The most beautiful animals of the emperor – exotic and familiar

The most beautiful animals of the emperor – exotic and familiar

Emperor Franz II./I. maintained such a close relationship with his monkeys, which he kept in the garden on the terrace of the castle, that he gave them names. Shy, almost shy, with a paw on his teeth, Janette the monkey looks out from the painting. Anyone who walks through the exhibition “The Most Beautiful Animals of the Emperor” will learn other curiosities about the Habsburg monarchs and their animals. In 1551, for example, Emperor Maximilian II received an oversized gift from the Spanish court: a lavishly decorated elephant caused panic as he entered Vienna. And Emperor Ferdinand I loved animals more out of an exploratory spirit and throughout his life he surrounded himself with court artists specializing in animalistic subjects, who until his death provided him with about 10,000 sheets of naturalistic drawings.

Not just animal studies

Maximilian’s elephant, green monkey and countless animalistic studies of four centuries can be found in the form of lithographs, watercolors and pen and ink drawings at the bottom of the former imperial court library. The Austrian National Library has now reviewed and digitized the holdings. Monika Kigler-Greensteidl and Patrick Poh curated the exhibition in the State Hall and presented the paintings to the general public for the first time.

The show, divided into three chapters – travel, menageries, animal research – talks about exploration, art, entertainment and demonstrations of power. Many exotic animals came to Vienna as part of overseas expeditions on behalf of the emperor. The most famous of these is the portrait of Emperor Franz II./I. organized the Brazilian expedition in 1817. Zoologists and botanists, as well as artists, brought living and stuffed animals to Vienna, including monkeys, jaguars and rodents. The animals were mostly kept in menageries, later many ended up in Schönbrunn, since 1752 the oldest existing zoo in the world. It is in good Habsburg tradition: 200 years ago, Maximilian II built the first menagerie in Vienna for his elephant in Kaiserebersdorf.

This green monkey was called Janette.  - © Austrian National Library
This green monkey was called Janette. – © Austrian National Library

The third part of the exhibition talks about scientific standards and the pursuit of research, showing a selection of animal studies commissioned by Ferdinand I: animals are shown in their natural habitat, such as a dynamic small spotted geneticist radiating vitality, such as in octopuses preserved in perfumes from the court cabinet of natural objects, or stand out with amazing attention to detail, for example, the insects of the court painter Bernhard von Schretter.

Despite all the admiration for realistic and elegant animal portraits, the exposition also highlights zooetic aspects: transitions from expeditions were difficult, many animals died in cramped cages. Others succumbed to the conditions in Vienna and died shortly after their arrival. Maximilian’s first elephant lived in Kaiserebersdorf for only a year and a half. And the population of Vienna not only treated exotic animals with respect, but also enjoyed trained big cats in wandering menageries, which later became part of the circus movement. In theaters of hate, such as those used by white tanners, there were violent show fights between bears, lions, wolves, and humans as well. In 1796 the theater fell victim to a fire, and Emperor Franz II./I. seized this as an opportunity to ban hate-motivated fights.

Big connections

The Emperor’s Most Beautiful Animals is not only a survey of the sometimes ugly relationship between the Habsburgs and animals and questionable scientific methods of past centuries, but also a classification of developments that continue to influence zoos, natural history museums, animal photography and circuses today. In addition to the emphasis on this ambivalence, one of the strengths of the exhibition is certainly the fact that the individual destinies of animals are shared without losing trends and development.

The field of tension between the animal in general as an object of entertainment, research and dramatization of imperial dignity and the individual animal dying in the straw, which will not survive the shipment from Brazil, gives an honest idea of ​​u200bu200bthis hitherto somewhat forgotten side. history of Austrian culture.

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