This impressive ebony cabinet with an interior inset with rich, jewel-like, pietre dure panels, rock-crystal spiral-turned columns, and embellished with lavish gilt-metal mounts in the Dutch auricular style is a fine example of the luxurious and high-status furniture produced by the virtuoso craftsmen of Augsburg from the 1570s until the mid-17th century. The aesthetically plain exterior of this cabinet belies the wealth of ornamentation in the interior, which in turn conceals a myriad of small drawers and compartments, designed to contain precious items.
The Kunstschrank or ‘cabinet of curiosities’ was an art form in its own right, considered by 16th and 17th century connoisseurs as highly prestigious, and was admired throughout Europe. It had several functions, as an ‘encyclopaedic Gesamtkunstwerk’, embodying humanistic knowledge, the arts, explorers’ discoveries and contemporaneous scientific achievements, a statement piece to display wealth and prestige, and a repository for prized collector’s objet d’art (W. Koeppe, A. Giusti, Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe, New Haven and London, 2008, p. 62). It was the pièce de résistance of state rooms, and ‘closets’, the latter, small private rooms that in their seclusion indicated status, and where the most exquisite and esteemed items from a collection might be held. In Augsburg, the centre of the industry for this type of cabinet, noblemen and wealthy burghers could even buy examples ready-filled with exotic artefacts from the Augsburg connoisseur and art agent, Philip Hainhofer (d. 1647).
The ebony carcase of this cabinet is set with geometric pietre dure panels, striking not only for their polychrome splendour and brilliance but also for their association to remote regions with rich historic and mythological associations.
The triumphant apogee of Augsburg cabinets was the splendid series designed by Hainhofer that include the celebrated Kunstschrank for Duke Philipp von Pommern, sadly destroyed in Berlin during the Second World War; twenty Augsburg craftsmen collaborated on this cabinet between 1610 and 1617. Other cabinets made to Hainhofer’s designs include: the Kunstschrank of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, initially in Hainhofer’s own collection and then procured by the city of Augsburg as a gift to the monarch in 1632, now in the Uppsala University; the Florentiner Kunstschrank, the mounts ascribed to Boas Ulrich (d. 1624), purchased in 1628 by Leopold, Grand Duke of Austria, as a gift for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, now in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence.
Hainhofer’s surviving correspondence and documents show that from as early as 1611, and during his European travels, he was actively commissioning, collecting and admiring pietre dure. His Kunstschrank designs were evidently inspired by an altar piece in the Reiche Kapelle at the Munich Residenz, which he documented as, ‘an altar, filled with drawers, like a writing desk, and in each of them a reliquary sanctorum’ (ibid., p. 61). Hainhofer’s position in Augsburg was not unlike the later 18th century French marchand-mercier. Between 1619 and 1626 his brother, Christian, lived in Florence and purchased pietre dure panels and other carved and uncarved stones for Hainhofer’s firm (ibid., p. 62). These were either sold individually or incorporated into furniture, and at this time, Hainhofer held the monopoly for such artefacts.
The brothers van Vianen, Adam, Paul and Ernszt Jansz., active in the early part of the 17th century, in Salzburg and Prague, were masters of the fully evolved Dutch auricular style as featured on the ornate pierced gilt metal border mounts of this cabinet. Their new method of embossing metals cast the main ornament in high relief against a very low relief ground thereby increasing the plasticity effect of the metalwork; the auricular scroll borders of a silver oval basin, and the pierced border of a pair of wall-sconces by, respectively, Paul and Adam, illustrate the style and their close relation to the gilt-metal mounts on this cabinet (J.F. Hayward, Virtuoso Goldsmiths: and the Triumph of Mannerism 1540-1620, London, 1976, p. 293; pls. 631, 632, 633). Although there is no record of the van Vianen brothers working in Augsburg the Dutch auricular style was influential.
A related cabinet is the magnificent example in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (illustrated), which features floral and scrolling mounts, executed in silver-gilt as well as silver by Boas Ulrich, an Augsburg goldsmith and master craftsman who was producing mounts on an almost industrial scale (M.511 to K-1956). There would have been many gold and silversmiths operating in Augsburg to supply the cabinet makers with mounts. Ulrich’s close contemporary, Matthäus Wallbaum (d. 1632), specialised in the greatest variety of ebony caskets, caskets, monstrances and frames, all abundantly mounted in silver or silver-gilt. However, the diverse mounts of these two leading masters, which embellish caskets, tabernacles and house-altars are so indistinguishable that even when stamped with the respective master’s marks it is very possible they originated from a single workshop (ibid., p. 55).
LOPES DE CASTILHO
The Lopes de Castilho family established itself in the North-eastern Portuguese region of Côa, near Spain, during the 16th century; they were prominent nobles in the locality because they lived in a strategic region close to Spain. In the second half of the 17th century, António Lopes de Castilho achieved the rank of Capitão-Mor (Governor of Arms) of Almendra; this occurred at a crucial moment during the war of Restauração (1640-1668) against Spain. In 1694, his son, António (1656-93), Capitão-Mor of Almendra, formed the Senhorio (hereditary property) of Vermiosa. Bernardo Lopes de Castilho, 2nd Senhor of Vermiosa, was an important local figure as the Pagador Geral (Chief Bursar) of the Army in the Beira region. This was a significant position, especially in the first decade of the 18th century, when Portugal was involved in the Spanish war of succession (1700-1713). During the 18th century, the family consolidated its relevance in the region, and in the Portuguese nobility; the successors of António Lopes de Castilho were also Capitão-Mor of Almendra and Castelo Melhor, and held the honorific and hereditary position of Fidalgo da Casa Real (Nobleman on special service to the Portuguese Royal House). In 1743, another António Lopes de Castilho started the construction of a magnificent Solar (noble house) in Almendra, the head house of this family since then. More than 50 years later, in 1810, the Solar of Almendra was occupied by Napoleon’s army during the third French invasion of Portugal. In 1870, António de Castilho Falcão de Mendonça, member of the Portuguese deputies house, was made Visconde (Viscount) of Almendra by King Luís I. Like his ancestors, the 1st viscount of Almendra was Fidalgo da Casa Real, and owner of important properties in Vermiosa and Almendra. The 1st Visconde de Almendra only had female descendants and, at present, the title is owned by the Portuguese family Morais Sarmento, Viscondes do Banho.