The work of the Florentine lapidary workshops - the Opificio delle Pietre Dure - and the collections of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany were unrivalled in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, north of the Alps spectacular collections were also being produced and amassed, most notably the dazzling collections of Emperor Rudolph II at Prague, later mostly removed to Vienna by Rudolph’s successor and brother, Emperor Matthias. In addition, some other courts, which were perhaps not political or military rivals of the Holy Roman Empire, absolutely considered both their collections and court artisans to be of equal importance to those of the Imperial court. Cities such as Dresden and Munich had collections of staggering size and quality and the workshops of Nuremberg and Augsburg were producing pieces prized in Kunstkammers all over Europe.
Koeppe, in the ground-breaking exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe - has also noted there were a handful of other important production centres of rock crystal carving in the Holy Roman Empire, such as Freiburg im Breisgau which, after Milan, was the most important centre for carving rock crystal in Europe. Innsbruck – which ordered large quantities of rock crystal from Freiburg – had documented carvers working for both the Emperor Maximilian I and the Archduke Ferdinand II. Even Salzburg had its own rock crystal cutting factory established by the prince-bishop Guidobaldo, which was intended to compete with the famous stone-cutters of Prague (Koeppe and Giusti, loc. cit.).
The number of carved rock crystal items in the collections of the prince-bishops of Salzburg, in particular, was enormous. Watteck, in her comprehensive article on rock crystal carving in Salzburg, details the huge holdings – 138 pieces of carved rock crystal were listed in the 1805 inventory alone (Watteck, op. cit). The present cup is very closely related to a cup formerly in the Salzburg collections and now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (inv. no. 1521 and Watteck no. 5; see fig. 1). Like the present cup, the Vienna cup is also a large shell basin. However the Vienna cup has several simple flowers carved on the shell while the present cup is unadorned, perhaps left this way to emphasize the high quality and nearly unblemished stone from which it is carved. However, the present cup does have similar, very simple floral carving on the base. Perhaps most strikingly, both the present cup and the Vienna cup share stylistically similar heads, a Siren in the Vienna example and a fantastical creature (sea creature?) in the case of the present lot. A second Salzburg rock crystal cup, also in the form of a shell, and also simply carved and beautifully modelled, but with a carved lion forming the base, is now in the Munich Schatzkammer (no. 370 and Watteck no. 3).