Habsburg flash and filigree

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

The splendor of the house of Habsburg was always inversely proportionate to its prowess on the field of battle. Under Maximilian I of Austria and his grandson Charles V of Spain, the dynasty waged continuous battles from Cuzco to Constantinople and from Scandinavia to the shores of Africa. During this time, the external manifestations of its magnificence were fairly restrained, as is evident in the relative modesty of the Escorial, built on the outskirts of Madrid by Philip II, Charles’s son and heir. But if Philip inherited his father’s prowess, he did not inherit the prestigious title of Holy Roman Emperor. That empty but coveted honor was transferred to the Austrian branch of the Habsburgs and with them it would remain until to its ultimate extinction amid the embers of the Napoleonic wars. It is this branch of the family, which remained in power until 1918, that is the subject of an exhibition that opens at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and will then travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston before ending its run at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. If there is one thing that appears most clearly from the exhibition, it is that the further the Austrian Habsburgs receded from actual prowess, the more magnificent their uniforms became, the bulkier their epaulettes, the gaudier their pipings, the shinier their sabers. Dynasts who had never raised a sword in actual battle, or if they had, did so only to lose the battle, nevertheless appareled themselves in a splendor that would have abashed the greatest conquerors of ancient and modern times. Helmets resplendent with buffalo hairs and swagger sticks tricked out with sharkskin and ivory were the essential apparatus of the court in Vienna. Even before the accession of Maximilian I in 1486, a wag could famously write, “Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria, nube” (Let others wage war, while you, fertile Austria, marry). For, indeed, the Habsburgs had always won more territory by looking good and marrying off their numerous brood than by any force of arms. Perhaps without realizing it, the Minneapolis show’s true subject is this particular brand of sham magnificence, which the Austrian Habsburgs very nearly monopolized among the sundry dynasties of the ancien régime. A cynic might argue that they, more than anyone before or since, understood the arcana imperii, the secrets of dominion: that to rule was to be an actor and that monarchy was theater–pure Schein, as the Germans say, or “moonshine” in a suitable English cognate.

In the service of their baroque fever-dream of imperial magnificence, the Austrian Habsburgs bankrolled, almost single-handedly, entire industries of boot makers and carriage makers, embroiderers, armorers, and gunsmiths,
whose single objective was to project upon their employers, through visual magnificence, a prosthetic grandeur that was divorced from any reality. Among the displays on view in Minneapolis are the regalia of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a floor-length robe of scarlet velvet, its borders embroidered with silver and gold and adorned with red, green, blue, and black silk (Fig. 6). In addition to suits of armor that were never to be worn, one finds the flintlock rifle of Charles VI, an exquisite contraption of wood, brass, and gold that it would have been an aesthetic profanation ever to fire (Fig. 4). Far more urgently utilitarian, one would think, was the centerpiece for sorbets (see Fig. 5), a rococo reverie of gold appliqués and shell cameos of violet and puce. And then there are the carriages and winter sleighs, perfectly preserved and gleaming with brass flanges and golden spokes (Figs. 10, 16).

But the foremost cultural projection of Habsburg splendor cannot travel. That is the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the source of all of the objects in the present exhibition. This palace of art, which opened to the public in 1891, was the heart of the Ringstrasse expansion of Vienna in the latter half of the nineteenth century. An Italianate Beaux Arts structure–like the identical Natural History Museum that stands directly opposite–its every square inch is covered with stuccoes and murals and architectural detailing in marble and gold leaf. This noble institution, however, does not loom quite as large on the cultural horizon as the Louvre or the Prado, the Rijksmuseum or the National Galleries of London and Washington. Perhaps the clustered Teutonic consonants in its name are too daunting for the casual tourist. And yet, it is obviously and irrefutably great and easily the equal of any museum on the planet.

This the Minneapolis exhibition proves, as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes. Only consider the relatively constrained selection of paintings in the show, among them Titian’s Danaë (Fig. 11), Correggio’s Jupiter and Io, Giorgione’s Three Philosophers (Fig. 13), and Holbein’s portrait of Jane Seymour (Fig. 12). Although these are some of the greatest works of Western art, they are but an off-scouring of the treasures that await the visitor to Vienna itself, among them the finest collection of works by Pieter Brueghel the Elder anywhere in the world.

Yet all of these works, although acquired by the Habsburgs, cannot be said to represent Habsburg style, let alone Habsburg splendor. Only one movement in art history can be credibly ascribed to their patronage and that is the school sometimes referred to as international mannerism, associated with Rudolf II of Hungary, who ruled from Prague between 1576 and 1612. Through his odd personal behavior–he was perhaps schizophrenic–and his secret alchemical studies, Rudolf II was the archetype of the melancholic prince of the later Renaissance, the sort of man whom Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have immediately recognized in the character of Hamlet. At his prompting, every crank and crackpot of the age, every astrologer and necromancer, was eventually summoned to the court in Prague.

To say that the artists who came with them were an astonishing lot is nothing less than the truth, but their powers to astonish differ from those of the painters mentioned above. Consider the two works of this school that are included in the present exhibition, Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Fire (Fig. 17) and Bartholomeus Spranger’s Jupiter and Antiope (Fig. 14). They represent the closing moments of mannerism, the internationalizing and standardizing of the neurotic oddities of that movement, when it was limited mainly to Italy in the second third of the sixteenth century. In Fire, Arcimboldo has created yet again a head in profile that is a composite of the inorganic elements denoted in the titles of his various works. In the present instance the hair of the man portrayed is literally depicted by flames, with flint for his cheeks and fire irons for his nose and ears. Spranger’s Jupiter and Antiope, by contrast, is one of the more overtly erotic works of the sixteenth century. The two figures of the title gyrate with a sensuality that is quite obviously at the point of sexual congress. Should the viewer stand in any doubt as to that, the hand with which Antiope pulls her lover toward her extends its middle finger, the digitus infamis, by way of clarification.

The school of Prague, through its great delicacy and over-refinement, possesses an almost inbred quality, like the dynasty that fostered it. International mannerism is art at its terminal stage of rarefaction: here art, rather than any direct confrontation with reality, engenders further art that is still more stylish and effete than itself. There is considerable charm to the colors and conceits of the movement, as well as virtuosity in the details. But there is no striving to achieve real visual power. In this preference for surface over substance, one finds an obvious analogy to the Austrian Habsburgs themselves: they conquer through charm rather than through force. And yet, on the evidence of the Minneapolis exhibition, that may prove to be quite enough.

The Habsburgs: Rarely Seen Masterpieces from Europe’s Greatest Dynasty is on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts from February 15 to May 10.The show will be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from June 14 to September 13 and at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from October 18 to January 17, 2016. The accompanying catalogue, Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections at the Kunsthistorisches Museum by Monica Kurzel-Runtscheiner, Franz Pichorner, and Stefan Krause, is distributed by Yale University Press.