Thomas Da Costa Kaufmann Abstract

Global Aspects of Habsburg Imperial Collecting

Thomas Da Costa Kaufmann
Princeton University, Princeton

The Habsburgs of Central Europe deserve a special place in considerations of imperial collecting. The decoration of the ceiling of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna exemplifies how art (and other forms of patronage and collecting) have long been associated with the dynasty and its ambitions. Habsburg visions of empire were especially strong in the sixteenth century and seventeenth centuries. During the realm of Charles V (King of the Romans, then Holy Roman Emperor 1519-1558, and King of Spain, among other titles) their dreams of universal dominion seemed to become reality, as the Habsburgs controlled not only many of the lands once ruled by ancient Rome, but as Charles’s personal own emblem (plus ultra) implied, also lands beyond Europe, including the Americas and from the 1570’s the Philippines. Charles’s brother and successor (Holy Roman Emperor 1558-1564) Ferdinand I moreover ruled over the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary (from 1526). Ferdinand I owned the first collection recorded as a Kunstkammer; its contents together with those of the Habsburg treasuries formed the basis of an inheritance that has enriched many museums in Central Europe. These collections have consequently gained a good deal of attention from scholarship and museum exhibitions.

This chapter concentrates on the Habsburg Kunstkammer of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century in Central Europe, which contained works of art and wonders of nature. Briefly reviewing some interpretations advanced in recent decades, this chapter reemphasizes how such collections possessed a universal dimension that parallels the microcosm with the macrocosm. The Habsburg collections symbolically paralleled their aspirations to political preeminence by suggesting control over the world. Today when globalization of culture has become a major theme of interest early modern collections can be seen in the light of global connections. The current display of the Kunsthistorisches Museum has indeed highlighted them by exhibiting objects in the Kunstkammer according to where they came from all over the world. The objects collected not only demonstrated the global reach and power of the ruler and the Habsburg dynasty, but like other cultural manifestations contemporary with the Kunstkammer suggested their truly imperial status.