Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Rarities at Schloss Ambras: Vlad Tepes

The 1655 engraving of the Danish physician and antiquarian Ole Worm's collection of various animals, plants, minerals and other objects, the Museum Wormianum, is one of the most famous examples of the Schatz-, Kunst-, Raritäten-, and Wunderkammern from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. After the death of Worm, King Frederik III obtained the collection and integrated it with his own art collection. The original collection no longer exists, but I suppose it is hard not to wonder what it would have been like to visit Worm's museum, and, if my memory serves me right, an attempt was actually made to temporarily reconstruct the Museum for an exhibition at Rundetårn in Copenhagen some 25 years ago.

The only collection of this kind that survives to this day, is the one started by Ferdinand II of Tyrol at Castle Ambras just outside Innsbruck in 1580, and it is fortunately readily accessible to the public. It is, however, not easy for the modern visitor to find out what the unifying principle behind the collection was, as it consists of natural objects, art and handicraft from around the globe, some fantastic, some very exotic, some grotesque, and some more ordinary, like the portraits of the Renaissance authors Petrarca, Dante, and Boccaccio, as well as that of the Wallachian ruler Vlad Tepes.

Castle Ambras at Innsbruck, Austria
I first read of 'the fascinating and rather frightening gallery of rogues and monsters at Castle Ambras' many years ago in the then instant classic In Search of Dracula, in which historians Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu wrote, that 'a visit to Castle Ambras, particularly to the "Frankenstein Gallery", as the modern-day guides insist on calling it, is a startling experience, even for the most stout-hearted.'

According to the two historians, 'Ferdinand II, Archduke of the Tyrol, who owned Castle Ambras during the 16th century, had a perverse hobby of documenting the villains and deformed personalities of history. He sent emissaries all over Europe to collect portraits of such persons, and reserved a special room in the castle for displaying them. It made no difference whether the subjects were well-known or comparatively obscure. What did matter was that they be actual human beings, not imagined ones.'

The catalogue for sale at the castle, Meisterwerke der Sammlungen Schloss Ambras, is, however, more prosaic in describing the Archduke's collection mania. Apart from collecting armoury and weapons and building a library, the Archduke was in full harmony with the ideology of that day and age, collecting examples of antiquitas, antiquity, mirabilia, wonders, abnormalities, and artefacts, scientifica, scientific instruments of all sorts, as well as exotica, objects of non-European origin. The collection was intended to comprise a compendium of works of nature and art that reflected the macrocosm of God.

The notion that such a collection should reflect God's macrocosm did, however, not mean that it should be a microcosm of God's creation or Nature or an inventory as e.g. the daunting Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, but in fact only 'a microcosm or Compendium of all rare strange things,' as a French physician had inscribed over his own cabinet. 'Early modern collections excluded 99.9 percent of the known universe, both natural and artificial - namely, all that was ordinary, regular, or common,' writes Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park in Wonders and the Order of Nature (2001).

In fact, the Wunderkammer and its curiosities should not only stimulate an emotional response, it was 'provocatively subverting or straddling the boundaries of familiar categories. Was a winged cat bird or animal? Was coral vegetable or mineral? Was a gilded cocnut shell nature or art? Distraction as well as disorientation amplified the onlooker's wonder. Not only did individual objects subvert commonplaces or shatter categories; from every nook and cranny uncountable rarities clamored simultaneously for attention. The cabinets paid visual tribute to the variety and plenitude of nature, albeit very partially sampled. Stuffed with singularities, they astonished by copiousness as well as by oddity. Collectors did not savor paradoxes and surprises, they piled them high in overflowing cupboards and hung them from the walls and ceilings. The wonder they aimed at by the profusion of these heterogeneous particulars was neither contemplative nor inquiring, but rather dumbstruck.' (Daston and Park, p. 272-3)

Obviously there is much more to Archduke Ferdinand's collection than the mere interest in horrors that McNally and Florescu would have us believe back in 1972.

The famous portrait of Vlad Tepes, 60 cm by 50 cm, was painted during the second half of the sixteenth century, and it is usually assumed to have been copied from another painting that may be lost. It is known to have been located in Archduke Ferdinand's library by 1596. In fact, according to the inventory of 'allerlai gmäl und taflen' from that year, the painting is simply described as 'Dux Balachie' (as mentioned in the catalogue from the Dracula. Woiwode und Vampir exhibition at Castle Ambras in 2008). The lower part of the painting is painted white, perhaps in an order to remove a name or title.

Incidentally, the Dracula. Woiwode und Vampir catalogue mentions that the letters 'S T', probably the initials of the otherwise anonymous artist, can be found on the middle button, cf. the photo below. 

When McNally and Florescu visited the castle forty years ago, the portrait of Vlad Tepes was situated to the right of 'the portrait of Gregor Baxi, a Hungarian courtier who in the course of a duel had one eye pierced by a pale. The other eye degenerated into a bloodied and deformed shape. Baxi managed to survive this condition for one year, long enough for the portrait to be completed with the actual pale protruding from both sides of the head - which made medieval history. It is strangely appropriate that this impaled victim should be located close to Dracula, whose eyes are depicted slightly turned to the left and seem to gaze in satisfaction at this macabre scene.'

During my visit, the truly unusual portrait of Gregor Baxi was exhibited as part of a fascinating exhibition about the history of knights, along with a reconstruction of an impaled skull similar to the painting of Baxi made as part of a research project that concluded that the pale penetrated Baxi's head so low that the brain would have been left intact.

As can be seen from the photo of this blogger in front of the portrait of Vlad Tepes, it was placed next to the painting of a disabled man suffering from a genetic disease of the connective tissue, possibly Thomas Schweicker, who used his feet for producing art and calligraphy:

'The naked man is illustrated together with a collectible from a chamber of art and curiosities in the background. This means he is already presented in the environment where his picture is displayed. A red sheet of paper was attached to the painting, so that only the left shoulder was visible. If the observer wanted to see more, he had to lift the paper.' (from the text next to the painting)

Below the disabled man is a painting of a dwarf, perhaps one of the dwarfs present at the court of the Archduke, including 'the Italian Magnifico, who had the looks of an eighty-year old at the age of eighteen. Magnifico presumably suffered from progeria, a disease where the body ages prematurely.'

To the left of this set of paintings is a painting of a giant and a dwarf, and to the right Pedro Gonzalez, 'The Wolfman of Munich' according to McNally and Florescu, along with his two children. I intend to return to these portraits in another post.

Outside the castle is a large garden consisting of, I suppose, both a more baroque and a more romantic and naturalistic garden, both worth a walk up and down the heights. Next to the castle one finds a very cold cave, the Bacchus Grotto, where noble visitors were requested to ceremoniously pass a test in which they were put in fetters until they had drunk a cup of wine. Afterwards they were freed and signed a ledger. These Trinkbücher still exist and are exhibited at the castle.

The castle seen from the Bacchus Grotto
No ceremony is required to enter the castle these days, apart from paying a few Euros. It is truly a great place to visit, and so is Innsbruck and the surrounding Alps. Of particular interest in my opinion is the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum, and if you fancy Renaissance and early Baroque music, you might consider the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music. Believe it or not, during my visit, one of the local cinemas, Cinematograph, was actually showing Werner Herzog's Nosferatu!

Innsbruck seen from Hafelekarspitze (2.334 m above sea level)

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