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The Habsburgs shaped the story of Europe – and of its art

European art from Titian to Klimt mirrors the history of the royal dynasty that commissioned or inspired it

The recent burial of Otto von Habsburg – his body in Vienna, his heart in Hungary – drew attention to one of the most powerful families in European history. For centuries the Habsburg dynasty ruled not only Austria and a vast tract of central Europe but, at their height, Spain, the Low Countries and much of south America.

Otto von Habsburg, though he never inherited the empire that collapsed in 1919 when he was still a child, is remembered as a "good European" who served the continent well. But the Habsburg who defined Europe in the Renaissance was Charles V, who in the 16th century became ruler of Spain and its American possessions and was elected Holy Roman Emperor. Titian's famous equestrian portrait of Charles is truly imperial, modelled on Roman statues of horseborne Caesars, and illuminated by a sky glowing with stormy intimations of power and wrath. The landscape surely symbolises Europe, submitting to its ruler.

Titian worked not only for Charles V but for his son Philip II, the Habsburg who launched the Spanish Armada. It was for Philip that he painted his grand atmospheric mythological canvases including The Rape of Europa. In fact, the entire story of European art from the 1500s to the birth of modernism could be told as a family history of the Habsburgs. Sensual mythological canvases and court portraits both found their greatest patrons in this royal family.

Rudolf II – whose rich collections will be shown at the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge this summer – sponsored the fantastical paintings of Arcimboldo, while the Spanish branch of the dynasty employed Velázquez. To this day, the family network means that the Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna has great Velázquez portraits, while Titian's Charles V is in the Prado in Madrid. The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch is in the Prado because of Habsburg rule in Flanders, and a sensual tendency in Habsburg taste means that Correggio's Jupiter and Io, a painting of a woman being embraced by a cloud, is in Vienna.

At their height the Habsburgs transmitted the Renaissance. In decline, they provoked modernist revolt. In the last stagnant days of Habsburg Austria, a combination of imperial largesse for decorative schemes in extravagant public buildings with a cynical rejection of authority by artists who saw no future for the society they decorated, unleashed the dream art of Klimt. Out of the doomed empire came some of the most provocative and brilliant art of the modern age, with Klimt and contemporaries such as Schiele investigating sexuality and the psyche years before the surrealists. The Habsburgs deserve to be remembered. They played a colossal role in the story of Europe, and its art. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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