When the Kunstkammer reopens on Friday, Vienna will come face to face with the extraordinary wealth and downright eccentricity of its first family. For 640 years, the Habsburgs, a family of aristocrats originating in modern Switzerland, had run a vast Austrian empire that suddenly fell apart at the end of the First World War, in the pan-European cataclysm known as the Fall of Eagles.
The Kunstkammer (literally "chamber of art" but often taken to mean "room of curiosities") is a collection of unusual artworks acquired by different Habsburg rulers over hundreds of years. Many royal families in Europe put together these collections, but the Habsburgs did it first and did it best. Emperors such as Ferdinand I and Frederick III – and various ambitious archdukes along the way – built up several Kunst and Wunder Kammers: treasuries of beautiful works of art augmented by oddities from the natural world.
It was Rudolf II (1552-1612), Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, who put these various collections together in the first internationally famous Kunstkammer, assembled at Prague Castle. Visiting diplomats and VIPs would be shown the family's collection as a mark of favour, but also as proof of what Habsburg wealth could buy.
In 1891, Emperor Franz Joseph, one of the least intellectually curious monarchs in European history, rationalised the collection by moving the Mexican headdresses to Vienna's Museum of Ethnology and leaving the humorous drinking vessels and portraits of people with horrific disabilities in Ambras Castle near Innsbruck. The remaining 8,000 pieces of art were then moved into the emperor's new Kunsthistorisches Museum, just across the Ringstrasse from Vienna's Neue Burg palace.
I had a sneak preview of the new Kunstkammer last week. The entire collection was crammed in here in 1891, piled up on shelves with only natural light for viewing. It must have looked like a jumble sale, albeit one awash with gold, diamonds and rubies. No wonder that, in 2002, the museum withdrew the collection and embarked on a new way of displaying just a fraction of it.
Eleven years on, just over 2,000 pieces are on offer now in tall, brilliantly lit glass cabinets that throw the rest of the museum into shadow. Pride of place goes to a 17th‑century unguentarium (oil container) carved out of one single, 2,680-carat piece of Colombian emerald, and to a silver automaton clock featuring the goddess Diana riding a centaur, designed to move across a table surface on the hour. There's also a tankard made from the tusk of a narwhal embellished with 16 rubies and 36 diamonds, and a silver writing box with 10 compartments, each decorated with life-size silver insects.
There are quite a few objects made from natural exotica too, such as a goblet fashioned out of an ostrich egg supported by red coral, and a tortoiseshell drinking flask in the shape of a heart that's trimmed in Indian silver. Among the more grotesque objects are Commedia dell'Arte figures in Murano glass standing eight and half inches high, and three painted carvings 10 inches taller depicting a young man, young woman and an ancient hag standing back to back. (What they represent, no one knows.) Far too many landscapes are rendered entirely in precious stones and it seems almost anything can be carved out of ivory, but taste is something of an irrelevance in the Kunstkammer.
Many of these objects were made simply to see if such ideas were possible. One of the best known is a salt cellar by Benvenuto Cellini. This golden cruet set depicts Neptune and an Earth goddess seated naked, a box for pepper near her right hand and a ship containing salt in his. Cellini was told by his original patron that the design was impossible to realise, but in 1543 he found a Habsburg relative willing to put up the necessary gold.
Today, when so much is available on the internet, it is difficult to imagine just how important it was for a ruler to gather every