“Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe”
“Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe” at the Metropolitan Museum presents some 170 objects created for European courts during the 16th through the 18th centuries. These objects include clocks, automata, furniture, scientific instruments, jewelry, paintings, sculptures, print media, and other luxurious items. The objects were assembled from the Met's own collection and from 50 other collections.
In addition to presenting things of beauty, this exhibition provides insight into why these objects were made. They were not created as self-indulgent amusements for the idle rich. Rather, they served two purposes.
First, owning wondrous objects made of precious materials demonstrated the wealth and power of the owner. If he or she could possess such wonders, surely they deserved to rule over the rest of us. Knowledge was equated with having the wisdom, moral virtue and self-mastery to rule. Collections of wondrous objects confirmed and communicated that their owner had the requite knowledge.
Second, royal patronage of such objects created an incentive for artists, artisans and scientists to create and push the boundaries of knowledge, art and technology, In other words, it had a stimulative effect leading to new inventions and techniques. This was good not only for the ruler but for the general welfare of the country.
Of course, not every royal personage could articulate these reasons or even cared why such items were being created for them. However, the fact that this practice went on for centuries throughout Europe suggests that such collecting had a purpose.
The exhibition is divided into four parts. It begins by establishing the high level of material value and artisanal quality that princes had to meet in these displays of wealth and power. During this period, gold and silver communicated royal wealth. Accordingly, lavish displays of things like silver furniture were created. In addition, to increase their holdings, rulers sought to improve mining techniques.
The second part of the exhibition focuses on objects from the kunstkammer or cabinet of curiosities. During this period, there was an increased interest in natural science in Europe. Therefore, rulers made collections of unusual natural objects, things brought from newly discovered lands and gemstones. These collections not only provided entertainment but communicated the owner's knowledge and intelligence. To enhance these objects, artisans invented ways of enhancing them such as by adding precious jewels or creating settings out of gold and silver. New ways of cutting gemstones were developed.
Scientific instruments are the focus of the next part of the exhibition. Providing support for scientists studying the natural sciences reflected well on the patron as it demonstrated his or her intelligence and knowledge. Therefore, rulers commissioned the making of things like telescopes, microscopes and models of the solar system. Along the same lines, it was considered a virtue for princes to have a working knowledge of scientific and artisan processes. Furthermore, to enhance the objects they used, the rulers often had them made of precious metals or embellished with decoration, turning the instruments into objects of art.
The final section of the exhibition looks at mechanical technology. During this period, artisans made significant strides in developing mechanisms that caused things to move. The most common use of this technology was in clocks and timepieces that were both clever and beautiful were created for royal patrons. However, princes delighted in collecting automata - - mechanical figures that used clockwork gears to simulate human movement. Such curiosities were in some respects the forerunner of the modern computer. In addition, they also provoked debates about the role of the divine and the meaning of life.
This exhibition contains many objects that are simply beautiful to behold. However, by explaining their role in the courts of Europe, the exhibition places them in a new perspective.
Art review - Metropolitan Museum of Art - “Making Marvels”