Augsburg Featherworkers in the Past and Present: A Historian’s Visit to the Augsburger Puppenkiste

I Early Modern Cultures of Making

In early modern Augsburg, a cultural and commercial hub of Southern Germany, feathers held a prominent place in the city’s symbolic universe. Archaeological, visual and textual evidence shows that façade paintings of non-European birds, for instance, must have been seen by citizens who themselves had made feathers an integral part of their clothing. In occasion of the wedding of Anton Fugger and Barbara Montfort in 1591, Abraham Schelhas painted a Geschlechtertanz that shows the emotional significance of feathers for such celebrations: feathers were prominent items that the guests, whose honour this painting praises and commemorates, wore in their hair or on their caps (fig. 1). Unsurprisingly, the Fuggers also kept plenty of feathers and feathered items in their households. The ways in which they were meticulously listed in inventories reveals the high appreciation in which such objects were held. Historian Mark Häberlein described the Fuggers’ wedding festivities as “a climax of urban festive culture”, in whose visual imagery and material universe, feathers were of obvious integral significance.

Fig. 1: Abraham Schelhas, Geschlechtertanz on the occasion of the wedding of Anton Fugger and Barbara Montfort, 1591, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abraham_Schelhas_Geschlechtertanz.jpg.

At this time, feathers were highly valued textile accessories that people bought from featherworkers, beret makers, tailors and embroiderers, all artisans who specialised in using and trading such items. When the Augsburg merchant and arts agent Philipp Hainhofer went to buy caps and actual feathers, he even described them as galanterien. The prominence of feathers in early modern Augsburg made me wonder what it actually meant for local artisans to work with this material. “This was a society,” Ulinka Rublack emphasised recently, “intimately involved with how things were made and what they were made from. There was tremendous innovation in techniques, materials, and aesthetic appreciation.” Given the sourcing, production, and crafting methods of these objects, I was curious about the significance of feathers and feathered items in early modern Augsburg’s cultures of making. What kind of techniques and skills – in terms of seeing, feeling, experiencing, and working – did a featherworker have to learn, cultivate, and improve upon when performing his craft? What were the activities that made a featherworker a valuable craftsman? What characterised the cultures of making that made early modern materialized identities a material reality?

Even though he is not explicitly referring to feathers, the words of a late sixteenth-century Augsburg beret maker and silk embroiderer may reveal the level of complexity involved when working with different materials and techniques. Writing in 1585, he considered his craft (hanndt Arbaith) a “liberal art” (freÿe khunst) of “stitching, knitting, looping, and hosiery knitting” for producing “braids, fringes, buttons, or loops”. The elaborate language obviously hints to a highly differentiated craft expertise about techniques that had to be mastered for the production of decorative elements which often served to fix feathers to berets. The skills and handwork of artisans not only defined the quality of the final product, they also affected the emotional qualities that feathers displayed. The techniques employed by early modern craftsmen, for instance, shaped the motility of feathers after they had been attached to berets. In addition, the craftsman’s approach to subtlety could affect whether feathers were actually able to display the material’s properties such as translucency or softness in such a way that it evoked emotional responses. How did an early modern artisan’s feathers matter for the period’s symbolic universe? How did he train and perform the “stitching, knitting, looping and hosiery knitting” that were integral for crafting featherwork?

II Making Featherwork in the Augsburger Puppenkiste

As a historian, I was trained to think about the past either whilst reading texts in archives and libraries or whilst studying images in museums. This time, however, I only recognised the sensorial and affective experience as well as the highly complex nature of feather-related craft expertise when going to the Augsburger Puppenkiste. Founded in 1948, the marionette theatre is known in Germany and abroad for its ingenious performances that defined the childhoods of many generations. Still today, it is a vibrant place of art production: local citizens and tourists flock to the Puppenkiste and, the theatre welcomes more than 90,000 visitors and performs circa 420 plays throughout the year. Just at the right moment during my research on featherworkers in early modern Augsburg, I was very warmly welcomed by the Puppenkiste. Florian Moch, a member of the ensemble, who has been making marionettes since his childhood. Moch has extensive experience in the world of puppetry: he directed the marionette theatre play The Wizard of Oz, produced marionette horror films, and also contributed to a recent music clip of the German punk rock songwriter and singer Bela B. Moch’s varied theatre expertise made him the best possible person to talk about the usage of feathers in the Augsburger Puppenkiste – a theatre, in which actual featherwork, an allegedly lost craft, is still practiced today.

Feathers, Moch states, are a prominent element in the work of the Augsburger Puppenkiste, especially for puppets meant to imitate fowl. Moch takes the recently finished marionette of a cock, which will be on stage in the new production of The Town Musicians of Bremen from autumn 2017 onwards, and points to the fine details of its ingenious construction (fig. 2). The various body parts of the puppet are made from limewood and connected with laces, hinges, and eyebolts. Oil paint is used to create the visible elements of the corpus, such as the beak and/or claws. The rest of the body is covered with fabrics which also mask the elements that connect the various parts of the body. Finally, the fabric serves as a basis upon which the feathers are attached. Moch explains that feathers first get cut, in order to bring their visual appearance into the right balance with the puppet’s actual size. Later, the feathers are glued, stitched or nailed to the surface of the marionette. The aforementioned cock from The Town Musicians of Bremen, for instance, is actually made with different species of avian feathers. Besides actual rooster tail feathers, the combination also includes dyed marabou and ostrich feathers, used for their fluffy appearance and different degrees of motility.

Fig. 2: A cock puppet made by Florian Moch, which will be on stage in the new production of The Town Musicians of Bremen, autumn 2017. © Florian Moch.

Fig. 3: The variety of feathers that the ensemble of the Augsburger Puppenkiste uses for performances. © Florian Moch.

Fig. 4: Dyed and cut feathers, detail. © Stefan Hanß.

“Feathers, however, are not only used for the imitation of a real bird,” Moch explains, “but are also a material which evokes the impression of liveliness. By moving the marionette, the lively appearance of the material grants the entire puppet a lifelike appearance. When the strings make a puppet bird fly or walk on stage, the plumes nod in the rhythm of the movement.” (see, for instance, the movements of the cock puppet in the music clip of Bela B, 1:30-1:36.) As such, featherwork is an artistic product that fulfills communicative functions on stage by establishing a dialogue between stage and audience. Listening to these explanations and seeing the variety of feathers in storage in the Augsburger Puppenkiste (fig. 3), I became aware of the surprising parallels with the early modern materials that I studied. Just like Augsburg craftsmen some centuries earlier, members of the Augsburger Puppenkiste use feathers to stir an audience’s imaginative creativity. However, specific knowledge about the material properties of feathers, as well as certain craft skills such as dyeing, cutting, glueing and stitching are needed in order to make feathers convey such messages (fig. 4) – in the past and in the present, featherworkers actively engage(d) with the material properties of feathers. In order to achieve the desired effects, it undoubtedly required intense training.

Fig. 5: The chief of the robber band in The Town Musicians of Bremen wears a plume hat. © Florian Moch.

Fig. 6: Mermaids in the TV production Was kommt vor im Ofenrohr, wearing feather boas (costume design: Christiana Seyfang, marionettes: Hannelore Marschall-Oehmichen, 1990). © Florian Moch.

Fig. 7: Feathers evoking the underwater movements of jellyfish on stage. © Florian Moch.

Puppetry, Moch states, lives from abstraction and imagination, wherefore it is necessary to prompt and imagine an audience’s creative and emotional responses to materials. Therefore, Augsburg’s ‘modern featherworkers’ built on existing symbolic messages established centuries earlier. For example, feathered caps could convey a character’s social status, as seen in the chief of a brigand band (fig. 5). The vibrancy of feathers, however, is also used for the sake of representing underwater sceneries. When the strings make mermaids move, for example, their feather boas create the impression of underwater weightlessness. In a similar way, ostrich feathers are attached to strings that make them move like jellyfish (fig. 6-7). Feathers are also an integral part of set decorations in the Augsburger Puppenkiste: panaches also serve as treetops or palm leaves (fig. 8). “The deliberate choice of this abstract use of feathers”, Moch explains, “underlines the general function of puppetry: simple means are presented in order to stir an audience’s fantasy for the sake of storytelling.” The artisanal efforts, which the ensemble of the Augsburger Puppenkiste invests into such “simple means” like feathers, however, also tells a different story: it reminds us of the craftsmanship that people have to master in order to make feathers unfold their imaginative power.

Fig. 8: Feathered palm trees in Der kleine Muck (1974, Traudl Vogler). © Florian Moch.

Fig. 9: Feathers glued in the shape of a bird wing. © Stefan Hanß.

Fig. 10: Anonymous (formerly attributed to Albrecht Dürer), Study of a bird’s wing, British Museum, SL,5218.72, http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=720338&partId=1&searchText=d%25u00fcrer+wing&page=1.

III Remaking Material Culture: An Early Modern Historian’s Remarks

Visiting the Augsburger Puppenkiste made me aware of the hands-on implications and material demands and challenges that featherworkers faced in the early modern period. In a world, in which protagonists wished to employ feathers for their symbolic, aesthetic and emotional values, experts capable of conveying such messages were highly sought after. The “stitching, knitting, looping and hosiery knitting” of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Augsburg featherworkers, in fact, relied on a variety of artisanal techniques that had to be acquired, trained and performed. Studying the material investments, which members of the Puppenkiste put into feathers today, reminded me of early modern artisans’ and artists’ engagement with feathers. The Puppenkiste’s feather hats, bird wings, and panaches closely resemble the material logics and visual attention of early modern feathered items (fig. 9-10). Featherwork is the result of artisanal skills whose complexity is hidden in the very act of the performance of feathers. Examining the activities of early modern featherworkers, my visit to the Augsburger Puppenkiste reminded me of sociological debates on the “field of making”. “Material is already a product of human hands”, Hannah Arendt states, and Richard Sennett draws our attention to the experimental logics and the significance of repetition and training in the work of a craftman’s hands. Historians still have to explore what such handwork actually meant in relation to specific materials for early modern artisans. How were materialities experienced, produced, performed, and perceived? For the reconstruction of how protagonist’s sensorial and visual engagement with materials made matter a material reality, remaking experiments help to make us aware of the implications, demands, challenges, and possibilities of manual labour. “Historians thus need not only to look at finished things”, Ulinka Rublack argued recently, “but to follow the stories of matter and making to understand the achievement and effect of a broad range of artifacts which changed visual dispositions and supported or promoted emotional lives in the material Renaissance. Research, handling, and remaking a specific object enables us to engage with it on a sensory level and to understand it as a potentially novel and striking visual act as well as in relation to particular agents and concrete usages.” The Augsburger Puppenkiste’s marionettes, in that regard, trained my hands, provoked my mind, and caused excitement – not only when reconsidering the act of featherwork.

I wish to express my thanks to the ensemble of the Augsburger Puppenkiste and in particular to Klaus Marschall, Melanie Marschall and Florian Moch who warmly welcomed me to the Puppenkiste and responded to my questions with expertise, patience, and passion. For further information on the Augsburger Puppenkiste, please visit http://www.augsburger-puppenkiste.de/. On Florian Moch’s work, who also informed me about the numbers of visitors and plays, see http://www.florian-moch.de/Florian_Moch/Willkommen.html and the recently recorded music clip of Bela B: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQNwlBiY754. My thanks are also due to Victoria Bartels (Cambridge) who commented on the first draft of this blog entry.

Further readings: All research-related quotations are taken from Ulinka Rublack, “Renaissance Dress, Cultures of Making, and the Period Eye”, in: West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 23/1 (2016), pp. 6-34; Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Introduction by Margaret Canovan, 2nd edition, Chicago/ London: University of Chicago Press, 1998 [1958]; Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008; Mark Häberlein, The Fuggers of Augsburg: Pursuing Wealth and Honor in Renaissance Germany, Charlottesville, 2012.

For more details and information about the trade of feathers and the activities of featherworkers in early modern Augsburg, see Stefan Hanß, “Making Featherwork across Early Modern Cultures” (work in progress). In addition, three further articles are currently in progress: Stefan Hanß, “New World Feathers and the Matter of Ingenuity” (submission in May 2017); Stefan Hanß, “Material Encounters: Knotting Cultures in Peru and Spain” (submission in June 2017); Stefan Hanß, “Remaking the Material Renaissance: Featherworkers in Early Modern Germany” which will expand on the remaking experiments outlined here.

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