An exciting egg
Material culture enables historians to consider critically how courts engaged with diverse audiences. The court existed in multiple forms: as a familial home, social space, and political construct. Rulers were often less concerned with propaganda and more with their ‘fama’, namely their long-term glory and reputation, as opposed to outright persuasion. Objects symbolised different things to their rulers. Objects carried important values physically, ideologically, imaginatively, and emotionally. They were crucial to understandings of distance; were they are about connecting the ruler, or enclosing him or her and enforcing hierarchy? The concept of distance became a way to exert power, though this was not always in the ruler’s control.
Court Collections and their role
Court collections of material objects allowed rulers to communicate the extent of their networks and knowledge to audiences both within and beyond the court, through varied levels of display and access. Courtier Castiglione expected that a ruler ought to ‘furnish [their palace] so well with every suitable thing that it seemed not a palace but a city in the form of a palace’. Though catalogues played a part in disseminating the nature of the collections, so too did individuals, who would discuss the items with others outside the court and kingdom, highlighting the importance of oral culture in connecting rulers with wider audiences. This is evident in Castiglione’s account, published in 1528, of fellow courtiers discussing the King of Portugal’s fascination with a chess-playing monkey. This also show the role of oral culture in transmitting this curiosity for the exotic.
The King of Portugal was not alone in his fascination with unusual. As Karel van Mander, Dutch painter and art historian commented in 1604, Habsburg monarch Rudolph II’s (r.1575-1612) collection presented him as ‘the greatest art patron in the world at the present’ owing to his ‘remarkable number of outstanding and precious, curious, unusual and priceless works’. One example (out of a collection of 3,000 items) is the ostrich egg, by Clement Kicklinger. The structure, made in Augsburg between 1570 and 1575, depicts a young boy pulling an ostrich with a horseshoe in its mouth, as it balances an egg on its body. Measuring 56.8 cm in height, the structure combines coral (indicative of protective qualities), with gold gilding, contrasting the off-white hue of the ostrich egg.
Ostrich Egg Cup
The item would be both interesting to view and touch, as it combines materials and textures which make it striking. The structure communicates opulence and luxury in relation to the exotic. The item, like many in the collection, was designed to provoke wonderment, as well as humour. The perspectives of structure are mimicked as the size of the ostrich egg is in fact bigger than the ostrich itself, producing an uneven balance.
Emotional reactions to objects such as these formed a part of the spectacle of princely authority. The importance of a ruler’s humour is echoed by Castiglione, who endorses the continuity in tradition from ancient rulers of feeding the eyes and minds of the people to help restore their spirit and mask their problems. The ostrich egg embodies the extensive nature of Habsburg networks in not only gaining such an item for the Kunstkammer, but also in its composition, which plays with the concept of land and water. Its crafters would have sourced the coral, gold, and egg itself from multiple locations across and beyond Europe.
Understanding the exclusive access to this item is vital to appreciating its connection with wider audiences. The placement of the egg in the Kunstkammer allowed Rudolph to showcase his knowledge regarding its physical location and craftsmanship to invited audiences, visiting scholars, and travellers at his discretion. Though the accuracy of Fučíková’s construction of the Kunstkammer based on the 1607-11 inventory cannot be ascertained, it reveals the strategic importance of accessibility and personal knowledge of the collection.
The collection was clearly not choreographed or ordered in a specific way, but was designed to impress through its organisational scope and chaos. For example this item would most likely be categorised as ‘miscellaneous naturalia’, housed in one of many cupboards of the Prague Kunstkammer. The knowledge of this location presumably rested with Rudolph or trusted courtiers and indicated how they were the gatekeepers to the knowledge and navigation of the Kunstkammer as a ‘microcosm of the cosmic macrocosm’. This speaks to Castiglione’s emphasis on the importance for courtiers in not only having knowledge, but also sharing this in a ‘proper, select, lustrous, and well-formed’ manner. Such items provided an arena for courtiers to demonstrate their knowledge in the context of the palace.
As master of the Kunstkammer, it enabled Rudolph to be a master of God’s creation as the collection formed part of a broader ‘pansophic striving’, allowing Rudolph to systematise and understand God’s creation as manifested in objects. This contributed to the Habsburg’s focus on piety as a defining feature in relation to other European courts. Items such as the ostrich egg made it possible for Rudolph to reach audiences beyond the court and kingdom and convey wider religious authority through knowledge.