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The Marvels of the East

Renaissance Curiosity Collections in Portugal


Annemarie Jordan Gschwend published this essay at the start of her career in 1996. This essay was Jordan’s first foray into untangling the archival and documentary discoveries regarding Asian wares, global commodities, lacquer, exotica, luxury goods, Ming porcelain and wild animals collected by the Lisbon royal house and court in the sixteenth century. This essay focused on sixteenth-century Habsburg collections and cabinets of curiosities, known as Kunstkammers. Jordan looked at collections in Portugal and the distribution of these luxury goods to courts in Brussels, Vienna, Innsbruck and Prague through Catherine of Austria.  


Curiosity cabinets – Kunst and Wunderkammern - became widespread north of the Alps, having derived from small chambers in Italy called studioli, sites or nodes for study embedded within palaces and homes where scholarly princes and humanists assembled objects for observation and research. The oddities of nature (naturalia) were juxtaposed with man-made objects (artificialia), and an intellectual quest and a philosophical aspiration for a universal, encyclopedic knowledge of the world drove their investigations. These diverse collections showcased the outer world (the macrocosm) within small, intimate interior spaces viewed as the microcosm. 


Jordan’s ground-breaking research on the collection and collecting practices of Catherine of Austria (1507-1578), Queen and Regent of Portugal, wife of King João III (r. 1521-1557) and youngest sister of the emperor, Charles V (I 500-1558), has advanced our understanding of similar collections of exotica in Renaissance Portugal. As a patron, collector and powerful queen consort, Catherine continues to be Jordan's present and ongoing research.


Catherine was the first systematic and passionate collector of orientalia amongst her Portuguese contemporaries. Her access to the endless supplies of goods in Lisbon imported from Portuguese Asia and the Far East (South China, Macau, Japan and the Ryukyu Islands) satisfied not only her own collecting needs but also those of her Habsburg relatives in Spain, Austria, Southern Germany, and the Netherlands, for whom she regularly acted as an intermediary in the procurement of rarities.


The extant archival material (unpublished inventories, mandates, letters, receipts, and payment accounts) reveal that this Habsburg infanta and queen not only owned the most extensive collection filled with curiosities from Africa, Asia and the New World but also formed the first significant Renaissance Kunstkammer in Iberia before the mid-sixteenth century.


Although Catherine's collection has long been dispersed, hers remains the best-documented royal collection in Renaissance Portugal.

Annemarie Jordan Gschwend 

‘The Marvels of the East : Renaissance Curiosity Collections in Portugal’, A Herança de Rauluchantim/The Heritage of Rauluchantim (Lisbon: Comissão para as Comemorações dos Descobrimentos Portugueses, 1996), pp. 82-127.

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