Sunday, March 3, 2013

Object of the Day, Museum Edition: A Mechanical Turtle, 1600-1650

The Victoria & Albert Museum

What better way to start a Sunday than with a mechanical turtle?  

This little German curiosity was probably created to be displayed with other examples of scientific and artistic skill in a Kunstkammer--a room (or series of rooms) in a large private German or Austrian house or palace which was especially reserved for the private exhibition of rare, valuable and intriguing objects and artifacts. 
Among the most popular items displayed in a kunstkammer were, generally, beautifully made automata in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  The more unusual, the better.  Take this turtle for example.  Here, the animal’s head pokes out from under its shell as the object is rolled. The “merman” (not, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” but a male mermaid)  atop the shell is designed to raise its arms and bring its trident down on the head of the moving tortoise—as one does when riding a turtle.  

Even more curiously, this is made from a real tortoise shell which has been fitted with a brass head and feet--the mechanism hidden inside the shell.  

Made between 1600 and 1650, the tortoise was given to the Victoria & Albert Museum by Colonel Sir Charles Wyndham Murray (1844-1928),a renowned British army officer and politician.  Aside from that, nothing is known of the early history of this object. 
The triton figure is thought to be the result of a later alteration to the piece, replacing what was probably a simple clock.  This has been deduced based on the rather crude modeling of the figure and the disproportionate size compared to the turtle.  

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