Postcards from Vienna

View of Vienna

This was my first trip to Vienna since, at the age of fifteen, I spent two weeks with an exchange family in a nearby town. The primary reason for going was to see two shows at the Theater an der Wien, which I’ll write about separately: Francesco Cavalli’s Xerse, which was the first opera to set the libretto later made so famous by Handel; and Monteverdi’s Poppea, which re-envisaged the story as a modern morality tale about fragmenting lives played out in the glare of media celebrity. But for me this was also an opportunity to finally visit some of the city’s great museums, and I thought I’d run through a few of the sights I particularly enjoyed. There’s a couple of obvious ones, but one that will perhaps be less familiar.

Kusthistorisches Museum · Belvedere · Armour Museum · Michaelerkirche

THE KUNSTHISTORISCHES MUSEUM

This is one of Europe’s great museums: it’s up there with the Prado, the Louvre and the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, and I’d been longing to visit it for years. And so I flew out a day earlier than my friends and devoted that day to wandering around its halls in a state of increasing wonder. It embraces everything under one roof: on the lower floor the Egyptian, Greek and Roman collections lead through to the marvellous Kunstkammer, while upstairs you find one of the greatest collections of pictures on the continent.

There is something charmingly old-school about much of the display. Down in the Egyptian section the walls are painted with mock tomb frescoes, while the architecture incorporates ancient pillars. Exhibits are crowded into old-fashioned dark wooden cabinets and table cases, and the overall feeling is of having stepped back in time to a museum in the 1930s or 1940s. The labelling, however, is clear and modern and the rooms are a delight to visit. The archaeological collections aren’t as strong or as large as those in Berlin, but there are some wonderful individual pieces: a superb Egyptian beaded collar from around 2,300 BC with matching wrist-bands and a golden diadem; and a lovely little faience hippopotamus from around 2,000 BC.

In the Greek and Roman section I was impressed by the display of portrait busts, each on its own plinth and arranged as a forest of columns through which you can wander to peer more closely at the various faces. One of my favourite pieces there was a toy chariot from Greece, made around 750 BC, with a smiling charioteer and four alert horses, all mounted on a wheeled platform so it could be dragged around more easily. But the highlights of the classical collections are the cameos. Vienna has a superb collection, foremost among them the Gemma Augustea: a large gem showing an idealized view of Augustus and the Imperial Family enjoying the triumph of Rome. There are other beautiful examples too: the Gemma Claudia and the Ptolemy Cameo among the most striking.

This reflects the abiding interest of the Habsburg rulers in treasures, fine craftsmanship and artistic curiosities, a taste which is expressed to dazzling effect in the newly refurbished Kunstkammer. Here there was room upon room of objects made from rock crystal, carved wood, enamel, wax, terracotta, gold and silver: sculptures, salvers and stirrup-cups, caskets, dishes and ewers, and two extraordinary backgammon boards made for the Habsburgs in the 16th century: one for Charles V and Ferdinand I in 1537, the other for Archduke Ferdinand II in 1575. Intarsia and low-relief carving decorate the boards themselves, while each counter is a miniature work of art, showing an allegorical or literary motif.

There are very famous treasures in the Kunstkammer, of course: their showpiece is the rather overblown golden salt cellar by Benvenuto Cellini, which was stolen in 2003 and rediscovered three years later buried in an Austrian forest. It’s certainly a showpiece, but I was rather taken with more unexpected works, such as the charming 12th-century aquamanile in bronze and damascened silver, set with garnets and shaped like a cheerful griffin. There are sculptures too, including one of my favourite Renaissance pieces: Tullio Lombardo’s Young Couple, carved by a master at the height of his powers. It’s contemporary with Giorgione and has the same dreamy, enigmatic, poetic quality as many of his pictures.

But I was also struck by the fabulous marble portrait of Leopold I made by Paul Strudel in 1695, emphasising the Habsburg chin and staring eyes; a gloriously berserk picture of power. Nearby were even more astonishing things, this time ivory sculptures on a surprisingly large scale, in which the medium allowed for a wonderful level of detail. Take the Phoenix by the Master of the Furies from about 1615: the ruffling of the feathers is extraordinary. Or the swaggering equestrian portraits of the Archdukes Leopold I, Joseph I and Charles VI crafted by Matthias Steinl around 1700, in which flying draperies, lace and curls show the artist’s incredible skill. I’ve never looked much at ivories before, but I made my way out of the Kunstkammer half-stupefied by all these beauties.

And being stupefied already wasn’t good, because I hadn’t even got to the paintings. The Kunsthistorisches Museum is especially strong on early Venetian pictures, with a whole host of Titians, Giorgiones and Paris Bordones (I was maybe slightly less ravished by the last). The other schools are still represented, with individual masterpieces here and there, but it’s noticeable for example that Renaissance Florence isn’t a strong point. Yet there’s a good Parmigianino section, including his delightful Self Portrait in a Mirror. There’s also a memorable Baroque Roman section, with Caravaggio’s late David with the Head of Goliath accompanied by works by his pupils and followers: Orazio Gentileschi and Simon Vouet are those who stood out most strongly for me.

In the Spanish rooms, I was impressed by the portraits by Velazquez and his workshop, where even the studio pieces like the Portrait of Queen Maria Anna were painted with impressive dash and fire; and the most delightful picture in the entire room was Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo’s portrait of his family, with his two serious, smartly dressed little boys in the centre foreground. Another portrait that caught my eye in this suite of rooms, unsurprisingly, was Duplessis’s remarkably vivacious picture of Gluck: the composer is caught in the moment of inspiration, his rather homely but radiant face turned to the heavens, the light playing on his crumpled sleeve and silk coat.

I confess that I was flagging by the time I reached the Dutch and Flemish collections, with their famous Brueghels, but I was still able to summon up a final burst of admiration for the two rooms of Rubens. The museum is currently making much of his recently-restored erotic portrait of his young wife Helene Fourment, The Fur (the fur is indeed well-painted, but even Rubens can’t quite stop the breasts looking stuck on). It’s a simply overwhelming collection. And, like the Egyptian section downstairs, the paintings are sometimes displayed in a dauntingly old-school fashion. When I walked into one of the large 17th-century rooms, I found it hung like an old Summer Exhibition at the RA: pictures crammed onto the wall three or four high, with the beleaguered eye wondering where to begin.

It was enough to make even a hardened museum-goer whimper: I actually had to go and sit down for a couple of minutes. Ideally you’d do the lower floor on one day and go back on another for the paintings. I spent six solid hours there and even that wasn’t enough.

THE OBERES BELVEDERE

If you like your art a little more modern than Rubens and Titian, then Vienna has plenty for you. I did pop into the Leopold Museum, but only for a quick half hour before closing, so I’m not really in a position to write about it. What I will say is that it gave me a very new appreciation for Schiele, an artist who’s never appealed to me before. Learning a bit more about his ruthless self-scrutiny, his determination and his tragic early death, however, I began to see some of the magic in his works. For his haunting, uncompromising drawings the Leopold Museum is your best bet, but the art gallery at the Oberes (Upper) Belvedere has a few of his paintings. My favourite among them was The Embrace, painted the year before Schiele’s death, showing a couple in a tumbled bed, gripping one another so tightly that they seem to want to dissolve into one flesh – but I also enjoyed the awkward, combative Portrait of Eduard Kosmack from 1910.

There is one at the Belvedere even more famous than Schiele, of course, and that’s Klimt, whose rooms are dismally thronged with tour groups. The Kiss was too famous to make much of an impact in the flesh, but I was rather taken with the sensuous, haughty Judith in her bespoke frame, and the Portrait of a girl from 1898, in which the sitter’s face emerges ghost-like from the blackness around her, with gold rings glinting in her ears. The remainder of the gallery looks at Viennese art in the 19th and 18th centuries: while I was left cold by Max Klinger’s Judgement of Paris and the special exhibition of pictures by the Biedermeier painter Waldmuller (who paints implausibly rosy-cheeked peasants romping sentimentally in the Wienerwald), there were some things I rather liked. Anselm Feuerbach’s austere Orpheus and Eurydice was a favourite, as was Johann Baptist von Lampi’s unfinished Portrait of Caroline and Zoe Thomatis.

But the one other part of the Belvedere that you must see, and which is much loved, is the room with the character heads by the visionary sculptor Messerschmidt. There is still debate about what these expressive figures are meant to represent, but their scrunched faces, scowls and wild grins have an immediate, visceral appeal. I would just add that the Lower Belvedere is really only worth visiting if there’s a special exhibition on that you want to see, but the gardens make a lovely place for a morning stroll and you can round it off with breakfast in the Upper Belvedere’s cafe before the hard work of looking at art.

THE HOFJAGD- UND RÜSTKAMMER (HUNTING AND ARMOUR MUSEUM)

I didn’t even mean to go to this museum. I only saw it because it’s accessed with the same ticket as the Ephesus Museum, where I wanted to see fragments from the tomb of Cleopatra’s murdered sister Arsinoe; but in the end the Ephesus part was a little disappointing and the Renaissance weaponry won the day.

It’s is a treasure trove of suits of armour, many of which belonged to the great European commanders of the 16th century, and the designs range from the practical to the elaborately unlikely. A particular favourite was the frankly impractical ceremonial armour which featured a bird-like helmet and a pleated metal skirt. There’s horse armour and trappings, shields, guns and a particularly vicious-looking crossbow, as well as examples of embroidered 17th-century Turkish quivers, presumably acquired during the time when their armies were dangerously close to the walls of Vienna. Yet it’s always the ceremonial items, made to delight the eye rather than to be used in war, which are the most memorable. I was amazed by the butt of a flintlock musket, probably made for Leopold I, which was decorated with cameos and semi-precious stones; and by an early 15th-century court saddle, ornamented with ivory figures.

There simply wasn’t enough time for me to see the collection properly, because we had to rush off (to the opera, naturally); but I’m determined to go back one day and give it the attention it deserves. If you’re interested in early modern craftsmanship, the history of warfare or arms and armour in any form, you should certainly try to see this. It feels very much off the beaten track after the crowds at the Belvedere and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and the bonus is that the same ticket will allow you to see the archaeological collections from Ephesus and the collection of musical instruments.

MICHAELERKIRCHE (ST MICHAEL’S CHURCH)

One pilgrimage that every Baroque aficionado should make is to the crypt of St Michael’s church, just opposite the Hofburg. This is the final resting place of Metastasio, whose elegantly carved wooden coffin, with lion’s-paw feet, occupies pride of place in the middle of an end wall. I know I sometimes make fun of Metastasio’s plots, but I’ve grown immensely fond of him over the last year and it was very moving to think that the man who’d written so many of my favourite operas was right there in front of me.

Our excellent guide had been surprised when, at the start of the tour, I checked to make sure we were in the right place. “But nobody remembers him any more!” she said. Oh, but we do. She told us how Metastasio had written long letters complaining about the Viennese weather: that it was freezing cold and rained all the time (an accurate description of our weekend, in fact); but she noted that despite his grumbling he still managed to last until the grand old age of 84, so Austria can’t have been all that bad for his constitution.

However, a tour of the crypt is extremely interesting even if you’re not mad about Metastasio. No one has been buried there since 1784 due to city health regulations (so he just managed to get in on time) and it has been maintained with great care. Many of the well-preserved wooden coffins have brightly-coloured flowers, snuffed candles and crucifixions painted on their boards, while the posh private family crypts contain superbly ornate Baroque metal coffins. By a quirk of the dry air and the presence of draughts from certain air vents, around twenty of the bodies in the crypt have been naturally mummified. (According to our guide, Metastasio was embalmed after his death, so he is probably in a very good state of preservation; but he’s not on view and it’s probably better that way, because I get to remember him as the genial-looking fellow in the prints.)

The tour shows you three open coffins in which the occupants are wearing fine silks which are extremely well preserved, just a little grey and dusty. It is not for those who have an extreme aversion to death, but it isn’t ghoulish. The emphasis is firmly on the history of the place: it’s peaceful, respectful and photography is, quite rightly, forbidden (the photograph I’ve used below is taken from the church’s own website). Upstairs the main church is worth a visit in itself. It’s a strange mix of bare Gothic and Baroque exuberance, with high plain arches along the nave leading to an exuberant sunburst of tumbling putti and kneeling saints at the high altar. There are fragments of late medieval frescoes on the entrance wall, one of which has been heartlessly bisected by the organ loft, said to contain the largest Baroque organ in Vienna.

All in all, it’s a church with impeccable Baroque pedigree and should be on your list of to-dos if you’ve any interest in early opera.

Michaelerkirche Crypt

The crypt of Michaelerkirche. Metastasio’s coffin is just visible in the far distance, raised up between the dark recess to the left and the cupboard to the right

4 thoughts on “Postcards from Vienna

  1. dehggial says:

    The hippopotamus is the cutest thing! Have you seen the roster of great concert performances coming up at Theater an der Wien? Franco in Mozart 's Lucio Silla next April among other things. With the smashing Arnold Schoenberg Chor.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, I was looking at that just the other day. Their staged and concert performances of opera are basically a list of 'who's who' at the moment, and they're really focusing on the early stuff. None of this Traviata nonsense – I suppose they're leaving that to the main Oper? Definitely one of the most promising Baroque venues. Just have to figure out which seats offer the best price / view ratio. (Plus, I spotted that Jake's singing Nerone in Agrippina next spring. I'd be very tempted… But it all depends on a premium-bond win or finding a lot of money down the back of the sofa.)

  3. dehggial says:

    They're wisely not competing with the Staatsoper for that repertoire. I reccomend airbnb for lodgings, you do save and it's safe. Your host might even let you stay past check-out time if they have no one else checking in that day.

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