also including extra-European artefacts), the author ranges from what he calls the prehistory of collecting to the origin of the modern museum.

The first section of the book focuses on ancient Greek temple treasures, described as the first public collections, and on medieval church treasures, full of wondrous and mysterious objects. Schlosser then dedicates the second, longest section to Renaissance art and curiosity cabinets. These collections were open to selected audiences, who appreciated the objects they contained for either their artistic or scientific qualities. Often considered as microcosms, the richness and variety of which reflected the complexity of the macrocosm, such eclectic collections became fashionable in northern European courts: the Kunstkammer organised by Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol at Ambras at the end of the 16th century is the best example of its kind, according to Schlosser. A short section on more recent collectors and collections leads to the opening of the modern public museum in England.

Art and Curiosity Cabinets of the Late Renaissance is a seminal book that helped lay the foundations of the modern history of collecting, museology, and material culture studies. It is also, somewhat surprisingly, the first of Schlosser’s works ever to be translated into English. In his penetrating introduction, a precious addition to the careful translation by Jonathan Blower, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann investigates the reasons behind this late revaluation of Schlosser’s innovative scholarship. Through an informative discussion of the author’s biography and intellectual background, as well as of the cultural and historical Viennese context, DaCosta Kaufmann shows why this relatively short book was not only a pioneering contribution to the history of art at the time of its publication, but also why it should itself be regarded today as an interesting product of European culture at the turn of the 20th century.

Review by Barbara Furlotti.
Art and Curiosity Cabinets of the Late Renaissance: A Contribution to the History of Collecting, Julius von Schlosser, edited by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, translated by Jonathan Blower, Getty Publications, £50, Paperback ISBN 978-1606066652.