June 30, 2014

A Visit to the Albertina

One of the jewels in the crown of Vienna's splendid museum scene is the Albertina which houses an impressive collection of art and what is probably the world's largest trove of old master prints at over one million examples.  Since 1805 the museum has been housed in the Albertina Palace, the former residence of the collection's founder, Prince Albert of Saxony, Duke of Teschen (1738-1822) and his wife, a sister of Marie Antoinette of "Let Them Eat Cake" fame, and daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the Archduchess Marie Christine.

Alexandre Roslin
"Portrait of the Archduchess Marie Christine", 1778

The Neoclassical building was constructed in 1744 on the site of the ancient fortifications of the city and in 1794 became the official residence of Albert and his bride.  Their relationship was a remarkable one at the time.  Born a German Prince, Albert's betrothal to Marie Christine was a special favor granted by the bride's mother as royal marriages were generally arranged on a diplomatic rather than a romantic basis.  By marrying into the Hapsburg dynasty, Albert became an Archduke and Royal Governor of Hungary before becoming Royal Governor of the Austrian Netherlands with a seat in Brussels.  It was here that Albert and Marie Christine truly began to indulge their passion for art and the great collection was born.

Artist Unknown
"Portrait of Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen
with the Map of the Battle of Maxen", 1777 

The French Revolution forced the couple to quickly return to Vienna where Marie Christine contracted typhus and died in 1798.  Albert was heartbroken and turned to his art collection for solace devoting the remainder of his life to acquiring new treasures and overseeing their care.  It was during this time that the Albertina Palace was expanded with a wing of staterooms creating more space for his ever increasing collection of prints and drawings.  Upon Albert's death the palace and the collection were bequeathed to the couple's adopted son, the Archduchess' nephew, Carl of Austria, who refurbished the palace in the Empire style.

The palace and its remarkable collection continued to descend in the family until the demise of the monarchy after World War I when the Republic of Austria assumed control.  Heavily damaged by Allied bombing in 1945, the building was returned to its former splendor with an extensive renovation after the turn of the 21st century when the distinctive titanium wing shaped roof was added to serve as the new entrance to the museum.

Which brings me up to the present day and my recent visit to the Albertina.  The museum's vast and impressive graphics collection is legendary in the print world and I was thrilled that my visit to Vienna allowed me to catch the tail end of a very special exhibition - "Dürer, Michelangelo, Reubens - The 100 Masterworks of the Albertina".  I was already delighted to have the opportunity to view some of the rarely exhibited works on paper from the collection, but over the moon when I discovered that the show included an intimate look at the couple, their role on the world stage, and the formation of this legacy, all in a historical perspective.

The exhibition began with a suite of galleries containing portraits, furniture, documents and personal effects that brought the couple to life.  Court life during the Age of Enlightenment was vividly portrayed in artifacts, clothing, decorations and objects that exemplified their exquisite taste.  We learned about their chilly relationship with the French Queen, their advocation of Freemasonry, their love of travel and especially their support of artists then considered "contemporary".

Now we move to the second half of the show - the exposition of one hundred masterpieces culled from the extensive collection.  It was an amazing choice of top notch etchings, engravings, drawings, sketches and watercolors by some of the greatest names in European art.  Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Pieter Breugel the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens were all represented with important examples of their work.  Not only did Prince Albert have amazing foresight, he backed it up with an educated eye and the collection he formed two hundred years ago remains the epitome of Old Master perfection.

Leonardo da Vinci
"Study for The Last Supper", 1495

I was sorry when the exhibition was over, but there was another treat in store!  Part of the 2000 renovation included a refurbishment of the Hapsburg staterooms and the route to the exit led me right through these elegantly appointed rooms!  Visitors traverse the "Gold" Cabinet, the Rococo Room, the Wedgewood Cabinet (see below), the Spanish Apartments, even the Death Chamber of Archduke Carl, all decorated in a sumptuous style and many with original furnishings.

It's been an amazing visit to the Albertina and I've enjoyed every minute.  But now it's time for a pick-me-up and I think an eiskaffee with vanilla ice cream AND schlag, will be the perfect end to a wonderful afternoon!

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