Sunday, 27 November 2011

New books: Royal splendour from across Europe

On the occasion of the wedding of Sovereign Prince Albert II and Princess Charlène of Monaco this summer the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco held an exhibition titled no less than “Magnificence and Grandeur of the Royal Houses in Europe”. I did not see the exhibition, but a while ago I got hold of the eponymous catalogue, edited by Catherine Arminjon, which bears testimony to a sumptuous exhibition of royal treasures from across Europe.
The catalogue is arranged geographically, starting with Portugal and Spain before moving north to France, Britain, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden and then south again from Russia via Poland, Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria, Austria, the Hungarian Esterházys, the Savoys of Turin and the Bourbons of Naples before ending up in Monaco.
Thus Liechtenstein is the only of the current European monarchies not included in the exhibition, which is a pity given that the princely collection is one of the grandest in Europe, probably second only to that of Britain. The British Royal Collection has also not lent anything to the exhibition, so the British section is made up of loans from mostly French collections (a bust from the Victoria & Albert Museum is the only British-owned item included).
But the other extant monarchies have all lent items from their royal collections – some more generously than others. Being Norwegian I notice that the loans from this country are actually quite impressive, even including Queen Maud’s coronation gown.
Covering all this in one exhibition or one volume would obviously be impossible and the solution chosen is to focus on one monarch (or couple) per country – Denmark and Prussia being the exceptions by including respectively both Christian IV and Christian IX and the entire Hohenzollern dynasty from Friedrich I to Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The chosen person(s) is often, but not always, the founder of a dynasty – Felipe V of Spain, Adolphe of Luxembourg, Léopold I of the Belgians, Haakon VII of Norway.
For each country there is one main essay, generally followed by one or two shorter and more specific texts and finally a catalogue of the items relating to the country in question. The essays are diverse in their contents, with some authors choosing to write short biographical essays while authors set focus on one topic in particular.
As is the case with all anthologies, some essays are obviously more successful than others. Among the better ones one could mention Philippe Maarschalkerweerd on the education of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, Andrea Merlotti on the achievements of King Vittorio Amadeo of Sardinia and Sicily, Gustaf Janssens on King Léopold I of the Belgians’s brand of constitutional monarchy, Peter Kristiansen on King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway, Magnus Olausson on the public persona of King Gustaf III of Sweden and Lorenz Seelig on the artistic patronage of King Ludwig I of Bavaria.
The only main essay which does not measure up is, unfortunately I must say, the Norwegian one, which has been written by Widar Halén, director of design and decorative art at the National Museum in Oslo. It seems obvious that Halén has very little knowledge and understanding of the topic he has been asked to write about and has done little about this.
His essay is, bewilderedly, entitled “The new Norwegian monarchy and its context”, and from the text it seems clear that he does indeed think that there was an entirely new Norwegian monarchy in 1905. Thus he refers to “King Oscar II of Sweden” as if Norway had been a Swedish province rather than an independent kingdom in a personal union with its eastern neighbour. He also claims that independence came only in 1905 and that the monogram of Haakon VII “was soon being brandished as a symbol of freedom, particularly during World War II”. In fact this happened only during World War II. It seems obvious that Halén has understood little of what really happened in 1905.
He adds some nonsense about the mediaeval book The King’s Mirror saying that “to serve and honor the king is to pay homage to God”. If this “is seen simply as a description of the king’s immunity and exceptional status, its significance for modern Norway is more readily understood. It was on this basis ten that the Norwegian people chose Prince Carl of Denmark and Princess Maud, daughter of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra of Great Britain, as king and queen of Norway”. Reading this, one can but wonder what on earth he is talking about.
To these examples of his own confusion he adds several factual mistakes, such as the claim that Queen Maud died at Appleton House, that the accession of a new monarch was proclaimed from the palace balcony in 1958 (sic) as well as in 1991 or that the Constitution of 17 May 1814 irrevocably abolished the nobility. Using Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla as a historical source is highly questionable, to put it mildly.
If asked to write an essay on a topic about which one knows little, one can either decline, or try to learn something about it in order to make the best out of it, or put one’s own confusion into print. Sadly the Norwegian essay of this catalogue is an example of the latter option.
There are inevitably some mistakes to be found also in other parts of the catalogue and the English language is sometimes flawed. Occasionally there is a quaint expression, sometimes a sentence does not make sense, but I am left wondering whether this is due to the translators or a result of the various authors with varying command of the language having been required to write in English.
The catalogue is beautifully designed and having read it, the main impression is that it makes for an interesting grand tour through the history of Europe’s monarchies, taking in some of the most interesting stories to be found along the way and giving an impression of the splendour associated with the royal courts of Europe in recent centuries.


  1. I saw the exhibition but did not buy the heavy catalogue. The exhibition was really great and the fact that only one or sometimes two aspects or events from each court was dealt with made it really interesting and made it human in size.The room dedicated to Norway was very well arranged and the stupidities you mention contained the the catalogue were not reflected.For Sweden I would perhaps have wished that some more "royal" objects relating to Gustaf III could have been included.
    Two more comments. I saw this exhibition in the middle of a hot August the French Riviera and Monaco being crowded with visitors.But in the Grimaldi Forum me and my friend could walk around the exhibition rooms -not alone-but without any crowd whatsoever until we had to leave since the AC was making us shiver from cold.Royal splendour does not always attract popular attention.
    When buying one's entrance tickets one was discreetly given a pamphlet on the Royal House of Bourbon Two Sicilies and the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George of which the duke of Castro is now the Grand Master.I mention this because we earlier had a discussion about the Royal House of Bourbon Two Sicilies! Home Page:

    Martin Rahm

  2. I am glad to hear that you enjoyed the exhibition. I was given the Neapolitan brochure by someone who was there and it seems a rather odd thing to hand out. But I believe the Duke of Castro and the Prince of Monaco are quite good friends, which may explain why the former was allowed to use the exhibition to promote himself.


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