The Hapsburgs ruled for 650 years. Maria Theresa, the Enlightenment reformer of an empress, bore 16 children, 14 of whom lived, 11 of whom were girls, one of whom was allowed to marry for love, one of whom gave her head for the French Revolution. The rest married into titles,money, and kingdoms, assuring that every conflict for centuries hence bore the triple stamp of religious, civil, and family squabble. Frequently, on guided tours of notable palaces, guides will tell us: “If Vienna had not broken the siege of 1683, we’d all be speaking Turkish and Europe would be an Islamic continent.” A brother guide in England, writing about the War of the Spanish Succession tells us, “If Marlborough had not prevailed at Blenheim, King Louis would have taken Vienna, all of Europe would have fallen to the French, and we would taking this tour in French.” Vienna, it seems, is at the center of everyone’s dreams of conquest, yet the Hapsburgs gamely hung on until 1918.
Having such tenure, wealth, and imperial power will generally produce magnificent architecture even if magnificent means merely monumental. The city’s central palace district, the Hofburg, is nothing if not monumental, and the building period extended from 1275 to 1913. Now that the empire is no more, the buildings have been converted to more civic uses, mostly museums: the Ephesus Museum, the Museum of Ancient Musical Instruments, the Albertina, the Ethnographic Museum, the Treasuries of the Austrian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Burgundian Inheritance, the national library. Down the road to the east is the colossal opera house; across the Burg Ring to the south is the mammoth Art History Museum, which faces its twin, the National History Museum across the Maria Theresien Platz. The Art History Museum, unlike the Louvre and the Prado, was never a palace. Rather, it was built to display the six centuries of the Hapsburgs’ collections. Indeed, the coffee shop is a richly marbled octagon rising to a dome, and each side bears the likeness of a Hapsburg ruler particularly astute in his or her collecting.
The Hapsburgs’ strong suit seems to be the baroque, both in collecting and in architecture. Thus, even before the last Hapsburg exited the scene, the ultimate reaction was more austere, given to straight lines, unadorned facades, less frou-frou. Thus was the Secession Movement born, led by none other than Gustav Klimt. I suppose Klimt would be much admired in Vienna at any time, but this being his 150th year, the celebration suggests he might be the only painter who ever lived.
Enough said. Below, you’ll find a gallery of photographs. (Who knew the Art History Museum would allow non-flash photography? So those interiors, shot with my iPad may appear a little fuzzy. Be sure to bring your good camera when you visit. If you don’t, you may pay the penalty of taking a sit-down in the cafe with a drink called the Papa Haydn, or some such thing: Hot chocolate with whipped cream and Amaretto.)