oh no, those Habsburgs again…

I thought that yesterday had been my day of visiting Habsburg palaces, but it seems that in Vienna their influence runs deeper than that…

Today I went to the Vienna art history museum, a very grand structure…


…that, as it turns out, was built by Franz Josef, the penultimate Habsburg emperor (can you believe he actually was happy with facial hair like this?)


This museum is based largely upon the incredible number of art objects that the Habsburgs collected over their many centuries of extreme wealth and power. This went back as far as the ancient Egyptians, but they really don’t do it for me (too formulaic, even if grand) so I headed for the Greeks and Romans.

I got a sense of this in the Louvre last week, but something major happened with the Greeks about 2500 years ago. At 500 BC there was this (excuse the blurry photography):


Then within 50 or 100 years there was this:





What on earth happened there? A complete change in looking at the world, away from the generic and into flowing detail…no wonder they call this time the birth of western civilization…

Then there was the Roman pomp. The hard man, Julius Caesar:


The cold majesty of Caesar Augustus (just like in Paris):


The less edgy trio of Hadrian, Vespasian, Trajan:


But there was also something else which was new to me: the cameo. This was a form in which the artist took a piece of onyx, a banded stone with layers of brown and white, and carved through the white to the brown, which formed a dark background, before cutting intricate detail into the white as foreground. These people were incredible technicians. There were lots of stunning pieces, but this example of Augustan majesty was probably the standout:


In the top half Augustus sits in glory next to the goddess Roma, with another goddess holding the imperial laurel over his head and his generals arriving to report to him. The bottom half shows soldiers after a military victory, with some Germanic captives bound in chains at the left. Rome at the summit of its military and artistic power.

And then there was the crisis of the 3rd century, a time of war and misery:


And wouldn’t you like a pet griffin like this one? It’s listening to its master playing music…


Upstairs there were an incredible number of mostly boring renaissance paintings which could only really be of interest to serious art aficionados, but there were some that stood out, whether for warmth, like this Titian (Madonna of the Cherries) with Jesus and John the Baptist feeding fruit to Mary:


or for gritty atmospherics like this one by Gentileschi (Rest on the Flight to Egypt)’ which shows the holy family as refugees, running away from Herod’s command to kill all the young babies in Israel – a beautiful take on exhaustion, motherly devotion, and suspicion, with Jesus’ eye fixed on the camera (so to speak):


or Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary:


Apart from being an amazing study in colour and light, this was apparently controversial at the time because it showed the people kneeling with dirty feet! Considered too real:


A couple of Duerer portraits, an affectionate one of his dad, and one of the Emperor Maximilian I (the one with the empty tomb in Innsbruck), for some reason holding a pomegranate:



And a couple of Brueghels that I have always liked, this one about the bible story where men try to build as high as the sky, and how ridiculous that was (if you look at the tower it’s pretty wonky, and the workmen in the bottom corner aren’t happy about it, even though the king is making them carry on):


And this one about winter, with the hunters coming home almost empty-handed in the snow:


Then three paintings of a little girl, which made me think of Kyria, because no father who has a beautiful daughter and watches her grow could stay unmoved by them. This little girl was Margarita Teresa, favorite daughter of Philip IV, who was King of Spain 350 years ago. For political reasons, he decided when she was two years old that when she grew up, she was going to get married to Leopold, who was eleven years older than her, and was going to be the next Holy Roman Emperor. But the thing was that Leopold was in Austria while Margarita Teresa was in Spain, in the days when it used to take weeks to travel between the two countries. So Philip kept getting artists to paint pictures of Margarita Teresa and then had them sent to Leopold. In the museum the were three of them, all done by a painter called Velasquez. The first was done when she was two:


and the next when she was five:


and the third when she was eight:


Then, finally, these two freaky paintings by Arcimboldo, who lived 450 years ago. On the face of them, they look like heads, but when you look closely they are all made up of things to do with winter (the first one) and water (the second):



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