Europe's Most Dazzling Museum

By Munson, James | Contemporary Review, November 1995 | Go to article overview
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Europe's Most Dazzling Museum

Munson, James, Contemporary Review

The most dazzling museum in Europe is being extended this autumn. Anyone who has ever seen the Silberkammer Exhibition in Vienna's Hofburg Palace knows that it is an unforgettable sight. The Silberkammer or Silver Treasury is an unparalleled display of the Habsburg Dynasty's collection of gold, silver and gilt. Alongside it is the family's irreplaceable collection of porcelain from Prague, Milan, Hungary, Meissen, Japan, Venice, China and England.

For over 700 years the Habsburg family ruled much of Europe. What are now Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Poland were all or in part Habsburg territory.

For decades the Collection, numbering some 670,000 pieces, lay largely ignored and only a handful of objects were on public display. Then, in 1973, Dr. Peter Parenzan, an expert in the history of interior decoration, took over. He has described the collection and his plans for better and bigger display of it in a recent interview with Contemporary Review.

Peter Parenzan searched the cellars and storerooms of the Hofburg Palace and uncovered the treasures so carefully packed away in 1918 when the Austrian Empire collapsed. Since that unhappy day -- and one only has to look at Bosnia to see just how Europe has lost by the end of the Austrian monarchy -- these treasures had been rarely seen. What lay behind the objects he discovered? Who made them? Who bought them? Who used them? As he researched he saw the history of Europe's most historic dynasty fall into place. Eventually 170,000 items out of the total were chosen for display and were cleaned by Peter Parenzan to create what must be the single most compact exhibition of wealth in the world. It is hardly surprising to learn that the collection is uninsurable. New rooms are being added this autumn which will display Court furniture and a detailed catalogue will give the history of every piece on display.

While the history of the Collection dates back to 1415, most of the gold and silver items on display come from after 1815. The reason for this is quite simple: the Austrians melted down their precious metals to pay for the wars against Napoleon. While some silver, did escape destruction, the bulk of the eighteenth century treasures are in porcelain.

Individual members of the Habsburg family formed their own collections, some of which ended up in the Hofburg. One entire display case is devoted to items from a huge collection of Chinese porcelain, so popular in the eighteenth century. This had been amassed by Empress Maria Theresa's brother-in-law, Charles, Regent of what is now Belgium. He paid heavily for his mania for collecting when he went broke and saw the lot auctioned off: luckily his treasured porcelain was bought by his nephew, Emperor Joseph II who was always keen on a good bargain.

Dr. Parenzan is particularly proud of the collection of early eighteenth century Arita porcelain from Japan. He says that knowledgeable Japanese tourists are greatly impressed with these pieces which are some of the finest surviving in Western Europe. They are scheduled to go on exhibition to Japan in 1996.

The Habsburgs, while quite happy to have French or Oriental porcelain, also encouraged the development of their own porcelain works in Austria. In the eighteenth century the taste for luxury was often the parent of industry. In 1718 the works at Augarten in Vienna were started and as time wore on the Court began to prefer its products over those from France or China. Augarten's porcelain was noted for its use of gold decoration on a creamy white surface. (The Augarten works still make porcelain today and examples are on sale in the Silberlcammer gift shop.) Particularly Austrian were the distinctive coffee cups. Tall, elegant and edged in gold, these featured delicately painted scenes of Viennese life, including the capital's famous cathedral, Stephansdom.

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