I finally caught up with Habsburg Splendor, the touring exhibition that we previewed so memorably with the MIA group in Vienna exactly one year ago, and was hugely disappointed, partly because it paled so in comparison to what we’d seen at the Kunsthistorische but mostly because of the drab display at the High Museum in Atlanta.

Entering the first gallery, which displayed armor and jousting chargers, you felt no sense of place or wonder; you were in a big, armory-like room with a few objects scattered about.

At the Kunstkammer in Vienna, when you see case after case of rock crystal vases compressed in a small gallery with low ceiling you are overwhelmed by the magnificence. When you see one rock crystal goblet in a case by itself, with no context or special illumination and nothing else around it, it just looks lost. Generally bored by armor, I was fascinated by our private tour in Vienna, where the various suits were contrasted and given meaning. In Atlanta, with a suit here and a suit there, I was again bored. Instead of spacing apart the few suits in the exhibition, why not group them together on a stacked pedestal at three different heights, giving some visual interest to the display and allowing the viewer to pick out the subtle differences. Oh, and there was a video, apparently of a modern Renaissance Fair, but it had low production value and was also swallowed up by the wall it was shown on and the room it was in. It should have been bigger or smaller, but instead came across as an afterthought.

The second gallery was modeled on a Cabinet of Wonders, with scientific and decorative oddities. For relevance or impact, however, they needed to be squeezed together, as the original Cabinet would have been. In a darker room with individual spotlights, these pieces could be jewel-like. Standing alone in the middle of an evenly-lit room, the black coconut shell ewer just looked odd.

If anything should have stood on its own, it would have been the masterpieces in the Paintings Gallery, but here, too, the High’s presentation deadened the impact. I thought it a real mistake to have the walls painted one solid color throughout, and that a heavy burgundy. The paintings, especially, needed moldings, drapes, some ornamental warmth. To have 10-12’ of empty space above each work didn’t help, nor did the large gaps between them. (No other paintings in the High are spaced so far apart, and perhaps it was this deviance from expectation that was unsettling.) Personally, I would have preferred a lighter, cream-colored background; as it was, Titian’s portrait of Isabelle d’Este sank into the wall behind her. It was only the Moroni, with its blacks and whites, that jumped off the wall even a little. The one painting that received its due was Giorgione’s Three Philosophers, which was isolated on a smaller baffle, although as with many of the works it was not clear what it had to do with “Habsburg Splendor.”

The gallery of costumes was as uneventful, to me at least, as most displays of clothing. The immediate contrast that came to mind was the Met’s show of Chinese robes, where the setting was as spectacular as the objects. There was one display along those lines, and its success only magnified the failures elsewhere. A stunning Baroque sleigh pulled by a gold-bedecked horse was placed on a pedestal in a small gallery of its own; behind it the entire wall showed a winter scene of fir trees and snow. Here, at last, was some context, some playfulness, some relief from the oppressive flat 18-foot walls in barn-like galleries.

How much more fun, and instructive, it would have been to decorate the galleries a la Viennoise – painted brocades and fripperies, giving the visitor a sense of the luxe, the elegance, even the decadence of the Habsburg court. Smaller galleries, lower ceilings, happier wall coverings, less emptiness between display cases – all of this would have better given the feeling of Habsburg Splendor and would, I submit, have encouraged the visitor to engage the objects more closely and with more understanding.