Sites of mediation

Objects of reciprocal observation. Material goods and identities in Basel, 1550–1650

Dissertation project by Michael Schaffner, lic. phil.

Sub-project in Research Module 1
Crossroads – Trading Zones – Intersections.
Society and knowledge in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Basel


The paths of stained glass artists and printers, objects of the goldsmith’s art, books and woodcuts crossed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Basel. A complex network of diverse media connected people and things. In my dissertation project I study how merchants, medical doctors and artisans invested in this network and, in the process, reciprocally represented, observed and competed with one another within and beyond the city.

This theme will be explored from three perspectives:

The first perspective is person-centred and orientated towards a number of prominent actors such as Andreas Ryff, Basilius Amerbach, Leonhard Thurneysser, Felix Platter and Remigius Faesch. It asks how these men positioned themselves in social contexts through a number of practices such as amassing collections, writing travel accounts or establishing endowments and how they used inventories, testaments and letters to claim connoisseurship and the competence to imbue objects with specific meanings.

The second perspective comes from the opposite direction and focuses on individual, accentuated objects, inquiring into their specific materiality, variable semiotic content and modes of circulation. The artefacts examined from this perspective include gold work, the stained glass coats-of-arms of families and cantons, antiquities such as coins and inscriptions and scientific instruments and books.  Their particular quality, the capital invested in their production and purchase and the craft knowledge involved are understood here as potential meanings that were inscribed in these objects and that could be updated in various ways.

Finally, the aim of the third perspective is to create a medial topography of the early modern city, inquiring into sites of reciprocal addressing, approaching and observation. This can mean concrete hubs in urban space, on the one hand, such as the Schützenhaus, where various protagonists interacted through the medium of stained glass, inscribing themselves into an existing practice of endowment and at the same time perhaps reformulating it. On a more abstract level, however, it is also about locations in imagined or not yet created spaces, such as the construction of urban history with reference to material remains.

The dissertation project thereby inquires into the historically specific mediality of representations. It explores how people interacted with the material culture around them, positioning themselves in relation to their environment in the process.