The Unconventional Baroque Masterpiece at the Center of 'The Empress'
Built in the 18th century with money gifted by the Holy Roman Emperor, Weissenstein Palace imbues the familial feuds of 'The Empress' with high baroque drama.
Inevitably, the first thing you do upon entering Weissenstein Palace is look up. Everything just beyond the elaborately welded wrought iron gates lifts your gaze: symmetrical grand staircases, a promenade supported by Corinthian columns, and arches of varying sizes extending from the promenade railing to the ceiling. The main event is a magnificent fresco conceived in bright blues, powdery pinks, and sunny yellows, painted by Giovanni Francesco Marchini, widely regarded as a master of Baroque illusion painting, and the Swiss painter and gallerist Johann Rudolf Byss. Apollo dominates its center on a chariot pulled by four white horses. Cherubim trail garlands of flowers past peacocks and cranes. Hermes floats over a puffy pink cloud; Artemis over the moon, stag and doe in tow. It’s ringed by a magnificent trompe l'oeil of a painted balcony, over which a dizzying array of characters peer toward the ground. The painted fringe of a sultan’s carpet drapes over the cornice for added effect.
It’s only natural that upon entering this hall in the second episode of The Empress, Elisabeth (Devrim Lignau) does exactly this, eyes wide with wonder. The camera follows her gaze into a rotating shot of the fresco while the music swells. Released in September and across six episodes, Netflix’s burning romantic drama traces the engagement and early marriage of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth (famously known as Sisi) with a light historical hand. He’s ambitious and determined to modernize his empire while doing right by his people; she’s a free spirit raised far from court life and far too practical for it. Meanwhile the Russians are looming at the border, the unwashed masses at the gates, and second-born Archduke Maximilian in the palace halls plotting treason with powerful allies. It’s the stuff of sumptuous period pieces—this particular one, as it happens, by production designer Matthias Müsse.
Müsse visited roughly 20 castles across Germany in search of The Empress’ Schönbrunn, one of two sprawling Vienna palaces home to the real-life Franz and Elisabeth. The real Schönbrunn, which Müsse visited specifically to decide “what we were going to make wrong, in a sense,” was far too red and rococo for the blues-heavy and baroque aesthetic he’d chosen. He also wanted a palace that was well preserved but not museum-y. Weissenstein fit the bill. “You can see the old fabrics on the walls. You can see the dirt on the railings,” he says. “This used look is very important to make it even more believable that this family is really old and powerful, and [that] they are fighting to stay like that.”
Weissenstein Palace is a long way from Schönbrunn, but only about 20 minutes outside Bamberg, a river town in northern Bavaria famous for its beautifully preserved medieval layout and architecture. It’s surrounded by low, tree-covered hills and swaths of green farmland, set back from the winding road by stone walls and massive gates. Construction on the residence began in 1711, with money Lothar Franz von Schönborn, the Prince-Bishop of Bamberg and Archbishop-Elector of Mainz, received from Charles VI, whom he’d helped maneuver onto the throne after Joseph I died without a male heir. Overseen by von Schönborn himself and multiple architects (including Habsburg court architect Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt), construction took seven years and elevated the status of the surrounding area, since importing a small army of craftsmen, hydraulic engineers, painters, and sculptors to the rural town of Possenhoffen was neither cheap nor easy.
Unlike the imperial palaces, Weissenstein is privately owned by the Schönborn family. Parts are kept private for familial use; others devoted each summer to an annual music collegium for international students. The marvelous art collection is open to public tours, and museum loans help with upkeep—most recently, Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Susanna and the Elders” to the Gropius Bau in Berlin. After the initial success of the show, staff hosted The Empress-themed tours and made one of the suites available through Airbnb to overnight stays.
In Weissenstein, Müsse found an intriguing architectural dichotomy well-suited to The Empress’ Habsburgs, plagued as they are with the eternal heir-and-the-spare royal conflict. Franz has the imperial throne, the responsibilities, and Elisabeth. His younger brother Maximilian is convinced he could manage all three not only better but with more panache. Müsse manifested this symbolic divide architecturally through their individual associations with Weissenstein’s two most distinct rooms: the marble hall and, directly beneath it, the grotto.
The marble hall is Franz’s war room, throne room, and the site of his intimate dance rehearsal with Elisabeth and their courtly wedding reception. It’s stately and grand, with vaulted ceilings, sky blue walls, and enormous pink and gray-streaked pillars made from marble stucco. During the daytime, the marble hall is light and airy, a sprawling park and the occasional wild deer visible through the windows. At nighttime (and filled with extras and dancers for the wedding reception scene), the marble feels heavier and the blues deeper. Philip Froissant’s Franz responds in kind: the afternoon waltz rehearsal is a private moment of levity and pleasure between him and Elisabeth, whereas during the nighttime wedding reception, he’s serious and dismissive, preoccupied by a looming crisis on the Russian border and the unexpected arrival of his former mistress. In both cases, he’s straight-backed and proper. “You automatically walk more upright and try to use the space and fill it,” says Froissant about filming inside the hall. “Otherwise, you'd be just lost.”
Maximilian’s grotto, by comparison, is not stately. It’s seductive. Candlelight has a bewitching effect on the intricately arranged mosaics made of seashells, semi-precious stones, and glass that cover every inch of the walls. The domed ceiling is bedecked with multiple frescos of the major rivers and, in the center, personifications of the times of day. Fountains, marble statues personifying the seasons and the elements, and fireplaces line the walls. Müsse decorated it with “very oriental pieces” he envisioned Maximilian collecting on his travels. “It’s an erotic place,” he says. “It gives you space for your fantasies.”
Cut off from political power and Elisabeth but animated by his jealous desire for both, the grotto becomes the nexus of the dream world Maximilian inhabits. “When everybody is telling you your whole life that you’re not good enough, and you are too loud, and nobody cares what you do, then you try to find a way to have fun, or find a way to express yourself. And this is the place where he can express himself,” says actor Johannes Nussbaum, who plays Maximilian. It’s here, at the champagne-soaked party he hosts the night before Franz and Elisabeth’s wedding, that his deepest desires, insecurities, and status as the forever-thwarted second-born coalesce. There’s a rare moment where he speaks sincerely—“I tell [Elisabeth], ‘Up there, they’re all liars. I’m telling you the truth. I’m the real one here,’ which is kind of true,” says Nussbaum—and upon being soundly rejected, he masks his disappointment by throwing himself headlong back into the revelry.
Weissenstein-as-Schönbrunn is a backdrop shot through with meaning, and one that contains multitudes stacked, in this case, directly on top of each other. “It’s always an attractive aspect to have these two sides and see how they can blend together,” says Müsse. “Or not.”