Washed Up

Edelweiss, patsgams0, Pixabay

Today on Museum Bites we’ll tackle the tricky and often smelly business of 16th-century personal hygiene.  We’ll also get up close and personal with the mighty Habsburg clan, and their cautionary tale on the dangers of close family connections.  Last week we poked around Ferdinand II of Tyrol’s collection of armor, art, and curiosities located in the lower portion of Schloss Ambras.  The upper castle was once the living quarters of Ferdinand and his first wife, Philippine Welser (1527-1580).  It houses Philippine’s bathing chamber, Habsburg Portrait Gallery, Chapel of St. Nikolaus, and the Spanish Hall.  Today we’ll sample the bathing chamber and portrait gallery.

Philippine Welser’s Bathing Chamber:  Bathing in 16th century Europe was rare.  Fear of contaminated water that could transmit disease and pestilence kept people out of the tub.  A person’s odor was an indication of their social status.  In other words, the more obnoxious one smelled, the lower one was presumed to be on the social totem pole.  For those who could afford it, personal hygiene meant changing one’s linen and slapping on perfume and powder to choice areas of the body.

Giovanni Della Casa, the Italian Miss Manners of the Renaissance and all around scold, warns in his book, Galateo (1558) that a man must achieve a delicate balance when tending to his personal scent.  He should not reek like a filthy beggar in the street, nor smell like he’s been bombed with an eye-watering amount of perfume.  Sage advice to this day!

Philippine Welser’s Bathing Chamber©KHM-Museumsverband

Philippine’s luxurious bathing chamber resembled a modern day spa with a few extras thrown in.  At just over 5 feet deep, the tin-plated copper basin bathtub has more of a Jacuzzi feel to it.  Hot stones were placed at the bottom to keep the water warm, and fresh herbs were added to perfume the air and foster wellness.  Bathers were served food and drink while they listened to music and took in the glorious view of the Alps. Dental treatments and bloodletting were also on tap.  The exhibit features an assortment of toothpicks, ear spoons (ear wax excavator), tongue depressors, and surgical instruments.  The chamber also includes a steam room and resting area for post-bath naps.  These perks are a far cry from the perfume and powder routine.

Maximilian II, Maria of Spain with children Anna, Rudolf & Ernst©KHM-Museumsverband

Habsburg Portrait Gallery:  The portrait gallery contains a procession of over 200 paintings from the 14th through the 18th century.  A veritable Who’s Who of Europe’s movers and shakers, the gallery includes paintings of Habsburg superstars, Emperor Maximilian I, Emperor Charles V, King Philip II of Spain and Empress Maria Theresa.  The collection also includes paintings of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the powerful Wittelsbachers of Bavaria, Valois House of France, and the formidable Medicis.

Whether it is due to the jaw clenching neck ruffles, weighty head gear, or the painstaking poses, this collection of royals is not a smiley lot.  Even the children look ticked off.  Keep in mind these are paintings, the Renaissance artist’s version of photoshop.  Apparently, it wasn’t fashionable to add a twinkle to the eye, a small smile to the lips, or some color to the cheeks.  Perhaps a pre-portrait dip in Philippine’s bath would have softened these moody glares.

Eleanor of Gonzaga (1598-1655) ©KHM-Museumsverband

After Ferdinand’s death in 1595, Schloss Ambras was passed on to his second son, Margrave of Burgau (1552-1612), who sold the castle and its holdings to Emperor Rudolf II.  In 1880, after centuries of neglect, Schloss Ambras was converted to a museum. Click on the following link to take a 360° look at this charming castle: Schloss Ambras 360

Freaky Familial Facts: A Cautionary Tale

Royals like to marry fellow royals and in the case of the Habsburgs, they took the idea way too far.  The Habsburg Dynasty began with Rudolf I (1218-1291) and through a series of land grabs and strategic marriages among his descendants, the family rose to power in Europe.

Eventually, the Habsburg holdings grew to an unmanageable state, and in 1556, Charles V (1500-1558) divided the empire between his brother, Ferdinand I (1503-1564) and son, Philip II (1527-1598).  Ferdinand I ruled the Austrian branch as the Holy Roman Emperor, and Philip II became King of Spain. To maintain their firm grip on Europe and beyond, the family continued to wage war and marry cousins, and in a few cases uncles and nieces.

King Charles II of Spain

The last Spanish Habsburg king, Charles II (1661-1700) was the only child of an uncle-niece parentage. Mentally challenged, physically disabled, and childless despite two marriages, Charles II was dreadfully inbred. And if that weren’t enough, poor Charles inherited several distinct physical characteristics common in the Habsburg family, including an elongated face, protruding jaw, and bulging lips, known as the “Habsburg lip”.  Unfortunately, in Charles, these features were visible in the extreme.  Lacking a male heir, the Spanish branch of the Habsburg Dynasty ended with Charles II’s death which subsequently led to the War of the Spanish Succession.  The Austrian Habsburgs more often married outside the family, and their descendants live on today.

Click on this Habsburg Dynasty link to view the family tree, more peevish portraits, and a host of Habsburg happenings.  It’s time to say so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good night to Austria.  Next week we’ll tour the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum on the campus of Michigan State University.  See you next week J


Alvarez, Quinteiro & Ceballos, Inbreeding and Genetic Disorder (2011)



Galateo: A Renaissance Treatise on Manners (1558) by G. Della Casa

Google Maps



Rijks Museum

Schloss Ambras

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