The wars and geographic reorganisations of Europe in the twentieth century have reshaped the political boundaries of the continent. If you compared the modern map to one made more than a hundred years ago, there’s a major change that is obvious. Britain, France and Russia are all there… but what’s that giant lump in the middle, in amongst all of those countries that used to be Communist?
That lump is the Habsburg Empire, and up until its dissolution after the first world war it was a major power in Europe for five hundred years. Unlike most of the other major European nations, the Habsburg Empire, later called the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was not an ethnically-based nation-state. Rather, it was an amalgamation of small pieces of land which had been annexed to the Habsburg family via marriage and inheritance over centuries. This patchwork of peoples and minor duchies was ultimately part of the empire’s downfall, but its huge extent represented serious power. The rivalry between the French and Austrian kingdoms was intense, and shaped the history of the region.
Any self-respecting European monarch requires a palace. The palace of the Habsburg Emperors, named Schönbrunn, is located in the suburbs of Vienna. It started life as a hunting lodge, but was expanded into a vast baroque wedding cake during the golden age of Maria Theresa’s reign in the 18th century. It’s an easy trip from the centre of town, but probably requires the whole day to explore properly.
The resemblance to the Versailles palace in France is both striking and not accidental. The competition between the great powers of the day revolved around wars, and also a constant game of one-upmanship between the aristocracy. Because the French had Versailles, the Austrians decided that they would have to build something similar. This is explicit in the Spiegelsaal (“mirror hall”), a direct copy of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. However the family resemblance is clear throughout, although Schönbrunn is painted a sunny Austrian yellow.
The 18th century was a period of innovation in architecture, but with constant acknowledgement of the debt to Greco-Roman architecture from the ancient world. At Schönbrunn this is explicit, with the construction of a series of Roman “ruins” in the grounds. Although a bit naff, the ruins are intended to symbolise the decay of earthly works, as well as a memory of ancient greatness.
The main building is made up of a series of galleries and apartments, which tend to blur into one another in a sea of gilt. They’re not particularly liveable spaces, but that isn’t the intention of a palace – impressing visitors with one’s wealth is the main aim. Particularly during the baroque period, the aesthetic of “more is more” was dominant.
An exception to this rule is the apartments of Franz Joseph, the second-last Habsburg Emperor. He ruled from 1848 until his death in 1916, and was the stern grandfather figure who set the cultural tone of the latter period of the empire. Known for being somewhat abstemious, his apartments are simply furnished and unfussy. His desk is still on view, at which he spent his days standing and doing imperial paperwork, somewhat ahead of the current fashion for standing desks.
Schönbrunn would be an excellent destination on a sunny day with stops for lunch and liquid refreshment. Palace fatigue is a risk, and it certainly helps to know the historical context of what you’re looking at. But if you find yourself in Vienna, there are worse ways to spend some time.