Innsbruck is a small city in the mountains, built around the Inn river, which flows swiftly through the town. Although it’s beautiful, you wouldn’t want to fall in, or you would probably get swept away pretty quickly and drown…
Innsbruck used to be very important because it controlled the trade routes between Germany and Italy, which ran through high Alpine passes like the Brenner, even in winter, and had to pass through the city. Because of this strategic importance, an emperor of the Habsburg family, Maximilian I, who lived around 500 years ago, moved his headquarters here. He was the Holy Roman Emperor, and was involved in the control of lands not just around here and in Italy and Germany and further east too, but even as far away as the Netherlands and Spain. He was probably the most powerful man in Europe. He built this gold roof (amongst other things) to show off how wealthy he was. It’s now the main tourist attraction in the city.
Before he died, he designed a grand tomb for himself in a church called the Hofkirche. He is the black figure kneeling on top of the tomb, while all the black knights paying homage around him are supposedly his ancestors.
In fact, as Maximilian died on the way to Vienna and his body was taken there instead, he isn’t buried in the tomb at all – it’s empty. As you can see, though, it’s still rather grand. Not quite as grand, however, as the Jakobsdom, or cathedral of St. James, just around the corner but built over 200 years later. When I went in, there were only a handful of people in there, at the front, kneeling and chanting prayers to their Catholic God. I found this slightly sinister; I can’t argue with their right to worhsip as they choose, but I wonder if they are making these noises in the interests of peace, or of tribalism? I can’t help it, but everywhere I go here I remember the Jews…
Anyway, the people in there were old, most of them with silver hair, so I wondered whether they were a dying minority still clinging to the old ways (whereas the young have iPods instead) – or is this what you do when you get old? The church itself was decorated, especially up high, with Christian paintings of people and angels worshipping Jesus, and lots of gold, just like Maximilian’s roof, but grander; self-referential and self-reinforcing baroque splendor, with everybody in the pictures in heroic poses. It’s easy to see how promoting this kind of thing could instil a narrow conformity that says “we are the best” and would see people who didn’t share its values (oh, those Jews) as aliens. But, I asked myself, if a real alien came down and landed in this church, what would he say those values were? The obvious one he would choose would be gold, or the worship of ostentatious wealth; also, he would say that they worshipped something up there, in the sky, since that is where all the characters in the paintings are looking. Finally, judging from the looks on the faces in the paintings, he might say that the people who worshipped here had no sense of humor, or irony..
About the time that church was built, Innsbruck got important again because the Hapsburgs, who were now based in Vienna, reached a point where their family ran out of male children, and the next in line for the throne was a young woman, Maria Theresa. In those days it was assumed that you needed a man to be Emperor, but she was a pretty strong-willed woman, and had other plans. She got herself married to a guy who ruled Lorraine, on the borderlands between France and Germany, and whose grandfather had done some big military favors to the Habsburgs half a century earlier, before he married a Habsburg himself. They had 16 children; here they are with some of them:
Maria Theresa’s marriage was enough to get her and her husband accepted as the rulers of the Empire (though not without a war or two) – especially because the rulers of Lorraine, for some obscure European reason, also ruled the Tyrol, the mountainous area of which Innsbruck is capital. So, whether for sentimental or political reasons, Innsbruck got itself back in the limelight again, and Maria Theresa put a lot of work into redesigning its palace, the Hofburg. I went and visited that too.
The thing is that by then, the European monarchies had come a long way from the days when Maximilian I was showing off his wealth because that was what he had to do to stay as top dog in a dog-eat-dog world – they had come about half way from that, in fact, to the daft ceremonial celebrity-worshipping monarchies of today (or should I say “monarchy”, because as you’ll notice, the only one of the important monarchies of those days – the French, the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, even the Turkish – that made it through the 20th century was the British, and that mostly in the form of a state-subsidised soap opera). So when I looked at Maria Theresa’s expensively remodelled Innsbruck palace, and when I learned that her son’s two-week-long wedding party, in 1765, demanded that so much food should be given by ordinary people to the royal family – at the point of a sword, if necessary – that the ordinary people came close to starvation, then I understood why the Americans and the French threw out their royal families within the next 25 years after that.
The walls and the ceilings were painted in the same kind of style as in the Jakobsdom, except that here the worship was of the royal family itself, even if there were a few idealized pictures of the people who provided them with the food and other goods which made their luxury possible. It was all terribly pompous and over-decorated and again completely without a sense of humor – these people took themselves tremendously seriously! But the thing is that the tourist industry of today is also based on taking them seriously, and at face value, just like the soap opera of celebrities today – or else (so it is said) how would they sell tickets to keep the place going?
Here is a triumphal archway that was built in Innsbruck to celebrate Maria Theresa and her husband:
Nine years after Maria Theresa died the French Revolution began, and then Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France, and a different kind of world began. Europe was torn apart. The rulers were fighting each other for their lives, and in some countries local people rose up against them. One such place was the Tyrol, where a man called Andreas Hofer led a local rising against Bonaparte. He was captured and killed by the French (Bonaparte is reported to have said: “give him a fair trial and then shoot him”), but this memorial was built for him in the same church as Maximilian I’s tomb:
That was a time after which the rulers began to have to pay more attention to the people they ruled, which was the beginning of the world we know today.
Today’s Innsbruck is calm and peaceful. The buildings are still painted in the traditional way:
There are quaint little alleyways in the old town too:
But no matter how nice it all is, there is somehow something that doesn’t feel quite right. Just a nagging feeling that there is something lurking underneath it all – perhaps something to do with those poor Jews…of course all that is along time ago, and in this better world of today it couldn’t happen again – could it?