Friday, 13 June 2014

Cabinets of Curiosities

Mithraeum in a museum... 

In recent days the heat and humidity here have been oppressive.  People keep telling me that this weather is unseasonal, but what other sort of weather is there these days?

On Wednesday evening, it broke into a thunder-and-lightning spectacular accompanied by torrential rain.  As I rode the Stubaitalbahn tram back up from Innsbruck to Mutters, I had a panoramic view of the lightning strikes on the Nordkette mountains, and could see improbably tall curtains of rain moving up the Inn Valley towards us.  It was raining as I headed back to the hotel, but I managed to beat the monsoon-style downpour that followed shortly.

Thunder in mountainous regions has a quality all of its own.  In a more even landscape, each crack and roll of thunder is more or less the same, just closer or further away.  Here, the extremely variable relief plays acoustic tricks with the volume, quality and duration of the sound.  A bright, overhead flash, close enough to make you duck reflexively, might create merely a muffled, hollow sound easily confused with a small pile of logs falling over.  Whereas some strike beyond the mountain horizon that simply lights up the clouds can issue forth from some tortuous, serpentine route with an echoing boom like hell's own armoured division opening a barrage from the next street.

Installation "The Past Trying to Grow older", Michael Fliri, 2014

To avoid the heat, I've been visiting museums and galleries in the afternoons.  An air-conditioned space full of rare, beautiful, or even risibly ugly stuff is a perfect escape -- cheaper and far more rewarding than some tourist-trap bar -- and like most European cities Innsbruck is well-supplied.  You can stash your bag in a locker, make use of well-tended "facilities", and sometimes there's even a free water-cooler.  As well as the Folk Art Museum, I can recommend the Tiroler Landesmuseum (Tyrolean State Museum), especially if you have read the popular book 1913: the Year Before the Storm, by Florian Illies.  Examples of paintings by many of those unfamiliar names can be found and even if -- like me -- you have a constitutional aversion to the silliness and "erotic" heavy-breathing of much of the work of Symbolist and similar painters, it's always good to inform your prejudices. And let's not forget that artists of the calibre of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka were Austrians who, whilst not native to the Tyrol, visited the area for inspiration and relaxation.

Yesterday I visited Schloss Ambras.  Even if you know absolutely nothing and care less about the history of the aristocracy of southern and central Europe, and their tendency to treat large chunks of territory as the ultimate playthings, you may be aware of the Wunderkammer of Archduke Ferdinand II.  I have always liked the idea of a Cabinet of Curiosities, and this is one of the most famous, and the only one still in its original 16th century location.

I have to say I was a little underwhelmed by the 16th century obsession with coral.  Cabinet after cabinet is filled with the ugly plasticky stuff, sometimes carved into religious scenes, sometimes simply polished up a bit and mounted "as is".  Look, it's just like a tree, but orange!  And so is this one!  And this is an orange forest!!  The exotic armour and weapons pall after a bit, too (conservation note:  go easy with the Brillo pads, guys!  It's OK for iron not to be super-shiny...).  But the weird stuff...  Oh, yes.

Top of the list is the objet they put on the tickets:  an amazingly lively and intricately-carved wooden figure of Death (yes, him again...) capering around as an archer.  It's about 10 inches high, and would make the perfect plastic assembly kit.  Goths would buy those by the coffin-load.

Then there is the antlered deer skull around which a tree trunk has miraculously grown (honest, your worship, it was just like that when we found it!).  Not to mention the skull of Gregor Baci, who took a lance through the eye socket and out the back of his head (that's gotta hurt) but lived to tell the tale, with the added bonus of becoming a walking conversation piece, due to the fact that the surgeons decided simply to trim the lance fore and aft, rather than attempt to remove it.  It really is the ultimate piercing -- again, I see a marketing opportunity here.

Plus there's a stuffed crocodile and a couple of stuffed sharks hanging from the ceiling (which in my Big Book of Tropes come under "alchemy", but never mind), and portraits of Vlad Drakul, and various freakishly distinguished people.  Oh, and lots of fascinating stuff.  But, in a way, the most interesting insight into the 16th century mind comes from various fine and undoctored specimens of fossil fish.  Apparently, these weren't regarded as real fish entombed in rock -- despite what you would have thought was the undeniable evidence of their utter verisimilitude -- but as "sports of nature".  Nature, to them, clearly had a keen sense of humour.

Though one does wonder what Hilary Mantell's Thomas Cromwell would have made of some of the more obviously manufactured "sports", had he accompanied the Archduke on one of his shopping sprees.  Perhaps some even more intriguing piercings might have resulted.

Schloss Ambras gardens

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