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.
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