Although rarely studied by art historians today, automata, or self-propelled mimetic objects, were among the most important art forms of the sixteenth century; created by artisans and commissioned and collected by the most prominent patrons in early modern Europe. The majority of these objects were collected by German princes who ruled the Holy Roman Empire. Courts in the Holy Roman Empire were major centers of artistic patronage, particularly associated by their contemporaries with expansive Kunstkammern, or cabinets of curiosity, and the successful integration of art within the political sphere. Early modern automata are today accessible to us through extant objects, verbal descriptions, and payment records. In the course of four chapter-long case studies this dissertation analyzes in detail five automata: The London Nef (a ship) (ca. 1586, The British Museum, London) and The Écouen Nef (also a ship) (ca. 1587, Musée de la Renaissance, Écouen); The Christmas Crib Automaton (ca. 1588, Mathematische and Physicalische Salon, Dresden); The Verkehrte Welt Automaton (whose theme is the world upside-down) (ca. 1560, Residenz Schatzkammer, Munich); and The Sultan on Horseback (ca. 1580, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna). These objects and the circumstances of their collection, circulation, and display are used to uncover anxieties about the shifting global, social, and religious landscape in the early modern period.
Based on this evidence, a new picture emerges of Renaissance artistic culture. This dissertation makes clear that attention to political, familial, diplomatic, and religious discord was central to fostering artistic and technological developments in the period and that automata were integral to political theater and self-display. Moreover, the collection and circulation of automata challenges modern assumptions about the nature of early modern mimesis, cross-cultural exchange, communication, gift economies, and political ritual as well as the place of time-based and performance media in the history of art.
Chapter one considers the London and Écouen Nefs and argues that Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II commissioned them to link his reign with his grandfather's, Charles V. Chapter two examines The Christmas Crib Automaton, and demonstrates that the object’s temporal and ocular dynamic helped mediate a tense marriage between a crypto-Calvinist Elector and his dogmatically Lutheran wife. Chapter three focuses on The Verkehrte Welt Automaton and makes clear that it was displayed at the counterreformation court in Munich to mock the Protestant belief that meaningful communication could occur between a Protestant minister and his congregation. Chapter four considers The Sultan on Horseback and several other automata that formed part of tribute payments from Holy Roman Emperors to Ottoman rulers. This chapter argues that these objects were not merely luxury goods that helped maintain the status quo, but agentive objects that redefined the diplomatic encounter between the Ottoman and Holy Roman Empires.