Object Bodies, Metal Mounts and the Skins of Things: an abstract by Dr Anna Grasskamp

by The Frame Blog


Nikolaus Schmidt (d.1609), ornamental basin with ewer, c. 1592, Kunstkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Considering the figurative elements that appear in the margins of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Kunstkammer collectibles, this essay discusses the relationship between natural collectible and metal mount, object and frame, ergon and parergon.

In particular, in the example of shell collectibles labelled as ‘Indian’ (Indianische), it is evident that fish-tailed and other other-worldly creatures play an important role in the three-dimensional European frames of gilded silver applied additionally to the shells. While often referred to as meaningless and marginal grotesque decorations, such figurative elements have previously not been interpreted in terms of their wider implications. Taking works by Wenzel Jamnitzer (1507/8-1585) and his pupils – for example Nikolaus Schmidt (1550/55-1609) – as points of departure, this paper argues that the combination of ‘wild’, fish-tailed or other ‘foreign’ women in such mounts, and the fact that shells were perceived as shaped in the forms of primary and secondary female sexual characteristics, are meaningful in relation to the later development of the Auricular style.

Not only did classic and early modern texts abound in equivalences between the skins of other-worldly females with (oceanic) materials out of which luxury collectibles were made, but some goldsmiths’ works also conspicuously engage with ideas on maritime goods as female body parts, polished surfaces as smooth skins, the collecting ‘male’ mind and subject, and the collected ‘female’ and woman-like object. Addressing also the roles of mascarons, commonly labeled as ‘male’ or ‘monstrous’, this paper suggests that Kunstkammer collectibles in which metal mounts ‘frame’ shells, precede and in some regards inform the Auricular style through differently-articulated but comparably strong engagements with objects as body parts and surfaces as skins.


Anna Grasskamp received her Ph.D. from Leiden University with a dissertation on display practices in early modern China and Europe. Since 2013 she has been a post-doctoral fellow at Cluster of Excellence Asia and Europe in a Global Context at Heidelberg University. In 2015, Anna was the visiting post-doctoral research fellow at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Her publications include ‘EurAsian Layers: Netherlandish Surfaces and Early Modern Chinese Artefacts’, Rijksmuseum Bulletin 2015; ‘Asia in Your Window Frame: Museum Displays, Window Curators and Dutch-Asian Material Culture’, World Art 2015; and ‘Frames of Appropriation: Foreign Artifacts on Display in Early Modern Europe and China’, in Qing Encounters: Artistic Exchanges between China and the West, Getty Publications, 2015.

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