The Culture of Craft in the Era of the Kunstkammer

This seminar will explore elite craft production in the urban centers of sixteenth-century northern Europe. It focuses on the years between roughly 1540 and 1620, a unique and relatively brief historical moment of exceptional creativity, when the interests of a class of urban craftsmen—educated, socially ambitious, and intellectually curious—met the tastes, interests, and collecting habits of courtly patrons that coalesced around the emergent concept of the Kunst-und-Wunderkammer (“the cabinet of art and wonder”). This new idea of collecting the combined rarities of art and of nature emerged in the 1550s and gathered European–wide momentum over the next half century. Indeed, courtly demand provided an important channel for an outpouring of creative ideas from the urban centers in ways that were to significantly influence the nature and direction of European culture. For this moment was also a period of what one might call a “theoretical turn” among the craftsmen and artists: when more craftsmen than ever aspired to print instructional handbooks, when the writings of Vitruvius and Euclid first appeared in the vernacular, and increasingly, knowledge of the Liberal Arts, particularly mathematics and geometry, classical history, poetry and literature, as well as new understandings of nature, became preeminent preoccupations and self-consciously informed their creations. These talented craftsmen were stimulated to explore new areas of activity and keen to raise themselves socially and professionally by associating themselves and their inventions with the tastes and interests of the courts. The process went both ways. The close involvement of rulers such as the Elector of Saxony and the emperor Rudolf II with their craftsmen demonstrates a shared base of humanist learning and a commonality of intellectual and practical interests that allowed the practical, artisanal knowledge of the workshop to enter the province of princely interest and education. An important cultural consequence of this process was a gradual reevaluation of the status of craft from an index of luxury or status to one of knowledge and learning. Students will be encouraged to explore this culture of the curiosity and wonder through individual presentations and an extended research paper. 3 credits. Satisfies the chronological requirement.