By Ken Mondschein
The classic view of museums are like churches: Solemn places in which the priesthood of Connoisseurship guards its treasures like holy relics and hands down interpretations like papal bulls. Never mind context; the art speaks for itself. To the contrary, modern curatorial and museum-education, much like Gothic architecture, tries to dissolve that magisterial edifice and let some light in. The holy objects are for the congregation, not for the priesthood, and the interpretation should be aimed at educating the public.
This is why I was so gratified to see all the selfies in my Facebook feed of my medieval-recreationist friends who had made the pilgrimage to see The Last Knight exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. It was a powerful statement of how a community can organize around the ideas of possession, ownership, and becoming: In a very real way, The Last Knight was the property of the community of fans from the Society for Creative Anachronism, the historical martial-arts world, and miscellaneous jousters and other living-history enthusiasts. But few of my friends realized that what was just down the hall—the Making Marvels exhibition of scientific instruments and curios—was just as significant as was the display of armor from late medieval and early modern Germany, and for many of the same reasons.
First, about The Last Knight: Maximilian I (1459–1519) was the scion of the House of Hapsburg. In addition to his ancestral lands, he was the Emperor of German-speaking lands. Moreover, Maximilian was the husband of Mary of Burgundy; their son, the tragically short-lived Philip the Handsome, married Joanna “the Mad,” daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and heiress to their kingdoms. Their six children all became emperors or queens—notably, Charles V, who ruled of what would later be Spain, southern Italy, the Low Countries, parts of France, Germany, and, of course, the Spanish colonies in the New World. (Charles’ armor is amply covered by Carolyn Springer in her book Armour and Masculinity in the Italian Renaissance.)
But in the fiercely competitive game of early modern state building, Maximilian’s rulership was far from assured. To win the support of the men on whose goodwill his rulership depended, he needed more than an army: He needed to present himself as a strong ruler and a true member of the noble class. Participating in and hosting tournaments, gifting armor to win loyalty, and his propagandistic self-depiction as the perfect knight were an important part of this political strategy. All of this required money, which he was chronically short of; his reach in both the martial arena and in that of the patronage of arts and sciences often fell far short of his grasp.
The exhibit was therefore not about the armor as object, but how the armor functioned—not just in tournament or war, but in its socio-political context. It included not just steel for tournament and war, but paper—documents, books, official propaganda, and designs for elaborate building projects that would never, and could never, be realized. It also looked at the craftsmen he patronized, their relationship with their imperial client, and the methods they used to produce these sculptures in steel. Moreover, the Met’s curatorial staff gathered an ideal collection of objects from European museums to illustrate these points and assembled them in one place.
The Making Marvels exhibition was similarly about noble patronage of craftsmanship and its relationship to the right to rule, but of an entirely different arena—scientific instrumentation. The noble kunstkammer (“art-cabinet”) could contain not only prodigies of natural history such as shells and nuts from far-off lands, but ingenious devices. Marvellous clocks were one of these devices, as were astronomical instruments—both timekeeping and astronomy being the study of numbers in the real world—but clockwork was used not only for timekeeping but for making sophisticated automata whose cogs and gears foreshadowed the use of the same technology for industrial production. Not coincidentally, clockmakers were also responsible for many of the devices in The Last Knight—ingenious spring hinges for attaching banners to saddles and clockwork mechanisms that made the jousters themselves into objects of display. (If you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge nerd for this stuff: my forthcoming book from Johns Hopkins University Press is on the history of timekeeping.)
What unites the two exhibits is not only that rich patrons could afford the sorts of beautiful objects that tend to be conserved in art museums, but something called the Zilsel Thesis. Edgar Zilsel’s life story was itself something of a tragedy: A Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria, his friend, the historian of science Lynn White, offered him a post teaching physics at Mills College but, lonely and isolated, Zilsel committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. He is chiefly remembered for his thesis that modern science came from the collaboration of university-trained scholars and practically-skilled craftsmen in the milieu of early modern capitalism. Making Marvels illustrates the Zilsel thesis perfectly: elaborate and sumptuous clocks, wire-drawing devices, lathes, and astronomical devices in Making Marvels were how science, technology, and craftsmanship became subjects of noble patronage. (Not coincidentally, following Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic, northern European rulers tended to go in for practical works more than did their southern cousins.)
All of this relates to my own nerdy obsession—fencing books. Like astronomy, fencing is the study of number in space and time. Like a clock, fencing masters used a set of symbols to break down and show all possible actions in one convenient text. And, like the tournament, it was a noble performance of arms. Fencing books thus unite the technical, the practical, the martial, and the performative. In so doing, they were one piece of many interrelated concepts that ultimately led to the emergence of the mindset of modernity.
Ken Mondschein is a history professor at UMass-Mt. Ida College, Anna Maria College, and Boston University, as well as a fencing master and jouster. Click here to visit his website.
Top Image: Sallet of Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519), created ca. 1490–95. Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum