Family fortunes

BBC History Magazine|July 2020

Family fortunes
MARK CORNWALL recommends a masterful account of a dynasty that dominated Europe for more than four centuries and spread its influence across the globe
MARK CORNWALL

The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power by Martyn Rady Allen Lane, 416 pages, £30

Anyone visiting the Austrian city of Innsbruck should make sure to see the Court Church, built in the 16th century as a memorial to the Habsburg emperor Maximilian I. There we find his huge black marble tomb, decorated with illustrious scenes from his reign – not just military triumphs but dynastic marriages that extended Habsburg power across Europe. The cenotaph is surrounded by 28 bronze figures, larger than life and lined up to depict Habsburg ancestry. Some are understandable, such as Maximilian’s father, Frederick III, whose bombastic motto was ‘Austria is ruler of the world’. Others seem delusional, such as Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, or Arthur, legendary king of Britain.

The whole ensemble is a forceful reminder that, across five centuries, the Habsburgs were obsessed with crafting an image of their past and future greatness. They aspired to lead a range of ‘world missions’ in order to justify their existence and power. Yet there was always something deceptive about all this pomp and propaganda. If the bronze figures allude to it, so does the fact that Maximilian’s tomb in Innsbruck is empty – his body is buried elsewhere, in a chapel near Vienna under a plain block of marble.

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July 2020