High displays European wealth

Photo courtesy of the High Museum of Art

“Habsburg Splendor,” a collection of masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections, with its lavish gowns and uniforms, with gilded carriages and embellished armor, captures the spirit of the Renaissance and the Habsburg House itself. A chamber of art and wonders, seeking not only to inspire curiosity about the unknown, but also to display the might and far-reaching connections of the Habsburg family.

If the “Habsburg Splendor” exhibit at the High Museum of Art is meant to be a display of the wealth and power of the Habsburg House, the strange painting of Madeleine Gonzalez would seem out of place. The Romantic paintings that are imagined to have adorned the walls of the aristocracy are those of mythical creatures, gods and beautiful women. However, Madeleine Gonzalez is no courtly beauty. She had what is now called hypertrichosis, a condition that causes abnormally increased hair growth.

Upon closer inspection, the viewer notices a strange lack of detail in the work: Madeleine is not painted as a young lady but rather as an object. In more Romantic and mysterious times, Madeleine Gonzalez and her family were some of the many wonders that fascinated the European nobles and kings. They were passed from one court to another as collector’s items. Items as novel as this family were evidence of the vast worldly connections of their owners. This painting is one of the many wonders found in the “Habsburg House’s Chamber of Art and Curiosities” on display  at the High Museum of Art this fall.

A chamber such as this was common among the European Elite of that time as it was a period marked by revolutionary, cultural and intellectual changes: the Age of Discovery. Throughout much of this period, the Habsburg ruled a great part of the continent. These Kunstkammers (cabinets of curiosities) are the ancestors of modern day museums. They held encyclopedic collections of objects, natural and man-made.

At the High Museum of Art, attendees start with classic images of European power. Knights in shining armor joust in the center of the room. The walls are adorned with classic paintings of rulers, a bust of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and the armor of Archduke Ferdinand II fill the space.

The oldest object of the exhibition, a goblet from the 15th century, is found among these. Its base is adorned with the letters “A.E.I.O.U.,” which is said to stand for the Latin phrase for “It is Austria’s destiny to rule the whole world.” The Habsburgs’ story starts here. These five letters were used everywhere by the ambitious Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor, who aspired for world rule for his dynasty.

Although he was the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III had bigger plans for the House of Habsburg. Within three generations, his idea of world domination for the Habsburgs was realized through a series of strategic marriages with the sole heirs of various dynasties. The House of Habsburg continued to rule Europe until the 20th century.

Next to the goblet is a short sword with a spindly handle made of coral, an exotic material that was thought to have mythical properties. In the next room, the types of artifacts on display change. These are no longer mere recordings of history but a celebration of the grandeur of nature. In this area, the artifacts are from the age of exploration.

The items were part of their “Chamber of Art and Curiosities” and were meant to capture the wonders of the world. Natural objects from newly-discovered lands were embellished with myths and folklore. These works combine natural findings with the extravagantly high art of the time, a practice that is characteristic of Kunstkammers and the age of discovery at large.

A goblet made of rhinoceros horn, which was considered a natural aphrodisiac, has satyrs, creatures with uncontrollable desire, carved at the base. Additionally, a large gastropod shell is mounted on a haggard Triton, inviting viewers to marvel at the wonder and rarity of the natural object. Other pieces nearby are carved from ivory and coral with stories of their own.

Another practice becoming popular in this era was art collection. This was now seen as a sign of cultured families and became popular amongst those in power. To the Habsburgs, collecting and commissioning art was a show of their prestige — a ruler had to be seen as educated and refined by his subjects. As a result, the fine arts flourished in their court, and this can be seen in the numerous paintings, now on display, that they collected and commissioned.

While some of the art on display is novel, much of it is reminiscent of the past. Roman influence on the Habsburgs becomes apparent here, both artistically and politically. Many of the other works depict ancient Roman myths and stories with elements of eroticism, perhaps best captured in the iconic “Jupiter and Io” by Correggio. A portrait of “Emperor Joseph II with Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Tuscany” by Pompeo Batoni, depicts a statue of Roma, symbolising the grandeur and power of the Roman Empire, offering an orb to the Emperor.

As viewers move toward the end of the exhibition as well as the corresponding decline of the Habsburg empire, they see a dramatic contrast between the clothes of Franz Joseph, who became emperor in 1948, and wife Elisabeth displayed and the gilded, baroque style of most of the other work.

The campaign uniform of Emperor Franz Joseph and the velvet day dress belonging to Empress Elisabeth are relatively unadorned and simple compared to the magnificently gilded carriage, an opulent sleigh that mounted natural wonders. Since Emperor Joseph was a conservative ruler, this simple military uniform was his preferred daily attire. This is indicative of changing fashions and a declining empire.

Although the emperor was not an art enthusiast, he commissioned the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the capital of the empire, to house what his dynasty had collected over the course of centuries, to fortify the Habsburg rule. Their legacy lived on.

In 1891, the formidable imperial collection was finally made available to the public. This year, more than 90 pieces made their way halfway across the world to be displayed in three museums across the U.S. The Habsburg Splendor exhibit at the High Museum of Art is a testament to the Habsburg’s monumental impact on the world.