15 October 2012

Objects of Vertu, No. 1: Universe in a Box

Astronomical Compendium by Christopher Schissler, 1561
from the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Leather case dimensions: approx. 9cm diameter, 2.4 cm tall
Today we begin a series on objects of vertu, the very finest pieces in decorative arts history. The object of our affection today is a fantastic Astronomical Compendium made by Christopher Schissler in 1561, signed on the outside wall:  'CHRISTOPHORVS SCHISSLER FACIEBAT AVGVSTA VINDELICORVM ANNO DOMINI 1561' (Christopher Schissler made this in Augsburg in the year 1561). This compendium is part of the permanent collection (medieval and renaissance) of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Schissler was born in 1531 and set up his own workshops in Augsburg in the 1550s.

According to the V&A: "This compendium was made by one of the most celebrated scientific instrument makers of the 16th century. Christopher Schissler's workshop was famous in his own time. He supplied precision instruments of exquisite quality including globes, astrolabes, sundials, armillary spheres, astronomical compendia and surveying and drawing equipment. Schissler's clientele was international. Many of his dials are laid out for English or Italian latitudes. In 1571 Schissler travelled to the Dresden court of August I, the Elector of Saxony, in order to set up and demonstrate his instruments. He also visited in 1583 the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague who was well-known for his fascination with clocks. Instrument makers had to be excellent mathematicians, artists, engravers and metalworkers."

A view of the compendium with one of the leaves open

From the V&A Collections Catalog:
"Pocket-size astronomical compendia were produced in Augsburg and Nuremberg, southern Germany, from the early 16th century by specialist instrument makers. This one contains the universe in a box! Provided its owner had a basic understanding of mathematics, astronomy, astrology and geography, he or she could use the various dials, tables and maps to plan journeys, predict the time of sunset in many towns in Europe (very useful when travelling), make astrological predictions, measure the heights of stars and configure the positioning of the stars for any time in the past or future.

Instruments were also made as treasury items. By the 1560s, it was fashionable for wealthy gentlemen to have a sound understanding of all branches of learning, from arts and literature to mathematics and the natural sciences. This compendium was not simply a functional timepiece but also a work of art, bought for its craftsmanship and ingenuity. Astronomical compendia were housed alongside automatons, clocks and astrolabes in Scientifica, collections celebrating human ability to control nature. They were designed to impress as well as educate."

A view of the closed compendium

Again, from the V&A's detailed descriptions, we can see just what went into this masterpiece of metalwork and engineering. (At the risk of providing too much information, I include the following to illustrate Schissler's enormous astronomical and mathematical knowledge and skill as a craftsman--all packed tightly into this beautiful piece...)
"It has hinged leaves at top and bottom creating 6 surfaces for dials and maps:
Top leaf:
(a) Quadrant for measuring angles and heights with alidade, or revolving index carrying the sights and showing the degrees cut off on the arc of the instrument. The quadrant is surrounded by engraved moresques filled with a black lac.
(b) Map covering much of modern Germany extending west as far as Brussels in Belgium, North to Lubeck, south to Lucerne in Switzerland and east to Krakow in Poland. The place names are orientated so that south is at the top of the map.
Body section:
(a) Sundial for five latitudes with compass in the centre.
(b) Table of latitudes for various places shown on the map and spring drum to hold gnomon taut.
Bottom leaf:
(a) Conversion table for 'equal' and planetary hours.
(b) Various chronomatic tables including one giving phases of the moon according to age.
[Case] Circular red leather case with stamped and gilt decoration of symmetrical flowers and stems. Inside the case are 2 compartments for the weather vane and the tripod plummet stand. On the side is a hinge for lid (the lid has become separated).
[Lid] Circular red leather lid with stamped and gilt decoration of symmetrical flowers and stems. On the side is a loop for the clip on the base (the base has become separated).
[Plummet Stand for Compendium] Tripod plummet stand for astronomical compendium, copper-gilt, engraved with moresques and hinged at top and bottom.
[Weather Vane for Compendium] Weather vane for astronomical compendium, copper-gilt, cast with baluster stem and swivelling top"

A view of the closed compendium and box

Objects of vertu are among the greatest achievements in the decorative arts. Sadly, the they are in our past--time means something different now, and the time necessary to devote one's life to acquiring the skills and patience to create these masterpieces is gone. They belong to a time when human labor and the human experience of time was different to our own. We are now devoted to mastery of a different sort, but whether one could characterize this shift as an evolutionary one remains to be seen: I adore the "Sky View" app on my iPhone, but I am convinced that the lucky owner of this astronomical compendium had a much deeper understanding of the workings of the night sky than I could ever hope to glean from my modern tool.
I find this type of object so appealing not only because of its physical virtuosity, but for its connection to extraordinary people who endeavored to continually educate themselves, to understand their place in the world and, indeed, the universe. With all of the extraordinary gadgets contained within this piece, the most miraculous is the romantic humming memory of happy hours spent by its maker on the one hand, its owner on the other, each one deeply engaged with the movements of the earth, the moon and the stars in the sky. With ancestors such as these, perhaps there's hope for us yet.



  1. Beautiful instruments like this were very much a product of their place and time. I imagine that when this was made, many regarded astronomy as an eminently practical science, especially when it concerned geography and navigation. I wonder whether miniature instruments of this detail and quality were meant more for show or presentation gifts than for actual use.
    --Road to Parnassus

    1. Hello Parnassus,
      Thank you for your message-- I'm sure you're right that in some cases these pieces went unused. But, as they were extremely expensive to buy, I have a suspicion that more often than not, the gentleman scientist/philospher would have taken as much pride in his ability to use such an exquisite tool as in the tool itself. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!
      Best regards,

  2. Sometimes I have seen these astronomical compendia on the UKs Antique Roadshow. I have always admired their complexity and their finely engraved gilt brass. Invariably their present day owners do not have a clue as to how they work, so the experts usually delight in showing them how these ingenious constructions operate.
    That such sophisticated astronomical instruments were used more than 450 years ago is startling.

    1. Hello Rosemary,
      Thank you for your message. I have to admit an addiction to the Antiques Roadshow-- the original UK version, of course!!! We often have it on in the bindery and become hopelessly distracted...My favorites: Henry Sandon, David Battie and Rupert Maas... Back to the subject at hand: like you, I'm fascinated both by the intricate workmanship that goes into these instruments and the culture surrounding them. A startling achievement, indeed!
      Best regards,

  3. Such handsome and exquisite craftsmanship. I've seen, perhaps only once, an antique compendium at an antiques fair. It might have been at Olympia (or NEC Birmingham, England) many years ago. But I don't remember it to be of this quality. A most fascinating post.

    1. Hello Loi,
      Thanks for your message-- I'm glad you enjoyed this post! I've never seen a compendium as great as this at an antiques show either. I originally became interested in scientific instruments at the Palm Beach Antiques Show, where I was introduced to exquisite pocket terrestrial and celestial globes. Just this summer in Paris I visited a shop that specializes in instruments similar to these as well-- what an interesting collection of objects!
      Best regards,

  4. Hi, Erika,

    This beautiful instrument calls to mind several portraits by Hans Holbein, and that the brilliant people who made and used such instruments were valued advisors to the courts of Europe.

    The part of your posting that most resonates with me is "They belong to a time when human labor and the human experience of time was different to our own." I find great irony in the fact that technological advances speed up our lives, while ideally they should afford us the time to slow down our pleasures, that we might savor them more fully.

  5. Hi Mark, thank you for your message. It's so interesting that your mention Holbein. He's been on my mind lately--especially in writing that post-- and is a great favorite subject of mine. What an interesting time that must have been...

    On the subject of time and technology, I agree with you completely. I think for a large number of people, it's true that the very tool that is capable of freeing us to do the important things has become its own end. It's also very sad that people have less and less patience to acquire real mastery in any physical skill anymore. Perhaps this will change once the magic of "the virtual" wears off...
    Best regards,