Diaries, Maps, & Wars

What do “Wunderkammer,” “Klencke,” John Evelyn, and the English Civil War all have in common? One of the largest atlases in the world!

klencke atlas

One of the largest, printed books, at nearly six feet high, the British Library’s Klencke Atlas is a fascinating object that reveals much about the political and cultural world of 1660. The book was a donation from Dutch merchants, Johan Klencke and others, who were trying to gain favor upon the restoration of Charles II to the British throne. As the newly restored monarch after the English Civil War, Dutch merchants sought to foster better relations between their own and competing British interests in the New World. The two rivals were vying for mercantilist control. Under Cromwell, the two had nearly come to arms over British protectionism in the colonies. With the Restoration, they then sought to alleviate some of the previous tension and develop a better relationship to reinstate their own economic interest in the colonies. The political fallout nevertheless was unsuccessful. For within a few years, British and Dutch forces clashed over control of the New World; and, by 1674, with the Treaty of Westminster the British had complete control over the now New York. (Department of Special Collections, Notre Dame, http://www.coins.nd.edu/ColCoin/ColCoinIntros/Netherlands.html)

In addition to being an unique object of political exchange, the Klencke atlas further illustrates the cultural and social life of early modern Europe due to its role in Charles II’s court. As an oddity, the Klencke atlas was added to Charles II’s Wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Curiosities. The Cabinet of Curiosities, sometimes called the Wunderkammer or Kunstkammer, was a late Renaissance phenomenon at organization and collection for upper-class people, especially princes, that continued throughout the early modern period. Scholars frequently describe them as haphazard almost random collections of anything “strange” or “peculiar” from magic stones, unicorn horns, to famous art paintings (Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, “Remarks on the Collections of Rudolf II: The Kunstkammer as a Form of Representatio,” Art Journal, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 22-28). The most famous collections were under the Hapsburgs (Katharina Pilaski Kaliardos, The Munich Kunstkammer). Among the Hapsburg collections, Rudolf II amassed one of the most illustrious. Plundered by the Swedes in 1648, the list contained such diverse items as 470 paintings, 50 objects of amber and coral, 403 “Indian curiosa,” and numerous other items (Julia Teresa Friehs, “The Kunst- und Wunderkammer of Rudolf II,” http://www.habsburger.net/en/chapter/kunst-und-wunderkammer-emperor-rudolf-ii). These private collections thus served as symbols of princely power and dominance, but also spectacle.

Within this context of the early modern Kunstkammer, Charles II added the Dutch book to his private collection. Fortunate for us, we have evidence of how this book was displayed in the collection through John Evelyn’s diary. Who was this man? John Evelyn was a born in 1620 to a wealthy land-owning family. By his early 20s, he became witness to the English Civil War and eventually left England for France. While in France, he devoted himself to study, got married, and become involved in the exiled court life in Paris. Because of his involvement in that social circle, John Evelyn received numerous favors upon the restoration of the monarchy. For example, he became one of the founding members of the Royal Society in London. He also exercised great influence in politics and the church. (British Library, “Who Was John Evelyn?” http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/evelynnotes.html) According to his journal on Nov 1st, 1660, John Evelyn was received at court and brought his family and relatives in order to see Charles II’s collection.

I went with some of my relations to Court, to show them his Majesty’s cabinet and closet of rarities; the rare miniatures of Peter Oliver, after Raphael, Titian, and other masters, which I infinitely esteem; also, that large piece of the Duchess of Lennox, done in enamel, by Petitot, and a vast number of agates, onyxes, and intaglios, especially a medallion of Cæsar, as broad as my hand; likewise, rare cabinets of pietra-commessa, a landscape of needlework, formerly presented by the Dutch to King Charles I. Here I saw a vast book of maps, in a volume near four yards large; a curious ship model; and, among the clocks, one that showed the rising and setting of the sun in the zodiac; the sun represented by a face and rays of gold, upon an azure sky, observing the diurnal and annual motion, rising and setting behind a landscape of hills,—the work of our famous Fromantil,—and several other rarities.

For more information, be sure to check out this brilliant video on the display of the book from a couple years ago:

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