Duke Anton Ulrich, 1633–1714 – a Wigged Wonder

A special post to mark the reopening of the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig

Germania author Simon Winder describes Duke Anton Ulrich as the “absolute archetype of the silk-clad, massive wigged late 17th century grandee”, and I would struggle to better this description, certainly as far as appearance is concerned. When it comes to the personality, politics and achievements of this Baroque duke, though, it would probably be impossible to encapsulate them in a single sentence, or even in a whole blog post. Hugely cultured and sophisticated on the one hand, rampantly ambitious and power-hungry on the other, he is a multi-faceted, ambiguous figure with a long and eventful life, and since this is indeed supposed to be a blog post and not a book (note to self), I will have to be selective, skimming over the political aspects of his reign: his obsessive attempts to increase the size and status of his dukedom (these ultimately proved fruitless), the bitter rivalry with his Welf relatives in Hannover (again, this didn’t turn out well for him), his preoccupation with strategic marriage alliances (here he was more successful).  Instead I will focus on the achievements for which he is best remembered today: those in the field of art and culture. But before doing that, I should place him in the context of local history, particularly as his coming to power coincides with one of the key events in the story of Braunschweig.

1671: The end of independence

1671 is a fateful year in the annals of Braunschweig. After centuries of proud self-governance, the town finally capitulated to the dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (who, you may remember from an earlier post, had their seat in Wolfenbüttel, having been forced out of Braunschweig by hostile citizens over two centuries before). A new duke, Rudolf August, had come to power a few years earlier. A cautious and introverted fellow, he wasn’t really cut out for governance, but luckily he had a younger brother who was his polar opposite in almost every way. This was Anton Ulrich, and he was appointed to rule as his older brother’s proxy. Now, there was a time-honoured tradition in Braunschweig of duke vs town conflict, and on this occasion too, events took a well-trammelled course: duke makes excessive demands of citizens (in this case stationing troops within the town walls), citizens brusquely reject demands and refuse to acknowledge duke’s authority, and so the scene is set for every duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel’s favourite pastime, namely putting the city under siege. So far, so familiar. But this time there was to be a different outcome. Sadly for the townsfolk, there was no gutsy Gesche Meiburg rallying the troops, no Hanseatic army to come to the rescue (the once mighty Hanseatic League of which Braunschweig had been a member had lost most of its power).  By getting some of their relations on board, Rudolph and Anton had gathered together an army of over 20,000, against a measly 3,000 on the Braunschweig side. Added to this, the Braunschweigers were racked by internal political divisions and fed up of conflict, and therefore didn’t put up much of a fight. I picture a sort of weary collective sigh, a rolling of eyes and an “oh alright then!”, following which the ducal soldiers marched through the city gates, gloating mercilessly. Once they had taken control, the brothers wasted no time in imposing their will: stripping the town of its wealth and assets (right down to the town’s collection of silverware, which seems particularly mean-spirited), doing away with its councils and replacing them with their own administrative bodies who would do their bidding. The Age of Absolutism had arrived; as my Kleine Stadtgeschichte Braunschweig puts it “Die freien Bürger Braunschweigs waren zu Untertanen geworden” , which translates as “Braunschweig’s free citizens had become subjects”. I felt the need to quote the original because it sounds more momentous: the word “Bürger” is so integral to German culture (and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you it has nothing to do with meat patties), and “Untertanen” is a term that seems to speak so expressively of subjugation.

Anton Ulrich: pomp, patronage, poetry and paintings

I feel decidedly ambivalent about these 17th century absolutist monarchs. On the one hand, they cast aside centuries of citizen-led political tradition with a toss of their curls and an imperious flick of their frilly-cuffed wrists.  On the other hand, there is something undeniably compelling about the enormous egos of these men, the scope of their vision, which enabled them to build magnificent palaces, chiefly Versailles but also the many copies it spawned, or assemble wondrous art collections which could be enjoyed by future generations. Indeed, Anton Ulrich’s art collection is his great legacy to Braunschweig. Today it is housed in the museum that bears his name, which numbers among Germany’s foremost art museums. By a stroke of bad luck, my time in Braunschweig has coincided exactly with an extended closure of this museum for renovation, so I had to content myself with the selection of works on display in the Burg (castle). This represented just a fraction of the collection, but even so there was plenty to feast my eyes on: Holbein, Cranach, Vermeer, Rembrandt to name a few, and I was a regular visitor. In fact I went through a period of attending art history talks there with truly geekish levels of dedication – the staff at the front desk greeted me with friendly recognition: there she is again, that rather odd foreign girl who turns up for EVERY talk with an eager expression, clutching a pen and a pad of paper. I still have those scribbled sheets of barely legible notes on themes such as 18th century ivory carvings and modernist printmaking. But now the wait is finally over. The renovations are complete, and the new and improved HAUM, shiny and sparkling, is set to reopen its doors in a matter of hours. I am more than a little excited. Perhaps I should camp outside in order to secure the distinction of being the very first visitor to pass the threshold.  I am intrigued to see what new works I will discover, but I will also be sure to visit an old friend, Giorgione’s Self-Portrait as David (1508–10), which Anton Ulrich acquired on one of his trips to Venice. (I’m tempted to do a separate post on this painting – I think I would be justified, since it is a portrait and it hangs in Braunschweig, even though the artist was Italian and had nothing to do with the city). I am transfixed by that expression, that compelling stare, the tilt of the head and the moodiness of the chiaroscuro effect.

Giorgione, Self-Portrait as David

Me in 2012, hurrying up the steps in the Burg to get the paintings! 

I made it  here I am with a Cranach in the background

This is certainly a far cry from portraits of Anton Ulrich. There’s the colour scheme for a start – in the portrait I chose to copy, painted when the Duke was in his 70s, Anton Ulrich is wearing a fairly subdued blue velvet coat, but in one of the earlier portraits he is sporting an enormous silk bow under his chin in a truly eye-popping shade of red, as well as the faintest hint of a ‘tache. The latter is apparently an homage to his idol Louis XIV, whom he met during a stay in Paris as a young man.  His appearance – particularly that towering, luxuriant wig, but also the flamboyant colours, strategically chosen for their political connotations – seem to reflect the scope of his ambition, whether in raising the status and prestige of his dukedom, amassing a huge art collection, or building a lavish Baroque palace. Unfortunately this latter, Schloss Salzdahlum, was built on the cheap out of wood, and thus did not stand the test of time. However, in their day, the house and gardens were described as a “paradise on earth” by one visitor. The complex included extensive galleries to accommodate the Duke’s prized artworks in suitably grand style.

Schloss Salzdahlum

As well as being a great connoisseur of the arts, AU actively practiced them too. During the aforementioned time in Paris (he was doing the Grand Tour, a sort of aristocratic gap year), records of his expenses show he attended the theatre as many as three times a week to see operas, comedies and ballets. Sounds like he had a jolly old time of it, and he must have been inspired, for when he returned home, he wrote his own “Spring Ballet” to be performed at his wedding, starring himself and his bride, Elisabeth Juliane. I wonder if those wigs stayed put during all the balletic prancing? He also wrote poems, songs and two novels which found a large readership at the time and are regarded as important works of 17th century German literature. His passion for opera would lead him to found an opera house in Wolfenbüttel and, later, a grander one on Braunschweig's Hagenmarkt, which was to be the centre of the city’s lively theatrical life for the next 170 years.

As for the Duke’s enormous and varied art collection, which was already internationally famous in his lifetime, it was in part a status symbol, of course, designed to represent the prestige of his duchy to the rest of the world: those absolutists were all about the wow factor, and the vast galleries at Salzdahlum, brimming with first-class artworks from Italy, the Netherlands and France, as well as more unusual artefacts such as Italian maiolicas and Chinese carvings, would have left visitors in no doubt that the man behind it all was a big deal. But the visual arts were also clearly a true passion for the duke, and collecting art was a labour of love – even in his old age, and having been confined to a wooden wheelchair after tripping over his dog (doh!), he still managed to attend an art auction in the Netherlands.

Example of an Italian miaolica

My drawing of Herzog Anton Ulrich

After a sojourn in Paris at the beginning of the 18th century courtesy of Napoleon and his troops, the collection would return to Braunschweig and be housed in one of Europe’s oldest public museums (founded in 1754, the year after the British Museum). And now Duke Anton Ulrich’s prized paintings are once again on display in a setting that befits their magnificence. The countdown is on – I can’t wait!

 Two postscripts which I can’t resist including:

1)  In the post on Matilda I mentioned something about royal daughters being like pawns in their parents’ games of dynastic chess, and this is even more pronounced in the case of the habitual matchmaker Anton Ulrich; you could literally imagine him sitting down with a map of Europe and some pawns from his chess set labelled with the names of his children or grandchildren, pondering which alliances would be most likely to benefit him. A notable example is his granddaughter, Elisabeth Christine, who he married off to the Spanish king and future Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI (making Anton Ulrich the great grandfather of Maria Theresa, and thus great great grandfather of Marie Antoinette). Being a Hapsburg, Charles was Catholic, whilst Elisabeth was a staunch Protestant, but Grandpa Anton wasn’t going to let a little thing like that stand in the way of a highly advantageous alliance. He made sure Elisabeth had the requisite religious instruction to bring her round to the idea of converting, which she duly did. Marrying off your granddaughter to further your own political interests does not seem like very grandfatherly behaviour. Then again, AU could be justified in having a positive view of arranged marriages on a personal as well as political level – his own designated bride, Elisabeth Juliane, became the love of his life, and he was deeply affected by her loss in 1706 after nearly fifty years of marriage.

2)  Just one other thing I feel compelled to mention, and that concerns those aforementioned relatives, the Hanoverian branch of the Welf clan, with whom our Anton Ulrich had such a bitter rivalry. AU’s long-running campaign to get the upper hand would ultimately fail in quite spectacular fashion. In 1692, the Duchy of Hanover was made an Electorate, i.e.it now had the right to vote for the next Kaiser, which was a major coup for the Hanoverians, and a huge slap in the face for Anton Ulrich. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a few years later came “one of the period’s great bolts from the blue”, to quote Simon Winder again. To give you a clue, the head of the Hanoverian Welfs was called Georg, or George, if you will, and his mother was Sophia, Electress of Hannover. Remember her anyone? The British Royal Family geeks out there (please tell me I am not the only one?) will be twigging: Sophia was that distant Protestant relative who was appointed as next in line to the British throne by the 1701 Act of Settlement, when it became clear that poor Queen Anne would have no surviving heirs. Since Sophia died before Anne, the not inconsiderable prize of ruling one of the world’s most powerful countries fell to her son George. The shock and dismay of poor old Anton Ulrich can only be imagined. He died before George’s coronation, but it probably wouldn’t have surprised him that Hanover’s fortunes were to be slightly more illustrious than its neighbour Braunschweig’s in the century that followed. Still, I hope by this time you are all avid fans of Braunschweig’s history, provincial though it may sometimes be, and its colourful cast of characters, Anton Ulrich included!

Germania, Simon Winder, 2010
Die Sonne im Norden, Museum Schloss Wolfenbüttel, 2014
“Einer der größten Monarchen Europas”?! Neue Forschungen zu Herzog Anton Ulrich, Jocken Luckhardt, 2014
Braunschweig: Kleine Stadtgeschichte, Dieter Diestelmann,
“Ohne Herzog kein Museum”, Marion Korth, Unser38.de


  1. Reading this for the second time and enjoying it even more! I like the details like the bit about the mean-spirited dukes taking the town's collection of silverware, and AU's eye-poppingly red bow. I want to see that portrait! And I am looking forward to a separate post about the Giorgione self-portrait. The image of the duke doing ballet wearing a wig, possibly coming loose, is really a funny one - I could imagine it as a cartoon!


Post a Comment