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 Kunsthistorisches Museum has a truly amazing collection of paintings and I thought I would highlight some of the artists in separate posts. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (also spelled Arcimboldi; 1527-1593) was an Italian painter best known for creating imaginative portrait heads made entirely of such objects as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books – that is, he painted representations of these objects on the canvas arranged in such a way that the whole collection of objects formed a recognizable likeness of the portrait subject. Arcimboldo had been a court painter in Vienna for Maximilian II and in Prague for Rudolf II since 1562. In 1563 he began painting his famous collection of the four seasons and the four elements (Earth, Water, Fire and Air), which were presented to Maximilian II on New Year’s Day 1569. While these funky portraits might have gotten most portrait painters executed or at least banished, the Hapsburgs loved them. Arcimboldo was as much a court jester as a painter, the paintings are full of puns, for instance, the ear of Summer is an ear of corn, his nose is a pickle and the date of the painting and signature of Arcimboldo are woven into the straw garment of Summer.
A cabinet of curiosities was an encyclopedic collection in Renaissance Europe of types of objects whose categorial boundaries were yet to be defined. They were also known by various names such as Cabinet of Wonder, and in German Kunstkammer (“art-room”) or Wunderkammer (“wonder-room”). Modern terminology would categorize the objects included as belonging to natural history (sometimes faked), geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art (including cabinet paintings) and antiquities. “The Kunstkammer was regarded as a microcosm or theater of the world, and a memory theater. The Kunstkammer conveyed symbolically the patron's control of the world through its indoor, microscopic reproduction.” Besides the most famous and best documented cabinets of rulers and aristocrats, members of the merchant class and early practitioners of science in Europe also formed collections that were precursors to museums.