‘The Empress’ found the Weissenstein Palace in an unconventional location
Inevitably, the first thing you do upon entering the Weissenstein Palace is look up. Everything just beyond the elaborately welded wrought iron gates catches your eye: grand symmetrical staircases, a promenade supported by Corinthian columns, and arches of varying sizes extending from the promenade balustrade to the ceiling. The main event is a magnificent mural designed in vivid blues, dusty pinks and sunny yellows, painted by Giovanni Francesco Marchini, widely considered a master of Baroque illusion painting, and Swiss painter and gallerist Johann Rudolf Byss . Apollo dominates his center on a chariot drawn by four white horses. Cherubs trail garlands of flowers past peacocks and cranes. Hermes floats above a puffy pink cloud; Artemis on the moon, stag and doe in tow. It is surrounded by a magnificent trompe l’oeil of a painted balcony, above which a dizzying array of figures gaze down to the ground. The painted fringe of a sultan rug covers the cornice for added effect.
It is only natural that on entering this room in the second episode of The Empress, Elisabeth (Devrim Lignau) does just that, her eyes wide with wonder. The camera follows his gaze in a rotating plane of the fresco while the music swells. Released in September and running across six episodes, Netflix’s searing romantic drama traces the engagement and early marriage of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth (known as Sisi) with a light historical hand. He is ambitious and determined to modernize his empire while doing good for his people. he is a free spirit brought up far from court life and far too practical for that. Meanwhile, the Russians loom on the frontier, the unwashed masses at the gates and the second-born Archduke Maximilian in the halls of the palace plotting treason with powerful allies. This is the stuff of sumptuous period pieces – this one in particular, in this case, by decorator Matthias Müsse.
Müsse visited around 20 castles across Germany in search of The Empress‘ Schönbrunn, one of two sprawling palaces in Vienna housing the real Franz and Elisabeth. The real Schönbrunn, which Müsse visited specifically to decide “what we were going to do wrong, in a way”, was far too red and rococo for the blues and baroque aesthetic he had chosen. He also wanted a well-preserved palace but not a museum. Weissenstein did the trick. “You can see the old fabrics on the walls. You can see the dirt on the railings,” he says. “That worn look is very important to make it even more believable that this family is really old and powerful, and [that] they fight to stay that way.
Weissenstein Palace is a long way from Schönbrunn, but only about 20 minutes from Bamberg, a northern Bavarian river town famous for its beautifully preserved medieval layout and architecture. It is surrounded by low, tree-covered hills and expanses of verdant farmland, set back from the winding road by stone walls and massive gates. Construction of the residence began in 1711, with money Lothar Franz von Schönborn, Prince-Bishop of Bamberg and Archbishop-Elector of Mainz, received from Charles VI, whom he had helped ascend to the throne after his death of Joseph I without a male heir. Supervised by von Schönborn himself and several architects (including Habsburg court architect Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt), construction took seven years and raised the status of the surrounding area, from the import of a small army of artisans, hydraulic engineers, painters and sculptors in the countryside. town of Possenhoffen was neither cheap nor easy.