Exhibition Review

The Art of Power: Habsburg Women in the Renaissance. Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck

Originally a tenth-century medieval fortress and later a hunting lodge of Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519), Schloss Ambras was enlarged and transformed into a Renaissance palace by Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol (1529–95). Here he housed his famous cabinet of art and curiosities, which included armour and Habsburg portraits and is often described as ‘the oldest museum in the world’. Ferdinand’s collections, now on permanent display at Ambras, include a number of masterpieces from the treasuries of three former Habsburg archduchesses, Margaret of Austria (1480–1530) and the two daughters of her brother Philip I of Castile, Mary, Queen of Hungary (1505–58), and Catherine, Queen of Portugal (1507–78). These pieces sparked the idea for the current exhibition, the first to explore female patronage at the Habsburg court in the Renaissance period. It is a collaboration between a team at Schloss Ambras, led by its director, Veronika Sandbichler, and two experts in the field, Dagmar Eichberger from the University of Heidelberg and Annemarie Jordan Gschwend from the Centro de Humanidades, Lisbon. They have brought together around one hundred objects from public and private collections, including a selection of rare treasures that were once owned by these women. The well-illustrated catalogue includes essays on the patronage and the collections of the archduchesses, written by Eichberger and Gschwend, with descriptions of the exhibits.1

The success of the Habsburg dynasty was based in part on a strong network of alliances and a clever marriage policy. The archduchesses made a key contribution by accepting their arranged marriages and by exercising authority within the widespread family when they became widows. Margaret was the well-educated daughter of Maximilian I and his first wife, Mary of Burgundy. In 1507, when she was twenty-four years old, childless and a widow for the second time, the Emperor entrusted her with the government of the Habsburg Netherlands. She held this position under Maximilian’s successor, Charles V and, with the exception of the years between 1515 and 1517, she ruled until her death in 1530. Margaret established her court at Mechelen, where she commissioned a new palace that became a centre of politics and diplomacy, attracting the most famous humanists, painters and poets of the time. She owned a wellstocked library and an important art collection.

As the guardian of her brother’s children, Margaret supervised the education of the future Charles V, and both Charles and his sister Mary spent time at Mechelen. Married to Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia in 1515, Mary became regent of Hungary in 1526 after the King’s death at the Battle of Mohács. After Margaret’s death, she followed in her aunt’s footsteps and became governor of the Netherlands. Like Margaret, Mary was by and large successful in politics. She was a notable patron of literature and music as well as a collector of textiles. Her particular interest was in exotic birds and falcons, which she procured with the help of her sister Catherine, wife of John III of Portugal. Catherine had remained in Spain under the custody of her mother, Juana, but like Margaret and Mary she was highly educated and served as regent of Portugal between 1557 and 1562. Closely involved in the education of her children, she set up a library and established a circle of scholars and poets at the court in Lisbon. An enthusiastic collector of luxury objects, she was able to obtain exotic items from the new overseas Portuguese territories and trading activities, giving her a key position among her Habsburg relatives, whom she provided with Chinese porcelain and other highly valued goods, some of which can be seen here.

The exhibition is divided into four parts: an introduction to the dynastic background is followed by three sections, each devoted to one of the archduchesses’ collections in chronological order. The displays open with the marriage between Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy in 1477, which is illustrated by family portraits. Among the exhibits are one of the four surviving private prayer books of Charles V (after 1540; Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (ONV); cat. no.1.12) and an exquisite collection of gaming pieces with the portraits and names of contemporary rulers, including Henry VIII of England and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (c.1535–49, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, no.1.13). A wonderful armorial tapestry (no.1.14; Fig.5) depicts Margaret’s coat-of-arms at its centre, including her revealing motto: FORTVNE – INFORTVNE – FORT VNE (fortune – misfortune – one strong woman).

Through the selection of objects, the exhibition throws new light on the question of female patronage. For instance, a wooden bust of Margaret by her court sculptor Conrat Meit (no.2.5; Fig.4) reveals an ambition to create an official portrait type of the regent as a widow. Drinking vessels, glasses, religious items, a stock of coral as well as scientific instruments and books complete the display, which includes a copy of Christine de Pizan’s Trésor de la Cité des Dames (1497; ONV; no.2.28) and a manuscript of the Joyeuses Entrées of Charles V (1516; ONV; no.2.27) A double-page spread at the beginning shows the arrival of Charles outside the gates of Brussels in 1515; Margaret follows behind in a black litter. The event marked the moment when Charles, having attained his majority, assumed control of the Netherlands. His rule proved short-lived since two years later he handed the government back to his aunt.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a folding ivory fan of a type made in what is now Sri Lanka (no.4.17; Fig.6). The upper part of its handle is carved in the shape of a peacock. His head coincides with the pivot, suggesting that the sticks represent the feathered tail. This was probably one of a group of five such fans in Catherine’s collection in Lisbon. After 1580, it was sent as a gift from the Portuguese court to Ferdinand II, who brought it to Ambras. In its rarity, exquisite workmanship and great beauty it is typical of the way the resources, taste, power and influence of these Habsburg women were reflected in their collections.

By Amalie Fössel

1 Catalogue: Frauen, Kunst und Macht. Drei Frauen aus dem Hause Habsburg. Edited by Sabine Haag, Dagmar Eichberger und Annemarie Jordan Gschwend. 182 pp. incl. numerous col. ills. (KHMMuseumsverband, Vienna, 2018), €42.50. ISBN 978–3–99020–169–5.