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Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Spanish, 1599-1660), Infanta Maria Teresa (1638-1683), ca. 1652-1653), oil on canvas, 50 × 38 5/16 × 1 inches (127 cm × 97.4 cm × 2.5 cm), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 

Habsburg Splendor

by George Hornbein 

“Too much is never enough!” So proclaimed the architect Maurice Lapidus, who was creating his baroque revival buildings in Miami during the ascendency of the minimalist aesthetics of the International School of architecture in the 1950’s.  It was a direct rebuttal to Mis van der Rohe’s international school dictum, “less is more.”

Lapidus would have been delighted with the Atlanta High Museum of Art’s current show, Habsburg Splendor.  The Habsburg taste in art, architecture, fashion, and utilitarian design imposed no restraints on artistic excess.

Gilded baroque splendor was an important means of demonstrating this ruling family’s power and impressing their subjects as well as their peers.  And, it worked!  For six centuries, the family created and held an empire that dominated Europe and extended to the Americas, won as much by strategic marriage unions as by military prowess, and expressed in their vast holdings of architecture, fine art and objects d’art.

The works for this exhibit were on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum as part of the traveling exhibition Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections. The show was the idea of the former Director of the High, Michael Shapiro, and the former Chief Curator, David Brenneman.  Since their leaving, Gary Radke has taken charge as guest curator and has organized a brilliant exhibit. The work is displayed chronologically and in context that illuminates the changing circumstances of Habsburg rule over the course of half a millennium.

Upon entering the first gallery, we are struck by a pair of full scale horses decked with exotic feathers and gilded harnesses pulling a gilded, baroque, carriage that would have paraded royalty about in a style that had to have held their foot-bound subjects in awe.

 Prince's Dress Carriage, ca. 1750-1755, wood, gold, paint, varnish, metal, leather, braids, velvet, and glass 

107 × 204 1/2 × 81 inches (271.8 cm × 519.4 cm × 205.7 cm). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria 

What awaits us next are splendid sets of armor designed for protection from the latest improvements in weaponry and decorated with gold and silver in a manner befitting a Habsburg; displays of “utilitarian” objects carved from single pieces of crystal, goblets fashioned from rhinoceros’ horn all adorned in gold; uniforms of state embroidered in gold and silver threads depending on the station of the wearer; and the galleries of baroque paintings by European masters. 

From a small thirteenth century duchy in Switzerland, the Habsburgs consolidated power in Vienna and created a system of vesting male family members with hereditary rights. Piece by piece, the family holdings became great enough, and rich enough, to insure that the dynasty would endure. Most impressive were strategic marriages designed to increase control throughout Europe. According to John Graham Royde-Smith in Britannica, by the last half the 15th century, “Maximilian I carried that matrimonial policy to heights of unequalled brilliance. First he himself in 1477 married the heiress of Burgundy. . . . He procured (his son) Philip’s marriage, in 1496, to Joan, prospective heiress of Castile and Aragon: thus securing for his family not only Spain, with Naples–Sicily and Sardinia, but also the immense dominions the Spaniards were about to conquer in America. Maximilian’s matrimonial achievements were the occasion of the famous hexameter Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube (‘Let others wage wars: you, fortunate Austria, marry’).”

However, there were wars, lots of them, and the marriages didn’t always yield the expected territorial gains. The union of France’s Louis XVI to Austria’s Marie Antoinette must have seemed like a good idea at first, but we all know how that one ended. 

In 1848, Europe was swept by democratic and nationalistic revolutions. Even though they were, for the most part, crushed by autocratic governments they spelled the end of the Habsburg Empire. It held on for another seven decades but the rise of a middle class throughout Europe made the extravagance of the Habsburg display of wealth less important and unpalatable.

The exhibit highlights baroque art, a style that historians date from the late 1500’s to the early 1700’s.  The Habsburg rule, of course, predates the baroque period and continued after baroque fell from fashion and morphed into a short period dominated by rococo art. The masculinity, power, energy, movement, and historically significant themes of baroque art certainly speak to the Hapsburg dynasty at the height of its power. Under French court influence in the early 1700’s, rococo art became the dominant style.  With its femininity, sweetness and domestically benign scenes it also mirrored what was going on in the courts of Europe where decadence was setting in and court life was becoming insular. Some items on display chronicle the development of rococo, not the exhibit’s paintings so much as the gowns and uniforms of court. However, there is one painting of Leopold 1667 from the baroque period that portends the future role rococo would play in the courts of Europe. In all fairness, Leopold is dressed in costume at a ballet in his honor celebrating his marriage to the Spanish Infanta Margarita Teresa.  But still!

Another example of rococo influence is the uniform of a Knight of the Royal Hungarian Order of Saint Stephen in 1764

Robe of a Knight (GC) of the Order of St. Stephen, c.1764-1765, velvet, gold, silk, plush (woven pile), feathers, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 

Robe of Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, 18th century, velvet, silk and gold embroidery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 

The gown is of silk velvet, silk, faux ermine, gold embroidery, and feathers.


The heart of the exhibit, though, is in the painting galleries that hold works by Europe’s most notable painters.  A magical Velázquez portrait, Infanta Maria Teresa, which, when viewed up close, reveals details that are abstract.  As one steps back, the portrait gains photographic-like crispness. 


A powerful Caravaggio, Christ Crowned with Thorns, beckons us from a distant gallery.

Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio (Italian, 1571-1610), The Crowning with Thorns, ca. 1602-1604, oil on canvas, 50 × 65 9/16 inches (127 cm × 166.5 cm). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria 

Curator Gary Radke and Caravaggio’s Christ Crowned with Thorns. Photo: George Hornbein

A theatrical Rubens, The Lamentation of Christ; a Hans Holbein, of young Jane Seymore exhibiting her prim, self-control and haunted by a deep blue shadow is thought to have been commissioned, upon her death in childbirth, by her husband, England’s Henry VIII;  A Correggio of Jupiter coming down to earth to mess with the mortals, this time by disguising himself as a cloud to seduce Lo, are among the masterpieces in this exhibit. 

 Hans Holbein the Younger (German, 1497-1543), Jane Seymour (1509-1537), ca. 1536-1537, oil on panel, 25 3/4 × 16 inches

(65.4 cm × 40.6 cm). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria 

An erotic painting by Guido Cagnacci portrays Cleopatra, bare breasted and surrounded by bare breasted maids of court, as the poisonous serpent penetrates her forearm. Originally these paintings were displayed, lined up along the walls, in Habsburg palaces. The erotic paintings would be found in private quarters to be shared with royal guests whom the Habsburgs wished to impress.

  Antoni Allegri, called Correggio (Italian, 1489/94-1534),

Jupiter and Io, ca. 1530, oil on canvas, 63 3/4 × 28 15/16 inches (161.9 cm × 73.5 cm). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria 

The portraits of children served the dual purpose of capturing the personalities of the royal family members and, by passing the paintings from royal court to royal court, as a means of introducing foreign rulers to young Habsburg daughters as potential brides, for the purpose of further cementing and augmenting the reach of the empire.


The “utilitarian” objects, gowns and uniforms worn by the royal families and high ranking members of court, inform us of the rarified life style at Europe’s seat of power.  We would call the utilitarian exhibits minor arts.  For the Habsburgs of course all was major, or as Lapidus put it, “too much is never enough.”

Giorgio da Castelfranco, called Giorgione ( Italian, ca. 1477-1510),

Three Philosophers, 1508-1509, oil on canvas, 49 7/16 × 57 1/2 × 1 3/8 inches

(125.6 cm × 146.1 cm × 3.5 cm). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria 

Although the exhibit covers a period of 600 years, there are fewer than 100 carefully chosen art works on display. We are never overwhelmed by the quantity, but are overjoyed by the quality. That, as Mies van der Rohe said is because “less is more.”

George Hornbein is an architect.

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