Wenzel Jamnitzer (attributed)
South Germany, Nuremberg
16th century, ca. 1550-1585
Silver, silver filigree and gilded silver
13.5 x 10.5 cm (without flowers); 23.5 x 23 x 23 cm (with flowers)

The present flower vase, the subject of this small book, baluster-shaped and featuring "S"-shaped handles, made silver filigree, is set on a silver fire gilded splayed round foot and decorated with a chased Mannerist-style laurel wreath. Possibly of later manufacture, the filigree vase follows a highly unusual, turned-like shape which perfectly matches the flower vase depicted in the engraving by Johann Theodor de Bry from ca. 1576-1625. An inscription on the brevity of life runs around the base and reads: “ΠΟΛÝΠΤΩΤΟΝ DE FLORE. FLOS speculum vitae modo vernat et interit aura”. Probably south German in execution, the fine filigree vase shares common features with examples such as an altar vase with handles, somewhat more Baroque in style, by Johann III Beckert from ca. 1689 in the Munich Residenz collection. At first sight, one could easily assume that the attractively arranged flowers that so beautifully fill the vase are simply old and wrinkled dried flowers of little importance. Yet, on closer inspection they reveal their true artificial nature (“naturalia artificialia”). They are in fact made from solid silver and cast from life, almost certainly by a highly skilled sixteenth-century goldsmith, and stand as a rare surviving example from a princely collection of natural and artificial wonders or Kunstkammer, and which lay dormant and unknown until now.

The level of detail is astonishing, and it is hardly believable how the master goldsmith was able to cast in such fine detail the most minute features of these natural flowers. The fully intended deception of the senses, alongside the feeling of awe, is in fact one of the reasons behind the creation of such wondrously realistic depictions of nature during the Renaissance, which served as true "epistemic" objects. Other reasons included the proud display of the goldsmith`s own powers of creation, his ability to imitate nature, not only while producing an accurate depiction of nature, but also while being able to completely master the secret processes of smelting and metallurgy (and of alchemy) necessary to recreate nature and fully understand the generative processes by which nature itself creates. In fact, and citing Pamela Smith – an authority on Renaissance life casting techniques and its artistic theory: “Playing with the divide between nature and art became a favourite conceit of artisans in the sixteenth century, who claimed by their ars both to imitate and even rise above the artifice of nature”.

Only possible through years of practice, of continuous trial and error, experimentation with different casting materials, techniques and trade secrets, the casting from life quality of the present flower bouquet is indicative of a highly talented and fully experienced goldsmith. From the few comparable surviving pieces, as we shall see, only the name of the Nuremberg goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer (ca. 1507-1508 – 19th December 1585) comes forward as the probable creator of these delicate, almost whimsical life-cast silver flowers.

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