Automatons like this musical clock in the form of a ship were used as festive table decorations intended to amuse and entertain the diners. The effect was increased when they were designed to mechanically imitate real-life action and could produce a melody as well. Gradually, the traditional centerpieces lost their original function and developed into mechanically moving toys and gadgets, and finally into automatons proper. A mechanism and a musical clockwork allowed this ship automaton to roll across the table, while the tiny musicians on it could be heard and seen to play their instruments. The date 1585 in the inscription and the imperial double eagle on the flags and banners suggest that the ship was intended for Rudolf II. Hans Schlottheim, who built several of these mechanical ships, was staying in Prague in 1587.
The tradition of making centerpieces in the form of the ship dates back to the Middle Ages. Ships were symbols of power, expansion and thirst for discovery. A centerpiece that could not only inspire enthusiasm with its appearance but had a crew that performed cleverly disguised choreography to music coming from the hull could hardly be surpassed as a form of banquet entertainment. With a mechanical marvel like this, the owner, Rudolph II, could impress guests, using the choreography and iconography to demonstrate his power. The emperor himself in the form of a small statuette is present on the deck of this unusual ship, where he is accompanied by trombonists, timpanist, and drummers. As a highlight, the tiny cannons can be loaded with gunpowder for a salvo.
This outstanding example of Augsburg gold work from around 1600 combines the function of a clock with that of a table automaton, here in the shape of a Trinkspiel (drinking game). A complicated mechanism in the base and belly of the centaur made by an unknown clockmaker moves the group across the table, Diana and one of the hunting dogs turn their heads, the centaur rolls his eyes and shoots off an arrow. The guest in whose direction the arrow flies has to empty his glass. Diana the huntress on a stag was one of the favourite motifs for Trinkspiele (drinking games) at this time. By analogy, the huntress riding on the centaur here is also interpreted as Diana.
Evidence of the existence of drinking games dates back to antiquity. Kottabos is one of the earliest known drinking games from ancient Greece, dated to the 5th to 4th centuries BC. Players would use dregs to hit targets across the room with their wine. Often, there were special prizes and penalties for one's performance in the game such as cakes or sweetmeats. Kottabos was very popular in Ancient Greece while it was virtually nonexistent in Latin literature, indicating a significant cultural difference between the fun loving Greeks and the straight laced Romans. As a similar cultural difference, I would point out that there are two nouns for drinking games in German, Trinkspeile and Saufspeile, while heavy drinking in America is generally limited to college kids playing beer pong. Rudolf II in particular was a fun loving collector of decorative objects of all kinds and in particular mechanical moving devices. Historians have traditionally blamed Rudolf's preoccupation with the arts, occult sciences, and other personal interests, such as erotica, as the reason for the political disasters of his reign. Astrology and alchemy were mainstream science in Renaissance Prague, and Rudolf was a firm devotee of both. His lifelong quest was to find the Philosopher's Stone and Rudolf spared no expense in bringing Europe's best alchemists to court, such as Edward Kelley and John Dee. Rudolf even performed his own experiments in a private alchemy laboratory.
This clockwork driven globe served as a model to demonstrate the cosmos. These mechanical models of the sky simulated the movements of the sun, the moon and the stars. In addition, they made it possible to project the movements of the celestial bodies into the past and the future. Also they were suitable calculators which could be used to tell the time by analogy from the position of the stars, and vice versa. In 1584, George Roll, an entrepreneur from Augsburg, delivered two globes to Emperor Rudolf II and to his brother, Archduke Ernst. When the Emperor's globe, which was the less expensive of the two soon became defective, Rudolf was so angry that he had Roll imprisoned for some time, as he “had presented him with foul fish”. Apparently he switched his globe with that of his brother, Archduke Ernst. Note the woman's figure on top holding an astrolabe, complete with an alidade, a manual device used to measure and calculate the movement of the stars.
The work is dominated by the richly painted globe itself, which displays the night sky with depictions of 49 constellations. It is anchored at the poles and can be rotated. The globe is fixed exactly in the middle of the ring that indicates the horizon, thus displaying the visible segment of the starry sky. Two steel rings show the course of the sun and moon, respectively. On several levels inside the sphere, a clockwork drives the movement of the sky as well as the display of the minutes hours and days. Almost all the parts of the mechanism are made of pressure-polished iron. Rudolf II patronized natural philosophers such as the botanist Charles de l'Ecluse, and the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, both of whom attended his court. Tycho Brahe developed the Rudolfine tables (finished by Kepler, after Brahe's death), the first comprehensive table of data of the movements of the planets. As mentioned before, Rudolf also attracted some of the best scientific instrument makers of the time, such as Jost Buergi, Erasmus Habermel and Hans Christoph Schissler. They had direct contact with the court astronomers and through the financial support of the court, they were economically independent to develop scientific instruments and manufacturing techniques.
Astronomy and for the time period astrology were synonomous and of great interest to other Habsburgs. The sun quadrant is a greatly simplified version of an astrolabe. Of the original full circle only a quarter circle remains. Apart from determining the height of the sun and of buildings, the sun quadrant after its further development by Johann of Gmunden (before 1385-1442) could then also be used to tell the time. A copy of his design of 1434 proves that Johann of Gmunden developed the sun quadrant. He was one of the leading members of the Vienna School of mathematics and astronomy and had personal connections with the Emperor's court. Frederick III was fascinated by astronomy and carried out astronomical observations from a tower in the Hofburg in Vienna. Before the invention of clocks and watches, one way to tell the time was to use an horary quadrant. Quadrants that are used to tell the time are called “horary quadrants” because “horary” means “related to hours”. In the Renaissance one type of horary quadrant was even called the “old quadrant” because it used a way of telling the time that was old even 400 years ago. The Quadrant, dated 1438 and marked with the Emperor's personal motto, AEIOU, must have been quite useful to him. AEIOU was a symbolic device utilised by the Habsburg emperors. Emperor Frederick III (1415–93), who had a fondness for mythical formulae, habitually signed buildings and objects with the acronym. Frederick III did not explain its meaning at the time, though shortly before his death, he claimed it stood for (German) “Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan” or “All the world is subject to Austria.” However other interpretations have been put forth.
At the Kunstkammer Wein, they have an entire room devoted to automatons, clocks and scientific instruments. They also have videos showing them in action. Not only are they beautiful works of art but also reveal deeper meaning as symbols of Austrian culture and heritage. The level of inventiveness to think of these creations, let alone make them, leaves me speechless. The fact that they are again on view after ten years of renovations makes them a must see on any visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. There will upcoming posts on the fabulous clocks and scientific instruments also in this room. I hope you enjoyed and I hope you will visit.
Kunstkammer Wein: http://www.khm.at/en/visit/collections/kunstkammer-wien/