Well, I suppose it was bound to happen.
Being as into tracing family trees (FamTracking) as I am–especially given how much I enjoy doing the detective work on anyone’s, not just my own or that of my kids–and the fact that I practiced as a teenager and still occasionally explore the lineages of famous families like the Julio-Claudians who ruled the early Roman Empire, it would stand to reason that sometime or another I’d roll up my sleeves and get into the nitty gritty and down ‘n dirty of one of history’s most infamous family trees, er, families: the Habsburgs.
Yup, the ones who ruled central Europe and at times much of the rest of that and a couple other continents for, oh, something like a thousand years. They were Kings. They were Kaisers. They were powerful.
They emerged out of lovely little Switzerland, minor Dukes until one of the smarter and more together of them, Rudolf I in the 1200s, muscled his way on to the International scene, ruling Austria (Osterreich, in German, which essentially means “Eastern Domain/Realm”) up until 1918, much of Germany and the weird international delusion/illusion of the Papcy known as the Holy Roman Empire for 100s of years, and Spain and the Netherlands and southern Italy up to 1700, including through the whole “let’s send some mean-a** glory-n-gold-craving loonies called Conquistadores” to the Americas period. Those Habsburgs.
A potential business opportunity has recently, believe it or not, thrust the Habsburg’s of the 16th & 17th centuries into my purview. I’m helping some folks who own an object from the 1600s by doing research on it. It’s the type of object that only aristocrats even owned in the 1600s, and indeed, the patron who paid for the object was an aristocrat of the bluest blood.
And though I’d never heard of this particular guy, per se, the surname–Gonzaga–was stored somewhere in my mental filing cabinet, and it turns out he was one connected cat: he (and his sister, which, more on that below…;-) both married into the Habsburgs–as well as being grandchildren of Medici, technically already also descended in the Habsburg line, AND one of the only lines of descendants of the Palieologo, the family that ruled the late (more like Late Late Show edition of the) Roman Empire over there in Constantinople.
So in learning about this fella, Charles Gonzaga II, Duke of Mantua & Montferrato, (see large inset picture to the right), in just the bare-bones descriptions of who he was so many heavy hitting, power-player names started swirling that to keep them straight I had to chart it out (as we famtrackers are wont to do). And that led quicker than you can say “in a family way” to the realization that I was dealing with not just any old insert-point into the Habsburgs, but this guy was right smack dab in the period when they were mating uncles and nieces, 1st cousins & 2nd cousins, more uncles and nieces, rinse, wash, repeat, than you can shake a stick at, leading directly to their loss of some of their power base due to the rulers being too inbred to healthily live and function, let alone properly rule. This guy in question, seen in this large engraving, was not quite as inbred as his wife, which is why I missed it at first. He wasn’t a King or Kaiser, but he was the one who paid for the item owned now, here in the 21st century, by my friends, and it turns out, more or less the last of long line of super rich Dukes who not only sponsored artistic masters like Titian and Reubens, but also once had the single largest collection of Renassaince art in the world.
And it was a sort of startling unfolding discovery.
So there I was charting out these folks, and doing the collateral branch of the main line of “Holy Roman Emperors, ie, the Kings of Germany, noticing the first uncle-niece union of Archduke Charles II and Maria of Bavaria in the 1580s. I sorta shuddered-to-think and then switched gears back to Mr. Ducal Gonzaga and his wife, Isabella-Clara of Austria. Huh, “of Austria”, I thought to myself. …filling in her birth date and place in the family tree…filled in her parent’s names and they weren’t any of the people I’d already filled in so I wasn’t certain she was of the same family. So then I open a page about her the 1st thing of which I noticed was her picture. Noticed with a gut-snarling “Ugh”, because the painted portrait of her revealed all I–or anyone–needed to know: was she of the same family as Chuckie & Maria (the uncle-niece pairing mentioned above)? You betch’yer bottom thaler she was. The elongated face, weirdly formed eye sockets, severe lantern jaw notably present in a great swath of Habsburgs from that era.
Honestly, I felt a bit sad, too. Because I think Isabella-Clara looks very kind in the portrait. Was she? I have no idea, but even if she was a right you-know-what, she was still a person, who had to know what the deal was; she looks to me in the painting, as if she has the expression on her face that’s sort of saying, “Yeah, I’m all messed up, but here I am, didn’t really have a choice in the matter, so, let’s get on w/ it.” Massively reading into it, of course, but perhaps that’s my way of quickly getting over the untoward parts of uncomfortable parts of her parentage. Her & her husband’s life stories added something here: it was (clearly) an arranged marriage, and they apparently didn’t like each other so much, and by mutual consent took other lovers. First off, that seems highly reasonable and mutually respectful. And it seems she quite loved the man she ended up having quite a long and fully developed romantic coupling with, who also happened to be Jewish. Something tells me Isabella-Clara was alright.
In any event, they had one son, Ferdinand Carlo, but he seems to have been just a party guy and the line dies with him (though he had an illegitimate kid), with an intriguing “final vision” of him, out of his castle, out of money, living in Venice in possession of a 1000 of his family’s paintings, wall hangings & such, pawning them off to live out his 56-odd years.
As for the marriage of Duke Carlo II’s sister (Eleanor, pictured to the right) to the other Habsburg (a 1st cousin of Isabella-Clara’s), well he was the reigning dude, Kaiser Ferdinand III, (pictured to the left) and they had many kids, and in fact all future Habsburg rulers would be descended from them…. (See this on the above chart; click on it to get a bigger version.)
….not least of whom was a certain Archduke whose assassination 100 years ago to the day, come June 28, kicked off a war so big they called it the War to End All Wars and the Great War….Ahh, silly people who grew up in the 19th century: for we, of course, know it as but the First World War; as if “World” together with “War” had such a nice ring to it they had to have another one. Like New York, only different….ugh, I’m having that same feeling in my gut as when I saw before me the face of poor Isabella-Clara (who was not even nearly the worst afflicted by the sameness of her parent’s genes. A recent study of 16 generations of the family calculated the “consanguinuity coefficient” for all of them).
Sorry to get heavy, but I think herein lays in insight: we’re all somewhat inurred to war (what with two world ones & perpetual war since, well a really long time ago, ok?); or perhaps not so much un-moved by its awfulness as accepting of it as “natural” when it’s anything but that. Well, so making a joke like the one above that drew my attention to just how wrong war is brings it all home: it’s as wrong as the kind of too-close inbreeding that doomed the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs specifically because of the consequences. Why it’s wrong is not abstract, in exactly the same way that the consquences of war, and thus the reasons it’s just as wrong, are also utterly un-abstract: they interrupt us, slap us, splatter and vivisect in exactly the way all words ever spoken do not and can not.
Interestingly, to somehow wrap up this post with some coherence, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand served, really, as an excuse for the Big Powers to get into the big power play fight it seems various of them had been itching for. And though it’s relatively (har har) well known that Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Bill (as the Yanks called him) & King George were 1st cousins, this is the ideal place to point out that Kaiser Wilhelm II, head of Germany and ally to Austria-Hungary (Franz Ferdinand’s atrophying nation that wouldn’t survive the war) was indeed, also of the Habsburg blood royal.
More to come on the Gonzagas and their unique place in the center of European aristocracy and art patronage, as well as a “Where are they now?” catch-up on what and who remains of these Habsburgs.