Habsburg Day

Today I went to two places: the summer palace of the Habsburg royal family, just outside the center of Vienna; and their winter palace, right in Vienna. These people had not just one palace but two! and every six months they packed up and moved their army of servants from one to the other…

Schoenbrunn, the summer palace, is grand from the front (and not looking too different from 250 years ago, painted by Canaletto):

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and grand from the side:

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and grand when seen from the top of the hill behind it (again, pretty much like Canaletto did it 250 years ago):

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It has grand gardens with grand obelisks:

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and grand ornamental ponds:

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and grand fountains and grand follies:

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They even built their very own Roman ruin, since they didn’t happen to have one in the first place!

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But somehow the gardens seemed a little soulless – all formality and no spontaneity, everything planned just so (I guess that is why the English garden, with its concessions to wildness, is often rated so highly…)

Inside the palace was pretty grand too:

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…but you probably wouldn’t want to live there…

One nice thing that they had in the garden, though, was a labyrinth and a maze (where I got completely lost…)

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So then I went to the Habsburgs’ winter palace, the Hofburg, in the centre of Vienna, which, as you can see from the photo, is itself a pretty grand place:

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The Habsburgs had the most amazingly beautiful and rich collection of tableware:

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and some more very grand rooms:

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and the empress wore some very grand gowns:

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They even had the first bath in Austria, built for the Empress less than 150 years ago – did you know that until then even the Emperor of Austria used bowls and jugs to keep himself clean?

But somehow they – the second-last Emperor of Austria, Franz Joseph (who died in 1916, in the middle of the First World War; his empire survived him by two years) and his wife Empress Sissi – weren’t happy. They drifted apart; their eldest son shot himself dead; the Emperor found meaning through duty, but she couldn’t; she had always been a free spirit, but in the last years of her life she took to driving herself into perpetual motion (traveling around Europe) and even danger where she could find it. She was a strikingly beautiful woman…

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…but aware that maintaining her beauty was what the world demanded of her. In that she seems less 19th century than 20th (or even 21st), although she never lived to see the 20th: she was obsessed with nutrition and diet and her figure (though she loved cookies too); she paid meticulous care to her complexion, trying all sorts of different face masks and cosmetic recipes; she had a gym set up in her room and worked out every day; she demanded control of her children’s education; she forbade any photographs of her after her 35th year; she travelled to escape.

For all that, though, she was incredibly spoilt. Even though she had the luxury of having her ankle-length hair braided for three hours a day (it took a whole day to actually wash it) while a tutor taught her Greek; even though her husband indulged her in pretty much anything, buying and restoring properties for her and equipping them with armies of servants, before she lost interest and moved on; even though she lived in luxury which would have been totally unimaginable to her subjects; even though she could have done something useful and responsible with her life (as it seems she did early on when she espoused the cause of the Austrian colony of Hungary and persuaded her husband to grant it some rights), she chose instead to spend her time writing indifferent romantic poetry lamenting the chains in which she was bound. She was assassinated in Geneva at the age of 61, 16 years before the First World War – after which the whole lot got chucked out, sparing her pampered kind the further trouble.

It’s easy to see, though, how (since she found her duties meaningless, and ultimately – since no-one was going to make her – refused to do them) she has an enduring appeal to people who are unhappy with their jobs, a very 20th and early 21st century phenomenon…

when I came out of the Hofburg the sky was overcast, the wind was up, and the temperature had dropped by about 10 or 15 degrees. Back to northern Europe…

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