Books: Saviour of the Habsburgs, richly rewarded

Soldier and collector Prince Eugene of Savoy’s role in the rise of the Austro-Hungarian empire


A joke has it that a member of the Habsburg family, now employed by the EU, and known to be a great football fan, was on an official visit to Vienna. To be hospitable, his hosts asked him if he’d like to attend the Austria-Hungary football match. “Certainly,” he replied, “whom are we playing?”

Behind the joke lies the memory of a multi-national empire that lasted for some two centuries. What was especially remarkable about it was that it was the successor to a very different Habsburg empire, focused on Germany, which seemed on the brink of extinction at the end of the Thirty Years’ War. That it was reoriented to the east and reinvigorated in little more than a generation around 1700 was thanks largely to one man, Prince Eugene of Savoy. Ruling a multitude of languages and peoples, the Habsburgs were unique among Europe’s monarchs in their enthusiasm for foreign aristocrats at their court and as commanders of their armies. None repaid that welcome as handsomely as Eugene. In a few decades, he not only launched a once shrinking dynasty into an expansive era of conquest, but he helped make Vienna into one of the most dazzling capitals and cultural centres in Europe.

This catalogue records an exhibition (until 6 June) that pays tribute to the prince’s many achievements. It is held in the lower half of the Belvedere in Vienna, a two-part palace that is a contender for the title of the most imposing townhouse ever built, and which Eugene spent over a decade completing during the 1710s and 1720s. Although more than 300 objects are on display, ranging from sculptures to manuscripts, weapons to portraits, they barely scratched the surface of his possessions. His library alone, now owned by the national library, contained some 15,000 volumes. He had two Van Dycks, seven Guido Renis, and hundreds of Dutch and Italian paintings. At the heart of the Albertina’s collection of prints, the largest in the world, are the 255 volumes of engravings by masters such as Dürer that ultimately came from Eugene.

Yet this was a military man who was regularly in the field. Along with the Duke of Marlborough, his ally at Blenheim, he was the most successful general of his age, and famous for his bravery: it has been estimated that he was wounded on 13 separate occasions. For Eugene, a Savoyard prince raised in France, who fled to Vienna because Louis XIV (to his later regret) did not give him a commission in the French army, the model for an aristocrat was clearly the Petrarchan ideal of an active as well as a contemplative life. Never married (and said to like young pages better than women), he threw himself into aesthetic and learned pursuits with the same enthusiasm as he gave to the military. Personally acquainted with Leibniz and Montesquieu, he may well have been the greatest patron of his day.

In a series of 12 essays and over 300 catalogue entries, Prince Eugene: General-Philosopher and Art Lover tells this story, and indicates the effects it has had on Vienna and Turin (where most of the works of art ended up) to this day. Beautifully illustrated and elegantly laid out, the book is a treasure-chest of the mementos and masterpieces with which Eugene surrounded himself. Although he prided himself on being an honnête homme—transparent and unassuming—he cannot have been easy to know, for he was also imperious and often aloof. About his aesthetic passions and his fondness for learning and the arts, however, there can be no question. He sought out the finest works, and in some ways was the epitome of the taste of his times. How deeply he understood what he owned one cannot know, but he made sure that exemplars of the erudition and creativity that were most admired by his contemporaries were gathered together under his roofs.

The essayists in the catalogue are concerned mainly to lay out this basic information. There is an interesting evaluation by Leopold Auer of Eugene’s not always consistent devotion to the ideal of honnête homme, but otherwise we are primarily given surveys of the prince’s many areas of activity. And the catalogue entries are straightforwardly descriptive, rather than the analytic discussions of provenance, literature and meaning that often accompany exhibitions these days. Apart from misleading references to Bellotto by his nickname, Canaletto, these are mines of interesting detail, and the bibliography is a splendid, comprehensive addition to the volume. This is clearly the place to start for anyone who wishes to find out about one of the most brilliant yet elusive figures of 18th-century Europe.

The writer is Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Princeton University

o Agnes Husslein-Arco, ed, Prince Eugene: General-Philosopher and Art Lover (Hirmer Verlag), 336 pp, €45 (hb) ISBN 9783777425511