Wolfram Koeppe—curator of the exhibition Vienna Circa 1780: An Imperial Silver Service Rediscovered
—tells the story of the spectacular Sachsen-Teschen silver service and describes the splendor of royal dining during the ancien régime.
: Hello, I’m Wolfram Koeppe, curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I am curator of the exhibition Vienna Circa 1780: An Imperial Silver Service Rediscovered
Vienna in 1780 was quite an exciting place to be. Just one year later, in 1781, Mozart would arrive. Haydn and Gluck, the two main composers, were already present. And there was an extremely active artistic community. One of the reasons for that was that Vienna had an academy of fine arts, where artists from all over Europe would come together and study art and the history of art, and were trained in special crafts. This academy was strongly supported by the court to enhance the quality of the products that were made at the time in Vienna and would establish a Europe-wide reputation for the town.
Vienna was at the crossroad of several main cultural streams, which go from the north to Italy, and from the west—from France—to Eastern Europe. Therefore, Vienna was like a melting pot for different and diverse cultures.
In 2002 the Museum acquired a pair of wine coolers made by the goldsmith Ignaz Joseph Würth from 1779 to 1782. Ignaz Joseph Würth belonged to a dynasty of goldsmiths who produced, in several generations, outstanding objects for the court but also fulfilled outside commissions. Shortly after the wine coolers went on display, we heard that the main core of the service they belonged to was still preserved in a Parisian private collection. After some negotiations, the current owner decided that he would send across the ocean the main parts of the service [so] that we were able to show all the object in its beauty. This service is clearly a testimony that Vienna has to be regarded among the most important centers for goldsmithing around that period in Europe.
Today such silver services are very rare survivors of something that was a must for the Baroque age. Kings and princes had extensive silver services that they used for dining purposes. Dining in the ancien régime was not that everybody was seated at the table. It was a public affair and only some selected guests were able to join the host to enjoy the meal, whereas others had to stand around or even were allowed only to pass by. This was called dining in public, and it was a special court ritual that was present all over Europe. For this kind of ritual, you needed an extensive silver service for several courses and silver was a material chosen in most cases, because the currency at that time was based on the precious metals gold and silver.
These two wine coolers are part of a service that was commissioned by Albert von Sachsen-Teschen and his wife Marie Christine, the Archduchess of Austria, a daughter of Maria Theresa, who lived in Vienna at this period. Marie Christine was extremely close to her mother, the Empress, and was able to get her way as she imagined it. She was the only one of all the children, the sixteen children of Maria Theresa, that was not sacrificed for the good of the state but was allowed to marry for love.
Albert von Sachsen-Teschen had a wonderful pedigree. He was the son of the Elector of Saxony and the King of Poland, but he was the fifth in line to the throne, so the chances to ascent would have been quite small. Albert was made the governor of Hungary, directly after the wedding, and the income that were at the couple’s disposal was so extraordinary that they could start to collect and could start to assemble objects of the highest quality and value.
When Maria Theresa died in 1780, the couple was sent by the new emperor to be the governors of the Habsburg lowlands in Brussels. In Brussels they built their dream residence, which was the Castle Schönenberg, which today is named Laeken and the seat of the Belgian royal family. Most likely the service was intended as an ambassadorial service made in Vienna and presented to the public in Brussels to show what at that time Viennese goldsmiths were able to do.
The service that they commissioned was a service à la française, which means it did not have a big centerpiece, but it had several large tureens and a multitude of dishes and covers, and also 288 plates. Classical parts and ornaments are juxtaposed by whimsical details, like the finials on the tureen, which depict animals or some sort of fruits or vegetables. The plates were used because, during the courses, they had to be changed and washed, of course. And the dishwasher—it was a manual one—had to keep up with the demand of the guests.
Large tureens serve as key pieces on the table, and they are placed steadily because they have a liner inside which was filled in the kitchen with the soup or the stew or whatever was served and then brought to the table and put into the tureen and covered by the lid. Other implements were dishes of several shapes, like triangular dishes, round or square dishes. And most of them had a cover, which was very important at the period. Hot food was protected by the cover but also cold food. When the servants would bring the food from the kitchen in long passageways toward the dining or the banquet hall, the food needed to be protected against the dust of the wigs of the servant in front of you and of other taste-disturbing ingredients like flies, or insects, say—would settle down and try to get their share of the meal. Some of the pieces are so heavy that they could be lifted only with the help of two men.
At the table, the specialties prepared in the kitchen were uncovered and then served at once, and guests had to help themselves to reach to the different dishes. Very much in demand was sweet wine, the so-called Tokay from Hungary, which was one of the favorites at the court of Vienna.
Silver, as mentioned before, was the currency. A service like that was nothing else than putting the state treasury on the table and on public display.
Albert of Sachsen-Teschen and Marie Christine were quite outstanding in their own way. Their main goal was to amass quite an exceptional art collection.
When the French Revolution drew close the couple had to flee Brussels, and all of their belongings were packed on three ships, which should have brought them to Hamburg. One ship capsized and quite a lot of artwork was lost. From there, from Hamburg, the goods were brought to Saxony where Albert came from, and then later transferred to Vienna, to be safe from the French revolutionary troops.
Albert faced quite a disaster when his wife Marie Christine—or Mimi, as she was called among friends—died in 1798 in Vienna. He would outlive her for twenty-four years, continuing to collect especially drawings and prints, and building up the core of what is today the Albertina Museum in Vienna.
When he died in 1822, he was seen as quite a curious old man, who lived in that palace, sometimes visited by scholars from other countries to admire his enormous collection. But he had outlived his time completely. There was rarely one person alive who could remember having seen him in all his glory.
Vienna Circa 1780 is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from April 13 to November 7, 2010.
The exhibition is made possible by the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.