This is the paper I presented at the Ephemerality and Durability in Early Modern Visual and Material Culture Conference last week:
Don Juan de Espina and his chair. Material culture and ephemerality in a seventeenth-century Spanish collection
The aim of this paper is to discuss issues of materiality and preservation in the context of early modern cultures of collecting by focusing on one of the most enigmatic collectors in early seventeenth-century Spain: don Juan de Espina y Velasco (d. 1642). Praised by Francisco de Quevedo, Vincente Carducho and other contemporaries, Espina’s collection in Madrid was the subject of much speculation and gossip throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and references to its contents –known only to a few– can be found in a wide range of literary media, from poems and plays to art treatises and correspondence exchanges.
According to these accounts, Espina’s possessions included vast numbers of precious objects, from glassworks to natural curiosities, as well as numerous musical instruments, weapons and works of art. His collection also included two manuscripts by Leonardo Da Vinci (the Madrid Codices I-II) and a set of automata of his own construction. Most celebrated among these possessions, though, was Espina’s chair (‘la silla grandiosa’), a sophisticated contraption allegedly equipped to make astronomical observations. Unfortunately, with the exception of the two Leonardo codices, none of these items is known to have survived, so the textual accounts remain the only evidence of their existence. The nature of this evidence is undoubtedly problematic, and the first part of the paper will be devoted to its analysis. What kind of information do these very different accounts provide? What do they reveal in terms of how Espina was perceived as a collector? How much emphasis is put on the material aspects of his possessions?
In the second part of the paper I will address the question of preservation and durability by contrasting the fate of Espina’s chair with that of two sets of items in his collection: the automata and the Leonardo codices. In this regard, I will closely follow Espina’s own reflections on the value of his possessions, recorded in a memorial addressed to King Philip IV in 1632. Additionally, the biographies of these highly distinct early modern artefacts –the codices, the automata and the chair– will be considered in the light of Espina’s concerns regarding their ownership and maintenance, as stipulated in the set of instructions included in his will and in a document found in his clothes after his death.
Finally, I will evaluate to what extent these object-based narratives not only contributed to the portrayal of Juan de Espina as a historical figure, but also to his perpetuation, in so much as his own biography remains intrinsically linked to that of his collection.