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Past Exhibitions

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Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections

October 18, 2015–January 17, 2016

More than ninety extraordinary masterpieces and rare objects from the imperial collections of the Habsburgs, one of Europe’s greatest royal families. Housed today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, these spectacular treasures, most of which have never before left Austria, demonstrate the immense power and enduring legacy of this former empire.

Overview

This exhibition took viewers on a journey that explored six hundred years of art collecting by the Habsburg family, one of Europe’s most powerful and long-lived dynasties. The Habsburgs served as emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, the highest secular authority in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Centered in Vienna, Austria, their empire extended to the Americas as well.

All of the works in this exhibition came from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, built by Emperor Franz Josef to house the imperial collections. The Habsburgs commissioned and collected some of the world’s most splendid paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, arms and armor, and even ceremonial carriages, most of which had never been exhibited in North America.

Habsburg spectacle and performance were legendary. Generation after generation, Habsburg rulers bid for their subjects’ respect and loyalty—and won it—through the collection, creation, and display of spectacular architecture, sculpture, painting, and decorative arts. Today, Habsburg splendor can be experienced in the empire’s former capital cities of Vienna, Madrid, Budapest, and Prague as well as in smaller cities throughout Europe.

Royal Spectacle

Spectacle was an essential part of courtly life for the Habsburgs. From the Middle Ages on, pageantry and pomp were as important as military power. Participants in jousting tournaments wore elaborate armor to impress spectators. In later centuries, nobles demonstrated their wealth and political power while parading through the imperial city in exquisite carriages and gilded sleighs.

The Habsburgs also commissioned and collected art to impress subjects and fellow aristocrats. Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosity, showcased rare specimens of natural and human production. The Habsburgs considered these collections microcosms of the world and filled them with exotic and mysterious natural objects, including the shells of ostrich eggs, animal skins and skeletons, precious gems and minerals, fossils, and even “unicorn horns” (actually narwhal tusks). By the late 1500s, the Habsburgs owned over 3,000 paintings, which they exhibited in their palaces throughout Europe.

These displays allowed for the contemplation of natural curiosities and manmade wonders but also served as a form of propaganda, demonstrating the magnificence, wealth, and power of the collectors.

Kunsthistorisches Museum

The works in this exhibition come from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Opened to the public in 1891 by Emperor Franz Joseph I, the museum stands in the Ringstrasse, an elegant boulevard circling historic downtown Vienna. The Kunsthistorisches houses the Habsburgs’ splendid art collections, which they amassed over centuries of rule. Among the most important Habsburg collectors was Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (1614–1662), who published the very first printed catalogue of a painting collection. The museum also holds the armor collections of Ferdinand II of Tyrol and some of the many wonders from Rudolf II’s cabinet of curiosities.

Although the royal family lost power in 1918, the Habsburg legacy lives on today, its splendor and spectacle reminding us of the magisterial manner in which this family helped shape 650 years of European art, politics, and culture.

Organization and Support

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