Early Science & Alchemy

How Renaissance Princes Pursued Beauty in Science

An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows how power and science were intertwined in early modern Europe.

By Bert Hansen | December 24, 2019
Silver astronomical globe set on a statue of a winged horse

Detail of Gerhard Emmoser’s celestial globe, 1579, part of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Closes March 1, 2020

Knowledge is power, especially if that knowledge is scientific, or so believed many Renaissance princes. They demonstrated their scientific power in a number of ways, be it by directly supervising mining operations or installing public clocks and sundials. Through such acts heads of state won respect from the populace for their expertise as well as their wealth and power. Among their peers rulers enhanced their status by studying astronomy, surveying, and alchemy, and by building collections of scientific instruments that measured or modeled aspects of the physical world.

The most precious, highly decorated objects in a prince’s collection were housed in a Kunstkammer—better known as a cabinet of curiosities in the English-speaking world—a storage room for art and precious artifacts, at once a treasury and an exhibition space. The instruments were used for demonstrations, research, and industrial activity, especially metallurgy and mining of ores, such as silver and copper. Such activities enriched the realm and confirmed the prince’s own intelligence and worth. Even though the emperors, kings, tsars, landgraves, and electors of this era owned castles, crown jewels, and libraries, and had households full of liveried retainers, the ownership and public employment of precision scientific instruments remained central to the self-image of many.

That’s the theme of a remarkable new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe. Displaying more than 150 items the exhibition illustrates the range of precious artifacts that invoked wonder and signified intellectual and social status. Many of the devices show the integration of art and science and reveal that during the Renaissance the distance between the study and the workshop was often short. One exhibit showcases a handsome mechanical lathe to make intricately shaped cylinders of wood or ivory. A lathe like this was used by Augustus, elector of Saxony, to turn ivory pieces into princely gifts. Not to be missed is a magnificent—and strong—14-foot-long bench for drawing metal wires into finer strands by means of dies and cranks. The bench was also used to produce screws and springs. This wooden machine, made for Augustus, is decorated with marquetry depicting courtly scenes of tournaments and hunting, and its iron parts are engraved and gilded. While similar wire-drawing benches are known from engravings, this is the only Renaissance example to survive.

Most princely instruments were beautiful both in design and material. This 1579 silver-and-gold celestial globe, which rotated by means of an internal clockwork mechanism, was made by a clockmaker for Otto Henry, Elector Palatine. The prince directed the clockmaker to collaborate with a mathematician so that the clock’s movements would match actual celestial positions and not be just a generic model like the common armillary spheres. This piece was completed only after Otto Henry’s death and was received by Rudolf II, the Holy Roman emperor, who placed it permanently in the Dresden Kunstkammer. Such elegant showpieces confirmed rulers’ wealth, knowledge, and taste, as well as their engagement with the exact sciences.


Statue of globe on the back of a winged horse

Left: A celestial globe and clockwork gilded in silver and brass, made by Gerhard Emmoser, 1579. Right: A detail of a constellation engraved on the globe.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

As with Otto Henry’s globe this 1591 astronomical calculator made of gilded brass and silver, called an equation clock, didn’t sacrifice accuracy in pursuit of splendor. It was created jointly by a goldsmith and a clockmaker at the request of accomplished astronomer William IV, landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. The moving hands indicate the difference, or equation, between the sun’s true and mean movement—between time on a sundial in which days vary slightly in length and time on a clock, which assumes all days are exactly 24 hours. This tabletop modeling of the heavens, resplendent with precise markings, accurate movements, and precious metals, was one of several celestial models commissioned by William IV as diplomatic gifts to princes of the Holy Roman Empire.


Ornate brass and steel clock-like instrument

An equation clock made by clockmaker Jost Bürgi and goldsmith Hans Jacob Emck, 1591.

Astronomisch-Physikalisches Kabinett, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel

Augustus commissioned this fancy mechanical odometer in the 1580s. Made of brass and steel with gilding, engraving, and etching, it was a worthy investment for a princely Kunstkammer. Augustus owned several of these odometers, which were deemed accurate enough that the elector himself linked an earlier model to a carriage wheel and used it in 1575 to measure the distance by road from his home to the Diet of Regensburg.


Ornate brass instrument

An odometer made by Christopher Trechsler, 1584.

bpk Bildagentur/Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen/Jürgen Karpinski/Art Resource, NY

Mining and metallurgy blossomed in the 16th century. Major silver deposits were discovered near Freiberg in Thuringia, and Europeans brought silver by the ton from the New World. Heads of state took a hands-on approach in the supervision of mining and smelting operations. Many also hired alchemists for the assaying, work that included using high heat to draw metals out of an ore sample and then to separate precious metals from lead. Often called cupellation, these steps were performed in small enclosed ovens, such as this alchemical furnace made of steel, lined with firebrick, and decorated with mythological scenes incised on silver plates. This assay oven was made for Augustus in the 1570s.


Ornate cabinet-like tabletop furnace and an engraving

Left: An alchemical furnace owned by Elector August of Saxony, ca. 1575. Right: An engraving showing such a furnace in action, from Lazarus Ercker’s Beschreibung allerfürnemisten mineralischen Ertzt unnd Bergkwercks Arten (1598).

Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/Hans-Peter Klut; e-rara.ch

Not everything in the Met’s show is so directly utilitarian. As with the original Kunstkammern the exhibition encompasses jewelry, hugely expensive furniture pieces made entirely of silver, and an especially large array of automata, whose hidden internal machinery transformed technical ingenuity into entertainment. The more than 20 automata on display include a chess-playing “Turk” and a doll-like figure that writes cursive script. Especially entrancing is a 16-inch-high figure called the Moving Monk, which probably originated in Spain about 1550. It is made of wood and leather, with iron used for the hidden, interior mechanism driven by a wound-up spring. Once started, he walks and then turns repeatedly to describe a square about two feet on a side, while nodding his head naturalistically and turning it from side to side. He also moves one hand to strike his chest as if saying “mea culpa,” and with the other hand raises a rosary toward his lips while his eyes follow the hand movement. This rare and unusual automaton is borrowed from the Smithsonian, which has posted a short video of his movements. In the Met exhibition the monk’s outer robe has been removed so that visitors can view part of the interior clockwork.


Wooden painted human figure with mechanical workings

Left: Detail of Spanish-made 16th-century automaton called the Moving Monk. Right: A side view reveals the mechanical inner workings.

Archive Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

The naturalistic exteriors of some of the mechanical animals are striking, and none is more marvelous than a tiny june bug, made circa 1600 of gold, iron, brass, and enamel. It is the exhibition’s smallest item and my favorite. The june bug’s shell is realistically colored, and six tiny legs protrude at the bottom, keeping the minuscule, spring-driven motor entirely hidden under the shell. When released to crawl on a tabletop, it mimics a living insect: legs propel it forward, and fluttering wings suggest it’s about to take flight. The bug is about the size of a large gem, and its self-moving nature meant it could compete for noble guests’ attention even when shown aside such a showstopper as the 41-carat “Dresden Green” diamond, the largest flawless green diamond known. This unique gem entered Dresden’s famous Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) collection around 1740. Fortunately, the diamond was already at the Met when thieves broke into the Green Vault a few days before Thanksgiving and stole major pieces of unique 18th-century jewelry.


painted mechanical insect and ornate jewelry made of large diamonds

Left: An automaton in the form of a june bug, ca. 1600. Right: The Green Dresden diamond, the largest of its kind. Its color comes from naturally occurring radiation.

Astronomisch-Physikalisches Kabinett, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel; bpk Bildagentur/Rüstkammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany/Jürgen Karpinski/Art Resource, NY

Nearly 50 museums and private collections loaned these treasures. The result is an unusual show that splendidly showcases the science and technology cultivated at Renaissance courts in northern Europe. Try to see it before it closes on March 1, 2020. And to see a faithful re-creation of a complete Kunstkammer, visit the Chamber of Wonders at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, which has a permanent suite of rooms displaying a few hundred examples of naturalia, artificialia, exotica, and memorabilia.