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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Alchemy of the gift : things and material transformations at the court of Rudolf II Horacek, Ivana


This dissertation examines the material potentialities embodied in Kunstkammer works of art that were exchanged as gifts with the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) and his contemporaries at the end of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Within this context, extraordinary, expertly crafted, and inventive gifts of things—such as paintings on semi-precious stone, commesso di pietre dure landscapes, magical natural objects (such as rhinoceros horns and bezoar stones), and books of instruments—were key players in political and social affairs, between courts and individuals separated by distance, religion, and political divides. Examining the highly discursive nature of particular gifts—mentioned in letters, poems, inventories, and dedicated treatises—this thesis brings forward the interrelated interests that made these artefacts matter to the people who collected them. Addressing the shared pursuits in knowledge-producing practices that centered on accumulating and improving knowledge through direct interaction with and observation of the material world—such as collecting, the study of natural history, astronomy, and alchemy—this dissertation focuses on the materiality of gifts, including their productive fusion of natural phenomena, artistic manipulation, and technology. The practice of alchemy, which sought to purify base matter through a conversion that resulted in a more valuable and more precious material, functions as a conceptual thread that brings forward the transformative nature of the gifts under examination, and also serves to highlight the socio-political agency of the gift and its material properties. Together the chapters probe the materiality of diverse gifts; that is, they examine their matter and why they mattered.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada