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The Curious History of the Vases of Coburg

Among the list of treasures kept in Florence’s Treasury of the Grand Dukes (once the Museo degli Argenti) in Palazzo Pitti is a famous collection of delicate ivory vases. The most unique of these, both in appearance and in history, are, of course, the vases of Coburg, which arrived in Florence as spoils of war.
This set of vases was housed in Coburg’s Ehrenburg Palace until the city was attacked on 28th September 1632 by the imperial army, during the Thirty Years’ War. Colonel Giovanni Giovacchino Keller of Schaikaine took some of the vases of Coburg for himself, before then giving them over to Prince Mattias de’ Medici, who fought with the imperial troops, to please him. At the height of the war, the vases were sent through the Alps and over to Florence, to Grand Duke Ferdinand II, Mattias’ brother. They arrived on 1st April 1633, and were displayed in the Uffizi Gallery.

There were 32 vases in Ehrenburg Palace; 30 of these were sent to Italy, and 27 of them are still conserved today. The set is matching, created by two German lathe turners who worked in the court of the prince of Coburg. His name was Johann Casimir Duke of Saxony, Jülich, Cleves and Berg. Beneath the base or under the lid of 15 of these vases, the artist’s name and date has been inscribed, or traced in black. In a few cases, they also added a dedication to the name of the Duke of Saxony, or a religious saying or motto. The dates span from 1618 to 1631, and are signed by Marcus Heiden and Johann Eisenberg. In two cases, the Duke himself even claimed to be the creator.

In one of them, dating back to 1628, formed by two cylinders in triangular sections with a hemisphere on each side by Johann Eisenberg, an inscription is inside the cover, in concentric circles: "V G G [von Gottes Gnade] JOHANN CASIMIR HERZOG ZU SACHSEN GULIG CLEVE UND BERG". Another one is on the inner ring:"GOTT ALLEIN DIE EHERE [to God goes all the merit]". Then written on the inside of the stem in two concentric circles are these words: "JOHANN EISENBERG GOTHANUS FECIT 1628; GOTT ALLENDIE EHRE". Underneath the base, again in two concentric circles: "DIE KUNSTE GEHEN ITZT NACH BROT VON HAUS ZU HAUS ERBARMS GOTT BROT WIRT WIEDER NACH KUNST STREBEN ABER ICH WERD ES NICHT ERLEBEN [Now art goes from house to house in search of bread, God protect us, later bread will aspire to art but I will not see it]."

 


The artists behind the vases of Coburg

 

Marcus Heiden of Coburg was the Duke’s lathe turner and ‘master of fireworks and rifles’; Johann Eisenberg, from Gotha, was his student.
Little would be known about these artists if Heiden himself had not written a short but detailed book in 1640 -Beschreibung Eines Von Helfenbein Gedrehten Kunststicks-, which is now kept in Coburg’s national library. The aim of the book, which is dedicated to Wilhelm of Saxony, was to describe Heiden’s ‘vase created with engraved detailing and piercings’, along with an explanation of its ‘spiritual content’. This vase in particular is kept in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Wien. After the raid on Ehrenburg Palace, no more ivory vases were made in Corburg. So Heiden decided to create a vase that would serve as an example.

 

Explaining the intricacies of Heiden’s vases

 

In the book, he describes the vase in intricate detail, interpreted as the strenght of the church and of Christian faith. The descriptions are accompanied by quotations from the Bible, and verses written in German by Heiden himself. From the way the book is written, he seems well-educated and deeply religious (he was, of course, Lutheran). As we’ve already mentioned, he was a poet and a stoker; other lathe turners were often watchmakers, or made musical instruments, rifles, or machines for theatres. Heiden, as an artistic lathe turner, was versatile, and received a lot of praise within his court.
His work was based upon the application of mathematical rules and a passion for lathe turning, demonstrated by a mixture of three particular interests during that time: mechanics, geometry, and natural sciences. The Coburg ivories with stars and other polyhedra nested within each other is of a particular interest to us here. Placing one of these vases within the other almost resembles the Kepler planetary system, or his Mysterium Cosmograficum from 1595, with which he believed he could understand the secrets of Creation.
During the 1700s, lathe turning became a subject of study at the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris. Manuals were published which, unlike Heiden’s book, explained also the methods and techniques behind it. The artefacts from this era are quite complex, but lack the vigorous imagination which characterises Heiden and Eisenberg’s vases.

To discover more about the stunning, delicate vases of Coburg, book a tour with me, your Expert Florence Guide! Contact me today for details.

Sabato 18 settembre 2021