Prudence and Curiosity in the Early Modern Collection

Vera Keller's picture
October 21, 2022
Oregon, United States
Subject Fields: 
Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Early Modern History and Period Studies, European History / Studies, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Intellectual History


Through the lenses of both the histories of art and the histories of science, this symposium explores the political relationship between statecraft and art. 

October 21, 2022, 8:30-5:00 pm

Museum of Natural and Cultural History, 1680 E 15th Ave, Eugene, OR 97401, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR

Co-Sponsors: College of Arts and Sciences, History, History of Art and Architecture, Museum of Natural and Cultural History, Oregon Humanities Center


8:30-9:00: Coffee, Welcome

[Front courtyard of the MNCH]


Andrew Morrall

Hugo Blotius’s Musaeum Generis humani and the Ideal of Universal Rational Knowledge

This paper will examine the ambitions of Hugo Blotius (1533-1608), Dutch humanist and from 1575, Imperial Librarian under Emperor Maximilian II, to establish a museum of universal human knowledge, a Musaeum Generis humani Blotianum, complemented by a library, a Bibliotheca Generis Humani Europaea, of similarly universalizing scope.

Remarkably, Blotius envisioned these institutions as two arms of a research institute that would employ scholars to process a constant influx of information, supplied by a world-wide network of contributors, trained in a method of systematic information gathering. Collectively, the two institutions would contain all known written and material knowledge from every region of the world, so as to build a record of humanity in its entirety. Its explicit aim was to make possible improvements in all crafts, arts and sciences and the rational planning of human life. The institutions were to be located in Frankfurt and Speier, respectively, imperial free cities within the heartland of the empire, so that human knowledge – the basis of European civilization – would be able to advance freely, safeguarded from the threat of Ottoman invasion. Museum and library were to be, as it were, the ultimate locus of prudential wisdom.

The talk will discuss the theoretical foundations of the Musaeumwithin the context of Blotius’s intellectual, ideological and religious orientations, rooted in a tradition of Erasmian humanism. Specifically, it will trace the Museum’s origins to a method he had developed earlier in Basel, in association with his teacher, the humanist Theodor Zwinger, for the practice and theory of purposive travel, of which Zwinger’s influential Methodus apodemica of 1577 was the result. It will consider how this rigorous and unitary investigative method for educational travel, that opened all things knowable to unprejudiced rational scrutiny, lay at the heart of Blotius’s deeply idealistic if ultimately unsuccessful enterprise.

Andrew Morrall is professor of early modern art and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center, New York. He has written widely on the arts of early modern Northern Europe, the Reformation and the arts, early modern collecting, craft and Kunstkammer, intersections of art and science, theories of ornament, and the material culture of the early modern home. He is currently writing a book-length study of South German craftsmen in the era of the Kunstkammer.


Mark Meadow

Showing Off: Hainhofer’s Pommersche Schreibtisch and the Performativity of Techne

In 1617, the Augsburg entrepreneur Philip Hainhofer delivered the upper section of an extraordinarily elaborate cabinet, which he described as a Schreibtisch, to Duke Philip II of Pomerania. The cabinet was filled with hundreds of mathematical and craft tools, medical and musical instruments, tableware, toiletry equipment, games, and other artifacts, fitted into scores of drawers and receptacles. As the elaborate instructions included with the cabinet make clear, accessing these contents required considerable technical prowess: tripping hidden catches and springs to reveal secret compartments, understanding how to extract and then replace the objects so that everything fits back in place. Appreciating and understanding how to use the myriad tools and instruments found in the cabinet drew upon still more levels of technical expertise. In this paper, I consider the prudential utility of such technically challenging display furniture and artifacts within the context of collections and the techne of governance.

Mark A. Meadow is a Professor of Northern Renaissance art and the History and Theory of Museums at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests include the relationship of art and rhetoric, early-modern ritual and spectacle, print culture, social networks, and, most recently, the origins of Kunst– and Wunderkammern. He is the author of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs and the Practice of Rhetoric (2002) and has also produced translations and critical editions of two important sixteenth-century sources: Symon Andriessoon’s 1550 Duytsche Adagia ofte spreeckwoorden (2003) and, with Bruce Robertson, Samuel Quiccheberg’s 1565 Inscriptiones vel tituli Theatri Amplissimi (2013).

10:30-10:45 Coffee Break


Aviva Rothman

Kepler’s Gifts

This paper focuses on Johannes Kepler and the variety of “gifts” that he produced (or hoped to produce) for his patrons.  I will consider four such gifts in particular.  The first is the planned credentzbecher, or decorative goblet, that Kepler designed for Duke Frederick I Württemberg to symbolize his theory of platonic solids.  Next is the short essay on the snowflake that he presented as a New Year’s gift to Wacker von Wackenfels, one of his patrons at court.  The third is the planet Mars itself, which Kepler presented as a “noble captive” to Rudolph II in the dedicatory letter to his New Astronomy.  The last is the Rudolphine Tables: named after one emperor, dedicated to another, with a frontispiece that visually depicts the importance of patronage for the pursuit of astronomy.  Through these four objects, I will explore the linkages between knowledge, patronage, and collection for Kepler and his contemporaries.

Aviva Rothman is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Case Western Reserve University.  She received her PhD in History from Princeton University in 2012. She has served as a Collegiate Assistant Professor and a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts at the University of Chicago, and as a Bradley Fellow at Carthage College.  Her first book, The Pursuit of Harmony: Kepler on Cosmos, Confession, and Community (University of Chicago Press, 2017) focused on German astronomer Johannes Kepler and the connections he saw between the harmony of the heavens and the harmony of church and state. Her second book, The Dawn of Modern Cosmology: Copernicus to Newton, an anthology of newly translated texts on the Copernican Revolution, will be published in 2023 with the Penguin Classics series.

11:30-12:00: General Discussion on Morning Session

12:00-1:30: Break for Lunch

[Front courtyard of the MNCH]


Pamela Smith

Prudence and Curiosity in the Making

An anonymous late sixteenth-century French technical manuscript, Ms. Fr. 640, now held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France contains over 900 entries detailing artisans’ techniques of many kinds. This extraordinary manuscript provides important insights into the material, technical, and intellectual world of late sixteenth-century Europe, and sheds light on how and why nature was investigated, used in art, and collected and appreciated in early modern Europe. Many of the objects which the entries in Ms. Fr. 640 aimed to produce would have been brought together in the sixteenth century in a Kunstkammer—a chamber of art—a locus of prudence and curiosity in early modern Europe. Examining the manuscript’s subject matter, from practical jokes, to imitation gems, to lifelike sculpture, to finely worked jewelry, and much more, gives insight into the relationship and meanings of prudence and curiosity at this time.

Pamela H. Smith is Seth Low professor of history at Columbia University, and founding Director of the Center for Science and Society and of its cluster project The Making and Knowing Project(  Her articles and books examine craft and practice, and its relationship to scientific knowledge. The Body of the Artisan (2004), and her recent From Lived Experience to the Written Word: Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World (Chicago 2022) make a case for treating craft/art as a way of knowing. Her edited volumes, Ways of Making and Knowing (ed. with Amy R. W. Meyers and Harold Cook, pbk 2017) and The Matter ofArt (ed. with Christy Anderson and Anne Dunlop, pbk 2016), treat materiality, making and meaning. An edited volume, Entangled Itineraries: Materials, Practices, and Knowledges across Eurasia (2019), deals with the movement of materials and knowledge across Eurasia before 1800.


Vera Keller

Secrets of Art, Nature, and Empire in early modern European Collections

Paradoxically, collections put secrets on display. A tradition of secrets of art and of nature stretched back over thousands of years, as did a political form of secrets, the arcana imperii, or secrets of empire. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History deployed a cavalcade of natural and craft wonders to illustrate the might and extent of Roman empire. The collection’s function as a form of imperial representation in Europe continued through to the early modern period and its development of overseas global colonialism. However, the relationship between secrets of art, nature, and empire diverged when a newly instrumentalized view of the arcana imperii developed in fifteenth and sixteenth-century Europe. As the modern political and commercial policy-making known as the “reason of state” evolved, collections came to be seen as possessing political purposes beyond symbolic representation. In fact, the political purposes of a collection might be better served if those purposes were kept from view. Collections that appeared to be disinterested and purely in the service of knowledge, such as academic collections, were viewed by canny political theorists as tools for augmenting the state. By the end of the seventeenth century, the ways that academic collections could serve state interests were clear. What was no longer clear was whether serving the state was in the best interests of knowledge.

Vera Keller is Department Head and Professor of History at UO. She is the author of two books, over thirty articles, and of two co-edited volumes, most recently on the history of collecting in learned societies of 17th and 18th-century Europe. She is currently completing a book on the late seventeenth-century museologist, Johann Daniel Major.


Anita Guerrini

Closing Remarks

Anita Guerrini is Horning Professor in the Humanities emerita at Oregon State University and Research Professor in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  She has published widely in the history of the early modern life sciences.

3:30-4:00 Roundtable Q and A with all speakers

4:00-5:00: Public Reception

[Front courtyard of the MNCH]

Contact Info: 

Organizer: Vera Keller (UO)

Contact Email: