Rudolph II’s art cabinet

Rudolph II

Rudolph II’s art cabinet (Kunstkammer) was one of the most famous collections of art and curios in Europe.

Rudolph II

Rudolph II (1552-1612) was the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. He became King of Hungary in 1572 and King of Bohemia in 1575. Following the death of his father he also became Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria. His reign was a troubled time of great religious conflicts coupled with the external menace of the Turks. Unfortunately, politics was not a great interest of his. Instead he was familiar with a number of languages and was devoted to art and science, the latter including alchemy and astrology, a highly fashionable preoccupation at that time. He was also fascinated by magic and the occult. At the end of the 1590s mental illness rendered him incapable of governing his empire, which by that time was torn by disputes between Reformation and Counter-Reformation movements. As a result, in 1611, he was forced to cede the crown of Bohemia to his brother Matthias and he died soon afterwards.

A spectacular collection

At the royal castle of Hradčany in Prague, his principal residence, Rudolph created the most spectacular collection of art and curios in contemporary Europe. Known as Rudolphinische Kunst- und Wunderkammer, it was housed in a new, purpose-built gallery. Some items he had inherited (the whole family were keen collectors), some were given to him by various diplomatic delegations and scientists, but the greater part he had acquired for himself. He was a passionate and enthusiastic collector and he purchased works of art abroad through his agents, as well as invite artists to Prague where he supported them. It was customary at this time for groups of artists to wander from one royal court to another, and Prague was an obvious port of call, given Rudolph II’s reputation as a generous patron of the arts and great collector. He spared no pains in acquiring objects that fired his imagination, including the Devil’s Bible. He borrowed it from the Broumov monastery in 1594, but never returned it as it appealed to his interest in the occult.

The collection comprised art objects, decorative arts, precious objects, natural history specimens and scientific instruments. Its wealth and diversity were meant to provide a panorama of the visible world. Rudolph collected anything and everything. Old and new, live animals and stuffed ones – everything was mixed up together. His ambition was universal, namely that of portraying the world in its entirety. The collection included nearly a thousand paintings (Rudolph’s favourites were Albrecht Dürer and Pieter Breughel the Elder) and sculptures, especially by Renaissance and Mannerist masters. There was a large collection of minerals, ivory ‘rarities’, coral etc. Rudolph could spend hours in rapt contemplation of his pictures, sculptures, natural history specimens and curios. The whole collection constituted a microcosmos in which things from earth, sea and air (minerals, plants and animals), naturalia, were displayed together with things made by man, artificialia. There was also a large collection of scientifica, scientific instruments, necessary for exploring the world at large. The naturalia included many exotic, odd and fantastic items. The study of these items was considered the best way into an understanding of Nature’s secrets. Rhinoceros horn, mandrake and dragons were included in the collection, as well as rhinoceros and tiger’s teeth and a leopard’s claw. A botanical and zoological garden were also part of the collection, with live animals supplementing all the skeletons and taxidermic (stuffed) creatures. The inmates of Rudolph’s great menagerie included chameleons, pelicans, crocodiles, turtles, birds of paradise and a lion.

This comprehensive collection was also intended to symbolise the power of the Emperor. Control over the microcosmos collection would indicate his omnipotence over his empire, the macrocosmos. The collection was part of a political manifestation. It was very famous, and the Emperor’s guests often arrived in Prague bringing precious gifts in the hope of being allowed to see it. But by no means all of them were granted admittance to the Kunst- und Wunderkammer during Rudolph’s own lifetime.

The collection dispersed

The death of Rudolph in 1612 was followed by a turbulent period in the collection’s history. Matthias, who succeeded him, hastily compiled an inventory to acquaint himself with its contents. Rudolph wanted the collection to stay in the family, but the Bohemian Estates demanded that it be sold to pay off his huge debts. Large parts of it (including works by Breughel the Elder, Dürer, Tintoretto and Veronese) were successfully transferred to Vienna, which was now reinstated as the Imperial residence. The brothers Maximilian III and Albrecht VII also received their allotted shares, mainly in the form of jewels and artificial objects of previous metals, but also including paintings by Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Veronese and others. Certain objects were given to the adherents of the new Emperor.

It was not until 1619 that part of the collection went to the Estates. Further losses were soon to follow, especially in 1620, in the early stages of the Thirty Years War, when, following his victory at the Battle of the White Mountain, Maximilian of Bavaria carried off a great deal of booty, and again at the end of the war in 1648, when the Hradčany castle was looted by the Swedes. The Swedish General Königsmarck used the threat of torture to compel the treasurer, Dionysio Miseroni, to surrender both the keys of the art chamber and a list of its contents, compiled as recently as 1647. However, Miseroni was soon required to draw up a new inventory because Königsmarck wanted to make sure the old one had been correct.

Codex Gigas to Stockholm

The Kunst- und Wunderkammer was despoiled of everything that could be carried away. Some of the decorative art items and a number of damaged paintings were all that were left behind. The lion was carried off along with the rest of the booty. A den was built for it in the moat of the royal castle in Stockholm,  together with a covered gallery from which spectators could watch it tussling with other animals. Unhappily, the King of Beasts did not fulfill their expectations and eventually the lion’s den was turned into a theatre.

Contemporaries testify to the astonishing proportions of the loot. Its arrival was awaited in Stockholm by the young Queen Christina, herself as passionate an art collector as Rudolph II. Only the best was good enough, and she was interested in everything. Later on, when she decided to abdicate, she chose to retain only a relatively small collection of the finest Italian masters, such as Veronese, Correggio and Titian. These, she declared, were the only ones that pleased her. Nearly all the German and Netherlands pictures were left behind in Sweden. Many of these perished in the royal castle fire of 1697 and the Uppsala fire of 1702.

Imposing fragments

Rudolph II’s Kunstkammer seems, however, to have been inexhaustible. The wretched fragments remaining after all the depredations still excited visitors’ admiration well into the seventeenth century. And although it was believed that the collection had ceased to exist as a result of auctions and transfers to Vienna during the nineteenth century, it was discovered in the 1960s that there were still over 70 pictures and sculptures in situ.