The Austrian capital punches above its weight with its wealth of imperial monuments and array of cultural attractions including its Rococo palaces, coffee houses and wine gardens.
Vienna’s Habsburg monarchs had a motto: ‘Others wage war, but you, happy Austria, marry.’ The first part wasn’t wholly true, but strategic marriages and lucky inheritances did help to upgrade the Habsburgs from 12th-century bit players to ruling an empire that in 1750 stretched from Belgium to Transylvania.
Walking through the gardens and state rooms of the palace of Schönbrunn does indeed feel like covering an imperial-sized chunk of central Europe on foot. Despite its 1,441 rooms, it wasn’t even the Habsburgs’ main base, merely their summer home. One of the staff who helps visitors make sense of the complex is John-Joseph Cheyne, British-born and now a guide at Schönbrunn. ‘You have to look at the palace with the eyes of an 18th-century person,’ he says. ‘To us, the gold decoration is important, but to them it would have been the lighting and the chandeliers.’
The palace was built at a point when it all nearly came a cropper for the Habsburgs. Emperor Charles VI, finding himself without sons, got France, Prussia and other rival European powers to agree to let his daughter Maria Theresa inherit his crown. But when he died in 1740, they attacked Austria anyway. Maria Theresa weathered the storm, and between ruling an empire and producing 16 children, she found time to convert a royal hunting lodge outside town into a summer home fit for an empress.
Three of the rooms are inlaid with Chinese lacquer panelling – part of the 18th-century craze for Chinoiserie. Happily, it blends quite well with the white-and-gold Rococo surroundings. Amid the finery, one item of furniture stands out – the brown, military-style camp-bed in the corner of the bedroom of Emperor Franz Joseph, who ruled from 1848 to 1916. ‘It was the kind of bed that Austrian army officers used while on duty,’ says Cheyne. ‘Franz Joseph believed he was on God’s duty.’
Despite the efforts of this most sober of monarchs, the luck of the Habsburgs ran out two years after his death, when the last emperor was ousted at the end of WWI. Still, it’s largely thanks to this long-lived and prolific dynasty that Austria exists in the shape it does today, and that Vienna’s public buildings make many larger capitals’ look half-hearted.
Chairs and graces
The footstools at the Hofmobiliendepot are not what they seem – many can be opened up to use as spittoons. Not that visitors to this museum off the main shopping strip of Mariahilfer Strasse are encouraged to do so these days. ‘There were spittoons in every room in the early 19th century,’ says museum guide Bruno Greutter. ‘Of course it was not a very hygienic situation.’
The Hofmobiliendepot (Imperial Furniture Depot) has its origins in a right royal dilemma. The Habsburgs may have owned some of Europe’s most spacious residences, but even they had to face the same question many of us do today: where to fit all their stuff. The answer, eventually, was this central depot. Until 15 years ago, it was just that – a storage facility built for a vanished dynasty, with guided tours for the curious.
There are still parts of the collection that have kept the makeshift look, where tables, sofas and cabinets are stacked in a jumble behind grilles, resembling a prison for badly behaved furniture. Today, however, it has developed into a museum of interior fashions, broadened to include later items, and ones that would definitely not have appealed to imperial tastes. Many are grouped by type, making often-surreal assemblies of candlesticks, or indeed footstool-spittoons. Visitors to the collection sometimes slip out of the facial expressions appropriate to museum appreciation, as they find themselves wondering if that cabriole-leg end table would fit anywhere in their house.