The year is 1781 and a swarm of ordinary citizens have been admitted, free of charge, to see for themselves the imperial art collection in the Upper Belvedere Palace of Vienna. Never before in Europe has a great collection been opened up in this democratic way. The entree comes by order of the Habsburg emperor, Joseph II (1741–1790).
In mothy waistcoat and breeches I could be there myself, a poet who pens a prickly broadside every so often and perceives no need to earn a normal living. I’ve hied to the palace gallery aiming to feel galled by a show of riches—and indeed, there’s enough gold in view to cast a life-size calf: a gold chalice, a canvas of Zeus raining gold on the nymphet Danaë, gold-inlaid hunting rifles, a gilded carriage, a sleigh that seems to have weathered a gold blizzard. Imagine, then, the stab of distress when all this opulence upsets my preconceptions: Despite the glitter—or because of it—the artworks heaped up by the various Habsburg emperors, kings, and princes arouse a ruffled wonder, an abashed awe.
Now, a confession. The pieces noted—Zeus and Danaë and the rest—may or may not have been among those seen at the Belvedere in 1781. But they do shine in this traveling exhibition of nearly a hundred pieces from the imperial trove, which, having shown in Minneapolis and Houston, is now here in Atlanta. Since few of these sumptuous works have ever appeared in America, the effect on the viewer proves much the same as on my raggedy precursor bedazzled in the Belvedere. Everything in Habsburg Splendor comes from the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, built by the Emperor Franz Joseph (1830–1916) to merge collections scattered around the city.
At greatest reach, in the first half of the 16th century, the Habsburg Empire spanned much of Europe. With gaps here and there it spread from Spain east to Hungary, and from Italy north to the Netherlands, taking in the vast Spanish conquests in the New World as well. The collecting of artworks—paintings, sculpture, and more—was not a mere whim of courtly aesthetes; it played a lively supporting role in the politics of empire. Resplendent art was an emblem of imperial fortune and power, especially when it took as its subject a ruler, his spouse and spawn, and his military or moral exploits.
In Habsburg Splendor this role is plain to see. A spectacular tapestry, in oddly pacific tones of pink, gold, and aqua, depicts Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) reviewing a snakelike procession of mounted troops before his conquest of Tunis in 1535. A bronze bust of Charles shows him with rippling armor, a pendant of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and a shoehorn beard masking the jutting Habsburg jaw. Heroic busts may not be ideal vehicles for irony: This one, by the Milanese sculptor Leone Leoni, was finished in 1555, only a year before Charles, beset by deficits and weary of war, abdicated and thereby split Spain and its colonies from the
Sometimes the depictions are symbolic or allegorical, as in a finely modeled relief in pinkish limestone of Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519), portrayed as St. George on horseback with a freshly slain dragon underfoot. The portrayal seems quixotic, almost whimsical: Max/George sports a fancy hat whose scrolling plume copies the curve of the dragon’s tail, while the horse holds up a hoof in the instant before stomping the head and wiping off its face a final evil grin. The German artist Hans Daucher, working about three years after the death of Maximilian, may have taken the liberty of a lighter touch than would have been welcomed by a living sovereign.
Even more figurative is the proto-surrealist painting Fire by the quirky Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Created for Emperor Maximilian II (1527-1576), it pictures a bust which is not the emperor himself but a personification of his armed power. The cheeks are flints, the hair a knot of flame, with the torso formed by the barrels of a pistol, mortar, and cannon. It seems a conglomerate not only of arms but of aims, a meta-comment on the very idea of a heroic bust—the flesh burnt away to reveal the true bones.