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.
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.) Many of these objects were made simply to see if such ideas were possible.
The Habsburg collections
One of the best known is a salt cellar by Benvenuto Cellini. 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 kind of object under his roof. Cabinets of curiosities were not just for prestige, they were for knowledge, the kind of knowledge from which power derives. According to Sabine Haag, director of the Kunstkammer collection, Rudolf II instructed his agents across Europe, Asia and the Americas to bring him objects of unrivalled quality, exclusivity and rarity.
In the days before we understood the concept of curating a collection, the Habsburgs collected with zeal, building a baggy but comprehensive picture of the world at its most extreme — both beautiful and ugly. The Habsburgs themselves are commemorated in many kinds of portrait. Charles V is depicted armless, just a bronze head stuck in a suit of armour, as was the 16th-century fashion. Joseph I is represented by a marble Action Man on a horse, crushing a vanquished Fury beneath its hooves. Ferdinand III is a life-size painted waxwork.
An hour and a half in the 20 refurbished rooms proved overwhelming. I found myself awestruck by the craftsmanship, amazed by the sheer wealth of Habsburg patronage and yet also reduced to hilarity at times. Why lavish an enamelled gold stand, lid and intricate clasp on a bezoar stone from the intestines of a cow? Why patronise the unknown artist who? Because we can afford anything; that seems to be what the Habsburgs are telling us.
As I step outside the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the same level of opulence and eccentricity seems to envelop the rest of the historic city centre.
Vienna is a paradox, a capital city built to run an empire that stretched from Belgium and the eastern territories of France, through Holland and modern Germany as far as Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy, but that now runs a country smaller than Iceland or Serbia. Artists of all kinds flocked here for centuries. So much energy and ambition was bottled up within the city walls that no wonder Vienna turned into its own Kunstkammer. (Adrian Mourby/The Independent)