Habsburg Splendor Exhibition Catalogue Essay

No matter who you are, you’re bound to find something fascinating in Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collectionsat the High Museum through January 17.  

Each object is captivating in some way. Some have a curious touch of the weird, and many are truly masterpieces that invite and reward hours of quiet contemplation. Taken together, as masterfully curated by Dr. Monica Kurzel-Runtscheiner, director of the Imperial Carriage Museum in Vienna, the objects tell a vivid story.

For more than 500 years, the Habsburgs were Europe’s most powerful family. Its empire stretched across the continent including most of central Europe, Spain, Belgium and parts of Italy. As the Holy Roman Emperors, they ranked as the most powerful aristocrats in the world, ostensibly sharing earthly importance only with the Pope; they were related by blood or marriage to almost all the thrones of Europe.

In their many palaces, they amassed a collection of the best of everything: jewels, precious metals, Renaissance paintings, fine silk, classical Greek and Roman works, medieval arms and armor, tapestries, ceremonial carriages and opulent costumes. Arranged more or less chronologically, the exhibition offers a look at about 90 representative objects from the massive collection currently housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The exhibition centers on a gallery of exquisite Renaissance and late Renaissance paintings that entered the Habsburgs’ collection in the 18th century, masterpieces of a significance we rarely get to see in Atlanta: Giorgione’s poetically ambiguous The Three Philosophers, Hans Holbein’s vivid portrait of Jane Seymour and Tintoretto’s Susanna and the Elders as well as paintings by Caravaggio, Titian, Correggio and Velasquez.

The exhibition begins with displays of arms and armor, suggesting the early military conquests that helped bring the Habsburgs to power beginning in the 13th century and also showing their early interest in finery and display (many of the suits of armor were meant for competition and aristocratic show on festive occasions, not battle.)

We’re accustomed to thinking of armor as almost ludicrously clanky and ungainly, but it’s easy to see how beautifully jointed and mobile the pieces are, a masterful blend of technology, craftsmanship and art.

The Habsburgs’ omnivorous collecting is apparent in a gallery suggestive of a wunderkammer, or a room of wonders, where discoveries, curiosities and rare materials, many arriving from the New World, were commonly displayed. Scientific instruments and decorative objects made from strange materials — walrus tusk, rhino horn and coconut shells — are shaped into elaborate carvings and mounted on jewel-encrusted stands of precious metals. They’re not as easy to call beautiful in the sense of the paintings on view, but they’re compelling in their own right.

The “Habsburg splendor” is evident in the court costumes, including gorgeous gowns from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the fur coat and plumed white hat 4-year-old Prince Otto wore on the day of his coronation. And in the show-stopping carriage designed for the imperial children and sleigh with carvings by master craftsman Balthasar Ferdinand Moll, in which the seats seem almost to float, so intricate and seemingly effortless is the Baroque wavelike design.

What’s most impressive about the exhibition’s organization is how easily and simply it tells a complicated story; a robustly comprehensible narrative inevitably emerges, its odd twists and turns told primarily through the objects themselves, but also spelled out in more detail in excellent gallery text and the exhibition catalog.

It may be a slightly heretical opinion, but in some ways the exhibition provides a more interesting, more pleasant and more digestible perspective on the Habsburgs than a visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the related imperial museums and palaces of Vienna, where room after lush room of masterpieces and luxurious objects easily becomes overwhelming and the mental serenity required to slow down and truly contemplate a masterpiece can be hard to achieve.

Habsburg Splendor offers a fascinating doorway into European history and art that’s worth as many visits as you can manage while it’s here.

MINNEAPOLIS — “Make love not war,” the ’60s-era anti-war slogan, could have been the official credo of the noble House of Habsburg. Sure, the Habsburgs did their share of sword wielding and blood was shed, but it was their shrewd marital politics that propelled the dynasty from its Austrian origins to rule over a monumental swath of Europe for nearly 650 years. The Habsburgs’ magnificent penchant for control began in late-Medieval 1273 with Count Rudolph IV and did not cease until 1918, when Emperor Charles I was exiled at the close of World War I. To go back to the’60s saying, the quip “Bella gerant alii-tu Felix Austria nube!” or “War may guide others — you, happy Austria, marry!” was in wide use by the 15th century.

In addition to making the family’s geographic legacy relevant, The Habsburgs: Rarely Seen Masterpieces from Europe’s Greatest Dynasty at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts also proves that the Habsburgs — who were also emperors of the Holy Roman Empire — were superb collectors and patrons of the arts. The nearly 100 works on view are from the palatial Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) in Vienna, and few pieces have ever traveled outside of Austria until now. The remarkable KHM edifice, built by Franz Joseph I (1830–1916), “the penultimate emperor of the dynasty,” was established as the repository for the consolidated imperial art collections. It opened to the public in 1891.

Masterpieces was organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the High Museum of Art Atlanta; and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The scholarly catalogue, Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, is lavishly illustrated and its essays are exemplary, particularly those by KHM director Dr. Monica Kurzel-Runtscheiner.

With relish, the exhibition brings to life classical Greek and Roman works, medieval arms and armor, tapestries, and Old Master paintings. An array of to-die-for decorative art objects, some religious and some secular, is buoyed by scientific devices, bronze and marble sculptures, firearms, vestments, regalia, military dress uniforms, and court gowns.

So how did one family procure so much? The Habsburg’s kiss-and-conquer land-grab began with Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519), who was dubbed “the last knight” and through his marriage to Mary of Burgundy (1457–1482) would take control of Burgundian territories, inheriting the wealthy Netherlands. Through the arranged marriage of his son, Philip the Fair to Joanna of Castile, the Habsburgs came to possess Spain. Maximilian also created a personal fictitious lineage reaching back to Roman emperors, and wanted to be remembered as The Greatest King Since Charlemagne, The Brilliant and Wise King, and The Lofty Minded One. Really.

At the height of its expansive reach, the dynasty ruled Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, parts of France, Italy, and Slovakia — an area larger than Holy Roman Empire — as well as New World territories. Yet Vienna always served as Habsburg headquarters. Over the centuries, only the Ottomans ever seemed to be a real threat.

But it is from the reign of Emperor Maximilian I that the Habsburgs’ vast treasury dates, and many of the works on view in The Habsburgs were part of his collection, as well as those of Rudolf II (1552–1612) and Marie Theresa (1717–1780), the first woman to rule the Habsburg dynasty. (Married to her cousin, the French King Louis XIV, Marie Theresa’s youngest daughter, Marie Antoinette, one of her 16 children, did not fare so well after marrying Louis XVI.) While the family married strategically to remain omnipotent — carrying the title of Holy Roman Emperor from 1483 through 1745 — the exhibition’s raison d’être is to illuminate the grand regal sweep of the art and objects that constitute the Habsburgs’ collection.

Critically, the expansive exhibit convinces us that the Habsburgs were rock stars at self-promotion. Not only did they collect art, they also truly understood the public relations value of art and artists to their dynasty’s success at a scale that would humble even an aggressively calloused 21st century art collector. As the dynasty expanded like rabbits across Europe, the trick for the Habsburg sovereigns was to keep subjects of wide ranging cultures, languages, and geographic areas united. To sustain the rulers’ image and power, and their deep devotion to the Catholic Church and to God, was all-important. One way to do so with great aplomb was through art.

For example, Maximilian I commissioned Albrecht Durer to create the multiple-sheet woodcut “Triumphal Arch” (1515), the largest ever created at 11 ½ feet tall, which was disseminated poster-style. It glorified the House of Habsburg and particularly Maximilian’s deeds. In the Durer painting “Feast of the Rose Garland,” (1506) Maximilian I kneels before the Virgin Mary who puts the garland on his head, not the Pope’s, who also kneels before her.

Paintings of the Infanta Margarita Theresa and Infanta Maria Theresa by Velázquez, appointed court painter by King Philip IV of Spain, were circulated throughout Europe to identify the most appropriate mates for the teenage women. In addition to the Velázquez works, The Habsburgs features splendid paintings by Archimboldo, Correggio, Caravaggio, Titan, Giorgione, Rubens, and Tintoretto. And that’s just for starters.

Sculptures abound, including the lithe 1st century AD Roman bronze, “Venus Untying Her Sandal.” The armor is breathtaking in its craftsmanship and patina, and the “Italian Coral Saber (coltellaggio) and Scabbard” from 1515 for Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol is a knockout. Made from coral, gilded silver, steel, wood, and velvet, a flame-like handle of deep coral flares at the top of the blade as if alive. And who does not covet the sculptural gold and silver-plated “Many-sided Equatorial Sundial,” from 1600 Munich, or the gold-plated “Perspective-Drawing Device” from the same era? And who does not yearn for the splendid Viennese “Centerpiece for Sorbets” (c. 1740), with its six hanging removable cups made of gold, shells, shell cameos, and bonnet snails? Yum.

The “Gala Carriage of the Vienna Court: The ‘Princes’ Carriage,’” catches one off guard in its opulence. Harnessed to two full-scale white wood horses (instead of the usual six real steeds), it is a stunning vehicle in its palette of red and gold wood, bronze, glass, velvet, silk, and gold embroidery. For anyone who likes a well-made harness, those adorning the white equines are a tactile mix of leather, velvet, gilt brass, gold, and silk passementerie.

Even more romantic is the “Vienna Court Carousel Sleigh” (1740/50), the completely gilded sleigh of Maria Theresa. Carved and gilded from the lower skids and supports to the upper contained seat, the sleigh is total fairytale. Its horse was competitively adorned with a crest of ostrich feathers and a red velvet blanket embroidered in gold. Its harness sports 350 gold bells that ring in a range of different tones to create a more melodious ride for the royal occupant.

Revealingly, the beautiful sleigh is depicted in an adjacent mural-like painting (a reproduction here) of the February 7, 1765 “sleigh days” grand public events presented by the Vienna court. The painting chronicles Joseph II, King of the Romans and heir to the throne, on the occasion of his marriage to Maria Josef of Bavaria. In a vast courtyard scape animated by equestrian drills, hundreds of local citizenry surround the horse and sleigh as their ruler-occupants traverse the huge palace plaza.

Such privilege may seem impossible and ghastly to some, but does this not have 21st century parallels? While an individual family may not rule such immense geographic territory today, the internationally positioned billionaires, regardless of native country, who own art and real estate are not much further than a gilded sleigh ride from the House of Habsburgs. Is not art, and its ruthless collection, the supreme gesture to gain notoriety and respect?

The Habsburgs: Rarely Seen Masterpieces from Europe’s Greatest Dynastycontinues at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through May 10 and will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 14–September 13, before its final destination at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, October 18–January 17.

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