'The Habsburgs' at the MIA Reveals the Dynasty’s Power

Talk about your bestsellers: The short history accompanying this exhibit on the House of Habsburg chalks up the European dynasty’s rise to power in the Middle Ages as the result of “strategic marriages, political alliances, and conquest.” And what a run it was: three centuries on the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, relatives ruling in Spain, Germany, and Hungary, and control of Austria from 1276 to 1918 (which lends a pretty solid sense of how World War I truly was the death spasm of an earlier era).

This wildly ranging exhibit hits Minneapolis before traveling to Houston and Atlanta, and features works spanning half a millennium of art collecting during the Habsburgs’ long period of dominion. The works come from Vienna’s leading fine-arts museum—including weapons and armor, antiquities, tapestries, exquisite royal household items, uniforms and gowns worn by kings and queens, and a number of masterpiece paintings that have never before traveled to America.

Jupiter and Io at the MIA

I’ve lost myself more than once in pictures of Correggio’s nearly 500-year-old Jupiter and Io (one of the first-time visitors to the US, which I can’t wait to see in person): It shows a young woman in the embrace of a god, his face emerging from a gray mist, her features lost in otherworldly rapture. Of course the story it depicts is bizarre and considerably squishy: Jupiter (or Zeus) is depicted doing one of his quick-change acts (he became a swan in order to seduce another young woman) so he can cheat on his vengeful wife. But the image is among the most provocative and strangely beautiful as any ever produced, rendering the mythic as tangible, erotic, at once disturbing and compelling.

There’s also a voyeuristic aspect at play here: Who wouldn’t be at least somewhat interested in what someone would choose for ceremonial wear when they controlled vast chunks of the known world? And the sight of a royal carriage alone is breathtaking in its projection of power and prestige in a pre-motorized world (I’ve seen the Russian czar’s carriage, impossibly sumptuous, in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, a sight that will always stay with me).

An exhibit such as this brings home how fast and how much the world has changed—from centuries in which an exquisite painting had to be visited in person to a time when the images we see in a single day outstrip those witnessed in a lifetime by those who came before. We share the capacity for imagination, though, and dreams: of glory, power, and other worlds.

The Habsburgs: Rarely Seen Masterpieces from Europe’s Greatest Dynasty
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2/15–5/10, artsmia.org