The Italian Kunstkammer


Selecting two members of each breed, hence recreating in his ark a microcosm of the world to be rescued from the Flood, Noah is sometimes regarded as the first collector ever. Since then, the myth of the collection has always been existing, from the Bible to the present time, although its heyday was definitely the Renaissance age, when Medicean Princes started to display their works of art in Florence, and Central Europe collectors fashioned the notion of  kunst and wunderkammer.

The so-called “room of curiosities” were undoubtedly a typical product of this time, manifesting the thirst for humanist learning, the hope of overseeing the world, and eventually the wish to impress. But, what kind of collection does the kunstkammer delimit? It is often seen as the heritage of a religious medieval collection, made of reliquaries, licorn horn and other oddities, emphasizing an eclectic curiosity, and wish for knowledge. These two notions were initially employed to name German and Central Europe collections. But are these concepts relevant in the case of Italian collection?  Is there a real frontier between Northern and Southern collectors? In order to define this dissimilarity, and the impact of these specific treasure rooms, two schatzkammern (“rooms of treasures”) will be compared and contrasted: Francesco and Ferdinand’s schatzkammer in the Uffizi gallery, and Rudolph’s collection in Prague. A question may be raised by this contrast: can the gathering of the Tribuna be considered as a kunst or a wunderkammer, likewise the imperial room in Hradcany Castle?  




In order to put side by side Francesco I and Rudolph II’s collections, and define the idea of the kunstkammer in the early XVIth century, one needs to refer first to written sources, inventories, oldest plans and testimonies of contemporaries. However, these only sources are never definite, and many questions remained unanswered. For Rudolph’s part, the inventory (probably done by Daniel Fröschl) started in 1697, and continues up to 1611[1]. Another list was found out, made in 1619, aimed at valuing the collection. For the Tribuna’s part, the first inventory was made in 1589, at the time of Francesco’s death[2]. Nevertheless, what these inventories do not mention is the original organisation of the objects. In fact, the listing established a classification amongst the countless items; but is this categorization original? Did Rudolph and Francesco structured their collections? Or was it a “Babylonian confusion” as it is sometimes said? “It should be remembered that the collections of the Italian princes were largely characterized by an absence of specialization and by the juxtaposition of natural and artificial objects”[3]. In a similar way, Central European collectors gathered a profusion of artificialia and naturalia, like the different elements assembled together in Acimboldo’s painting, but eventually creating a whole aesthetic shape.

As a starting point, the Aristotelian saying “All men by nature desire to know” could sum up the very essence of these late XVIth century collections. It should be remembered that assembling different kinds of object illustrated primarily an encyclopaedic ambition. The imperial collection is often described as the larger kunstkammer in Europe, gathering a huge set of naturalia: precious and semi-precious stones, alongside rhinoceros horns, tortoise shells, bird’s eggs, boars’ tusks, crocodile skins, and other artefacts such as weapons from Turkey and the Orient. “The main room was furnished with twenty cases”[4] which had between two and six shelves each; in some armoires, items like tortoises, crabs, fish and fossils of sea creatures were stored in various boxes and chests. Besides, Rudolph was not only keen on accumulating exotica, he also collected contemporary art or art from recent era (Veronese, Correggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Dürer, Acimboldo and his painter: Hans von Aachen, Joseph Heintz the Elder[5]). The Medici collection is as well encyclopaedic, it gathered objects and substances of all category: precious prints, small Aztec animals, golden silver and bronze medals, raw minerals[6]… sharing the same particular taste for the marvellous, the precious and the rare. 

            Also significant is the fact that in our two schatzkammern, the mannerist idea of linking art and nature was established in the same way. The association of works of art (artificialia) with nature’s creation (naturalia) was aimed at stimulate knowledge, pleasure and wonder. One must be reminded that the antechamber of the imperial schatzkammer was “decorated with images of the four elements and twelve months, a microcosm of nature supervised by Jupiter[7]”, and there was a fresco by Bartholomäus Spranger depicting Hermes and Athena (who may be associated with the Hermathenic ideal of the encyclopaedia of the arts). The structure of Francesco’s room in the Uffizi evokes as well the four elements, in a genuine mise en scène of the cosmos. Each part of the architectural component describes one element of the universe, in a complex allegory. For instance, fire was reproduced in the red velvet upholstery, still exhibited in the Tribuna today (figure 1). The mother-of-pearl shell inlays covering the ceiling are reminiscent of water. Air might be suggested through the architecture, the structure of the room and the light coming from the upper glass roof. And eventually the marble mosaic, the pietra dura central table and antiques statues are emblematic of the earth. Moreover, the wooden frieze, painted by Jacopo Ligozzi, was decorated with fishes, birds, and plants (figure 8). The three main colours of the room (blue, red, god) are reminiscent of the Medici coat of arm (figure 2), and with the white of the mother-of-pearl, we get the colours of Florence[8]; as if the Medici’s Princes wanted their Tribuna to centralize not only the essence of their family, but also Florence, and eventually the universe.

            This resemblance between the two schatzkammern is emphasized by an other common element: the symbolic central table. A large green table stood in the middle of Rudolph’s collection, often described as a “lange grüne Tafel”[9]. Likewise, in the middle of the Tribuna is still the original pietre dure table, inlaid with precious stones, done by the Grand-ducal Opificio around 1680 (see figure 7). These central tables, used as desks, were symbolic of the need for centrality and domination, in the midst of this theatrum mundi.

            In both rooms were found, as well, a representative cabinet. The spectacular ebony cabinet, at the back of the Tribuna room, designed by Buontalenti (4 years of work) was the epitome of Francesco de Medici’s collection, embodying his taste for pietra dura, and expensive furniture (figure 5). “According to contemporary witnesses, this small octagonal temple cabinet was filled with golden and silver medals” [10], it was actually inlaid with gold and precious stones, with shelves decorated by Giambologna. Under Ferdinand I (Francesco’s brother) work on pietra dura maintained and a new manufacture was established in the Working Gallery of the Uffizi (1588). Besides, another cabinet was substitute to the unfinished previous one. As well, a lot has been written about Rudolph II kunstschrank, which has probably been sold by the dealer Philippe Hainhofer (1620’s). It was described as a piece of furniture and a genuine treasure. The Uppsala cabinet is the only one (amongst the fourth) that has been kept with its original content: animals’ moulds, miniatures objects, mathematics instruments, apothecary’s case, games, a bird’s cage… Beside, a heap of minerals crowned it: corals and shells[11].

As far as the gathering, the organisation, the encyclopaedic ambition, and the furniture of the rooms are concerned, the two collections are basically identical. Furthermore, “many scholars have emphasized that the kunstkammer was in general similar both in content and organisation, if not in all details of display, to other universal collections of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries like those found in Italy”[12]. But is that enough argument to prove that the Tribuna sticks to the definition of a Northern kunst and wunderkammer?




            In his study Die Kunst – und Wunderkammern der Spätrnaissance (1908), Julius von Scholesser made a distinction between collecting in the north of the Alps, with its unsystematic qualities and medieval influences, and the artistic and monumental collection of Italy, dominated by rationalistic and humanists ideals. At first sight, this contrast seems prejudiced, but his explanation has been dominating for a long time the art history, and is now questioned. However, with hindsight and recent historic discoveries, we are now able to find some subtle and balanced difference between Northern and Southern collections. However, to which extent can the Tribuna be integrated to the kunstkammer’s definition? Which aspects of the Tribuna are conflicting with the German notion of a kunst or wunderkammern?

By the second half of the XVIth century, the optimistic and idealistic ideas associated with the Renaissance had given way to a new questioning, born out of all the scientific and geographical discoveries. The breakdown of Renaissance certainty[13] led to new thoughts, and a need to reassure mankind, recreating a small and safe universe. Besides, if for our collectors the question remains the same (How to answer the world’s uncertainty? Where a new comfort and security are to be found?) the replies are definitely not identical, even quite opposite. While the Medici seem to find contentment in Antique knowledge, and a curiosity about he past, Central Europe collectors (geographically distant from Antique sources and art) get their meaning with a purely scientific exploration.

As a matter of fact, science played a central role in the formation of Rudolph’s schatzkammern. The central table was mainly covered with astronomical tools and musical instruments, amongst which were found the famous clock with an astrolabe, a globe with planets (given by the Duke of Brunswick), and a glass spinet (or harpsichord). On the contrary, antique and Greek art had the major part in the Medici collection. Under Cosimo III, were displayed six copies of antiques marble statues around the central table, which were the epitome of the collection, especially the famous Medici Venus, brought in the Tribuna in 1677. They illustrate the myth of Apollo and Marsyas (Faun with Scabelum, The Wrestlers, Torso of Satyr, Knife Grinder, The youthfull Apollo). Moreover, the architecture of the Tribuna was inspired by the Tower of the Winds in Athens, described by Vitruvius in his first book on Architecture[14]. “It is true that there were scientific instruments and naturalia in the Tribuna, but there (…) were completely integrated with the works of art”[15] Again the difference here is obvious, the Medici used sciences as an art, with an aesthetic point of view, and a museologic approach, while Rudolph’s experimentation were genuine, and his collection actually more technical. This idea gives an answer to O. Impey and A. Macgregor’s introductive question: “When were such things art and when were they simply curious?”[16] In a schematic analysis, Rudolph’s display illustrated a genuine exhaustive curiosity, whereas the Medici’s Tribuna had an aesthetic purpose.

Hence, our two collectors were curious, and keen on experimentations. But, again, the essence of these works was divergent: whilst Francesco and Ferdinando were passionately dedicated to experimentations on naturalia (for instance, rock crystal and lapis-lazuli) to draw off marvellous artificialia (figure 3); the “Emperor’s Court was a good reputation in alchemy, astrology and the occult arts”[17]. At that time, the intellectual traditions placed strong emphasize on practical sciences like metallurgy, medicine, botany (figure 6), alchemy, natural magic, astronomy, astrology, and prognostics[18]. One must be reminded that this whole scientifically and astronomical investigation is the very essence of the concept of wunderkammer as far as these activities confirm a curious inclination. In the light of what has just been said, there is no doubt that the imperial collection can be considered as a “room of curiosities”, although the notion of curiositas has long had negative connotations, but is justified by the esoteric nature of Rudolph’s investigation[19]. Nevertheless, if we regard scientific interest and universal wonder as the main foundation of the so-called wunderkammer, can the Tribuna be considered as such a “room a curiosity”? 

Francesco and Fernando were famous for their taste of pietra dura. They, hence, founded the Galleria dei Lavori[20] nearby the Uffizi to produce pietra dura marquetery (figure 4), where does come from the table standing in the centre of the Tribuna (figure 5). Furthermore, it was under Buontalenti’s guidance that, for the first time in Europe, the oriental practice of porcelain was mimicked[21]. Having said that, and having previously identified the connotation of the wunderkammer, it is now high time to give a specific definition for the kunstkammer. The German word Kunst (meaning art, and aesthetic) shares the same etymological root with können, which includes the notion of knowledge, know-how, and proficiency. Moreover, wunder does not only mean wonder, but also “marvel” and “miracle”. Regarding these etymological basis, we perhaps can consider the Medici’s collection as a kunst und wunderkammer, in the sphere of these specific definitions. “Princely Kunstkammer should contain first, sculpture, second paintings, and only third wondrous naturalia, in their original form or shaped into vessels”, however, it should concentrates on the first two. Taking into account the preceding description by Kaltemarckt’s [22], again, the Tribuna sticks to the definition of the Kunstkammer. Most of art historians agree with the notion of Kunstkammer to name Italian collections[23], although one needs to give a precise definition and explanation.

Eventually, in theory, the Tribuna can be considered as a kind of Italian kunstkammer focused on Antiquity and aesthetic display, whereas the imperial’s schatzkammer seems rather influenced by wonder about science and progress, and thus would be more on the wunderkammer’s side. However, even if they are different in some aspects, if one is more focused on kunst and the other on wunder, are not they complementary at some point? Are not they following the same direction toward the creation of an opened gallery, a public museum?   




            For the art historian, the political role of the kunst and wunderkammer cannot be ignored. The main paradox that has to be underlined here, to finish, is: although its activity was private, the kunst and wunderkammer had a very important public dimension. This public aspect is obvious seeing the location of both of the collection.

As far as Rudolph II is concerned, the only thing historians have perhaps established is the setting of the so-called kunstkammer, on the first floor of Hradcany Castle; the room was situated in the connecting wing between his living rooms and both the New Room and the Spanish room, alongside an antechamber[24]. Likewise, the Medici’s precious collection was located in a significant exposed area, The Tribuna, looking out onto the main gallery. The dismantlement of the Palazzo Vecchio’s famous studiolo, in 1584, is thus comprehensible. There can be little doubt that the Tribuna represented “the polar opposite of the secret, nocturnal studiolo[25]. Under Ferdinando I, the Uffizi Gallery was already organized like a museum, with busts, statues and the original display[26]. Constructed at the heart of the Gallery, the Tribuna[27] was conceived as a large-scale treasury chest, built on red covered walls. Francesco I de Medici determined its position, at the heart of the forthcoming Uffizi gallery[28]. Hence, the main difference between late XVIth century schatzkammer, and previous ones (studiolo and early Renaissance collections) is this new location, alongside a public gallery. 

Their arrangement was similar to that of a “universal museum”[29] and the ostentatious display of the precious objects was a common point in the North and the South, although theses rooms were reserved to initiated and the elite. However, some authors still argue that Princely collection “were certainly not glimpsed by a large number of eyes”[30], and have only been occasionally open to visitors. But, even if “few visitors enjoyed the privilege of seeing these rooms of wonders, yet word of their contents spread throughout Europe”[31]. The building of a reputation through the means of a private schatzkammer is thus assumed without questions[32]. If Rudolph’s collection certainly expressed his personal interests, it also reflected his political and governmental aspirations. Thus, the efforts of the Emperor to retain the collection of his uncle, Archduke Ferdinand II, manifests his intention to uphold the honour of the house of Habsburg.

Eventually, the systematic collection of various objects from the different realms of nature, makes one think of a “Mannerist museum”[33], and even a universal museum. Whether or not one agrees, Antoine Schnapper’s demonstration highlights the fading frontiers between Northern and the Southern collection in the late XVIth century, arguing that they are all part of the same whole, sharing the same humanistic ideals and scientific concerns[34], and the same evolution toward the prospect of a public gallery.





Between the Italian early-Renaissance studiolo and the formation of public museums, the German concept of kunst and wunderkammern seems typical of the European Mannerist age. Even if a great number of critics have tackled the arduous issue to distinguish Northern and Southern collections, no accurate definition can be found. However, to give way to the initial issue, by considering two particular collections, a slight distinction has been found. If the display and organisation of the Medici Tribuna and the appearance of the imperial schatzkammern are alike, the essence of the rooms is different: while one is founded on antique knowledge and aesthetic display, the other collection intended to be rather scientifically exhaustive. What is more, these different, but complementary facets of our two collections lead to the forthcoming idea of museum and public gallery.

However, by the mid seventeenth century, the fascination with cabinets had begun to decline, partly because of the new scientific emphasis on the rational and the objective, rather than the marvellous and the encyclopaedic.

[1] This first inventory was edited in 1976, allowing historians to study his collection. For further details: p199 Ed. Eliska FUCÍKOVÁ. Rudolf II and Prague. Prague, 1997.

[2] We also know about the content through the reports of visitors, such as Hans Ulrick Krafft and Herr von Oppserdotf who were shown the Medici kammer in 1584.

[3] Page1 in  IMPEY ,Oliver, and MACGREGOR, Arthur, eds., The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1985

[4] p202 in Ed. ELIŠKA FUCÍKOVÁ. Rudolf II and Prague. Prague, 1997.

[5] For further information see the article « The Court of Rudolph II and Humanist Culture » by Nicolette Mount pp220-224, in Ed. Eliska FUCÍKOVÁ. Rudolf II and Prague. Prague, 1997.

[6] « La collection des Médicis au temps de Cosme Ier et de François I », Anna Maria Massinelli, pp53-73. In  Ed. Cristina Acidini Luchinat, Trésors des Médicis,. Somogy, Ed d’art. Paris 1997

[7] Ed. ELIŠKA FUCÍKOVÁ. Rudolf II and Prague. Prague, 1997. article by Paula Findlen “Cabinet, Collecting and Natural Philosophy”, p209.

[8] ELECTA, Milano, Magnificenza alla Corte dei Medici, Arte a Firenze alla fine del Cinquecento. 1997,. p 335 in « Le sovrane bellezze della Tribuna » by Detlef Heikamp. 

[9] A long description of the objects laid on the table is to be found p203 in “The Kunstkammer of Rudolf II” article written by Beket Bukovinska, in Ed. Eliska FUCÍKOVÁ. Rudolf II and Prague. Prague, 1997.

[10] « La collection des Médicis au temps de Cosme Ier et de François I », Anna Maria Massinelli. PP53-73. In  Ed. Cristina Acidini Luchinat, Trésors des Médicis,. Somogy, Ed d’art. Paris 1997

[11] For further details : Chapter 11. “Philipp Hainhofer and Gustavus Adolphus' Kunstschrank in Uppsala” by  HANS OLOF BOSTRÖM, pp127 128 in IMPEY ,Oliver, and MACGREGOR, Arthur, eds. The Origins of Museums. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1985.

See also

[12] “From Mastery of the World to Mastery of Nature”, in The Mastery of nature, by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Princepton University Press, p175.

[13] The discovery of the New World and the opening up with Africa, South East Asia and the Far East revolutionized the way in which people saw the world, their own place within it and questioned the authority of the ancient world

[14] ELECTA, Milano, Magnificenza alla Corte dei Medici, Arte a Firenze alla fine del Cinquecento. 1997,. p 334 in « Le sovrane bellezze della Tribuna » by Detlef Heikamp. 

[15] Article by Giuseppe Olmi, p9 in  IMPEY ,Oliver, and MACGREGOR, Arthur, eds., The Origins of Museums; Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1985.

[16] Page XIX, Introduction. The Origins of Museums. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1985.

[17] See the article “Scientific and Magical Humanism at the Court of Rudolf II” written by György E. Szony in Ed. Eliska FUCÍKOVÁ. Rudolf II and Prague. Prague, 1997. 

[18] See p220 the article “The Court of Rudolf II and Humanist Culture”, written by Nicolette Mout, in Ed. Eliska FUCÍKOVÁ. Rudolf II and Prague. Prague, 1997. 

[19] For futher details see Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, “From Mastery of the World to Mastery of Nature”, in The Mastery of nature, by Princepton University Press, p190.

[20] Two centuries after, this Galleria dei Lavori gave birth was the source of the Opificio delle pietre dure, and now called l’Instituto di Restauro.

[21] P96 « La technique orientale enviée de la procelaine » in Trésors des Médicis, des collections aux musées. Sous la direction de Cristina Acini Luchinat et Mario Scalini. Somogy Ed d’art. Blois 1999.

[22] Gabriel Kaltemarckt, Bedenken wie eine Kunst-cammer aufzurichten seyn möchte of 1587, p11.

[23] See Anna Maria Massinelli in Les Trésors des Medicis, p53, where she argues that the Tribuna is a synthesis between the humanist cabinet and the encyclopaedic wunderkammer.

[24] The precise location of the Kammer was hard to find, until an architectural research was done. “The appearance and layout of the Kunstkammer are not recorded anywhere, nor do we know anything of its basic furnishing” p200 in Eliska FUCÍKOVÁ. Rudolf II and Prague. Prague, 1997.

[25] For further details see p9 in Ed. Cristina Acini Luchinat et Mario Scalini. Somogy (exhibition catalogue). Trésors des Médicis, des collections aux musées Edition d’art. Blois 1999.

[26] « Leur aménagement était déjà celui d’un musée » p106 in Trésors des Médicis, des collections aux musées. Sous la direction de Cristina Acini Luchinat et Mario Scalini. Somogy Ed d’art. Blois 1999.

[27] « Prestigieux réceptacle des collections médicéennes. Le centre de ce grandiose appareil destiné à manifester la gloire du mécénat et des collections médicéenne était la Tribune ». p96 in Trésors des Médicis, des collections aux musées. Ed Cristina Acini Luchinat et Mario Scalini. Blois 1999.

[28] « Le cœur de la future galerie des Offices fut créer sur ordre de François I : c’est la Tribune », p23. Trésors des Médicis, des collections aux musées. Ed. Cristina Acini Luchinat et Mario Scalini.

[29] « The collection of Rudolf II at Prague » Eliska Fucikova, The Origins of Museums.

[30] Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, “From Mastery of the World to Mastery of Nature”, in The Mastery of nature, by Princepton University Press, p178.

[31] Ed. Eliska FUCÍKOVÁ. Rudolf II and Prague. Prague, 1997. article by Paula Findlen “Cabinet, Collecting and Natural Philosophy”, p209.

[32] Tesified by the famous painting by Zoffany (1778).

[33] Erwin Neumann, 1966

[34] Antoine Schnapper. Le géant, la licorne, la tulipe. Collections françaises au XVIIème siècle. Flammarion, 1988. p12 13.