8) Kassel, a Wunderkammer in the Mind
Kassel is about 2 hours east of Halle by car. Here the noble family, the Landgraves of Hessen-Kassel, presided over a prosperous community for centuries and, not surprisingly, reflected their good fortune in the family wonder chamber.
Their collection was begun by Landgrave Wilhelm “the Wise” (Wilhelm IV who died 1597), continued by his son, Moritz “the Learned” (died 1627), and his descendant Karl in the late 17th century. And in the 1770’s, Landgrave Frederich II sponsored one of the first museums open to the public.
Unfortunately the princely wunderkammer no longer exists, but many of the items remain in the city distributed among the museums there. Thus you must assemble the wunderkammer in your mind by visiting the Ottonium for natural history, the nearby Orangery for scientific instruments and the kunstkammer for art.
Natural History at the Ottonium
Built under Landgrave Moritz about 1600 and made over with a baroque look about 1700 by Landgrave Karl, the Ottonium housed the entire chamber of curiosities and observatory. Later the art and other artificialia was move out leaving only the natural history which was more recently incorporated into a modern nature museum. A good portion of the first floor exhibits the Landgraves’ naturalia from the 16th through 18th centuries.
One of the most wondrous elements is Scheldbach’s “wood library”, consisting of over 500 “books” and representing 441 species of woody trees and shrubs. Carl Scheldbach was the Landgraves park administrator in the late 18th century and built this library in his spare time.
Each book is really a box constructed from the wood and bark of a given species of tree or shrub, one cover being made of a polished sample of heart wood, the other, sap wood. The top is made of cross sections of that species’ wood and the spine, of its bark. The interior shows the entire life-cycle of that species, including the seedling, the mature leaves and branches as well as the flower, fruit, seed pod or nut, often made of wax and showing the various colors as ripening occurs. Finally, notes on husbandry and pests are included on the inside of the cover. A microcosm of a huge tree is compressed into a small box. (Eat your heart out, Joseph Cornell!)
Catherine the Great of Russia tried to purchase this library for her wunderkammer for 2,000 thalers, but the Landgrave was able to keep it in Kassel.
A large cabinet of rocks and minerals also contains a collection of models of various crystal shapes, each painstakingly made of paper.
A copper miners’ group gave this cabinet built around a slab of naturally-occurring rock strata to the Landgrave at the end of the 18th century.
The collection also contains a large 16th century herbarium, one of the earliest in Europe.
The Astronomical and Physics Cabinet at the Orangery
A ten-minute walk away, a superb collection of scientific instruments is housed in the Landgraves’ former Orangery (an elaborate greenhouse for growing oranges).
Wilhelm the Wise was an accomplished astronomer and mathematician and personally used many of the instruments here to make celestial observations and help chart the heavens.
Wilhelm was also keenly interested in clocks, maintaining a sizable collection, and calibrated them to his celestial observations.
At the beginning of the chapter is one of Wilhelm’s fine brass globes, made in the late 16th century. It is interesting that so much navigational and astronomical study was done by a land-locked prince with no navy or shipping. Again we see an illustration of the importance to the renaissance prince of measuring nature, the first step towards controlling it.
Here is another measuring tool, the hygroscope, purporting to measure humidity. The moister the air, the wetter the cotton ball at on end of the balance, and the needle would move. The accuracy was not great but the artistry was.
Here is a microscope made by Englishman Robert Hooke (1635-1703). Although Galileo invented the microscope, Hooke improved it and was the first really to use it to publish results…for instance, he was the one to coin the word “cell” to describe the building block of life…thus Hooke is known as the father of microscopy. The microscope revealed whole new worlds right under your nose and was a wunderkammer favorite.
Here is a table full of 18th century electrical experimental equipment also added during Karl’s rule. Landgrave Karl founded the Collegium Carolinum in 1709 which soon became a center of scientific investigation (Ottonium web site).
Art at the Schloss Wilhelmshohe Kunstkammer
A 20-minute bus ride across town takes you to the kunstkammer housed in the elegant baroque schloss situated, in turn, on beautifully landscaped grounds. The art collection house here, particularly for old masters, is staggering.
Here is the famous painting of Elsabeth Tucker by Albrecht Durer in 1499.
There are 2 large rooms full of Rembrandt’s alone, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, I suspect. I noticed one small impressionistic one of a winter scene and learned the great master would do quick sketches, in this case outside in winter, before commencing a major work.
Some of this collection began in the Ottonium, was moved by Landgrave Frederich to the Fridericianum in the 1770’s when that museum was opened to the public, and then moved here. I probably should have worked to tease out what part of this collection was original to the wunderkammer, but instead I was just let myself be overwhelmed by how extraordinary the collection was.
I’d recommend an hour or so for each of the Ottonium and the Orangery, and a few hours at the Schloss Kunstkammer, say the better part of a day for it all. Though there is really no wunderkammer in Kassel, there is a lot to wonder at! Start by visiting the Ottonium web site at www.naturkundemuseum-kassel.de.