Vienna: Hofburg Palace, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Light rain showered the early part of the day in Vienna. When I looked at the weather forecast a couple of days ago and again yesterday, it called for rain all day. So I planned mostly indoor activities for today, all but one of them in the Hofburg Palace.

Forecast notwithstanding, the rain stopped a little after noon and didn’t return. There was even sun later in the afternoon and until sunset. After sunset, it turned dark, as it tends to do at that time of day. But a plan is a plan. So the Hofburg Palace it was.

Hofburg Palace was the imperial winter home of the Hapsburgs. Schönbrunn was their summer home. Those Hapsburgs really knew how to live, didn’t they? I’m beginning to think that, considering the trappings of their lives, when people today complain sneeringly about “the elites” they greatly cheapen the term “elite.”

Spanish Riding School

For my first Hapsburg Palace activity I visited the the Spanish Riding School. The school got its start in the imperial Hapsburg days to train the Hapsburgs’ Lippizaner stallions. It’s still going today for the school’s performance horses. (As best I could tell, performances for the plebeian public happen only in the summer months, not in May.)

Morning training sessions, which take place in a 300-year-old baroque indoor stadium, are open to the public for a fee. It’s also included with the Vienna Pass, which explains why I was there. I don’t really want to pay to watch horses being pranced around by riders.

Spanish Riding School
Spanish Riding School

I arrived in the middle of one the half-hour sessions. The sessions ran continuously from 10:00 until noon so I was able to stay for another one. I think they were the same riders for each session, but different horses. Between sessions, grooms led the horses back to the stables, while the riders ducked backstage to fetch new steeds.

The training session involved about a half-dozen horses mostly sauntered around the rectangular sandy floor. Occasionally, they almost galloped. And a few times one did some fancy prancing. But, for the most part, that was it.

Between sessions a brief video showed the trained horses’ capabilities. This included standing on their hind legs, almost vertical, with a rider still mounted and staying on somehow while the horse upright. In the video, the horse and rider held that pose for a few seconds. The video’s horses’ capabilities also included jumping straight up and, with all four legs off the ground, kicking back their hind legs. The guide who gave the walking tour I went on a couple of days ago mentioned this maneuver and said it was originally used for combat.

The horses did not perform any of these impressive moves in the training session. One horse did lift its front legs off the ground a few inches and held that pose on just its hindquarters for a couple of seconds. But that was about it.

During the announcement between sessions, in addition to describing riding school and what was going on, the disembodied voice also said filming and photography was prohibited. Oops. Although, people around me were also snapping photos. Enjoy the accompanying illicit photo.

Imperial Treasury

Next, I visited the Imperial Treasury. This comprised a number of rooms that displayed some of the former riches of the Hapsburgs. Damn, those people were wealthy. Really wealthy. Mega-super-wealthy. In fact, kind of well off.

Among the items on display were crowns, robes, mantles, tabards, pennants, sabers, swords, scepters, medals, jewelry, decorative pieces, tapestries, goblets, reliquaries, a few paintings and a bejeweled cradle with some elements of gold. And probably a few types of opulent artifacts I forgot.

A couple of the pieces were solid gold. Others, while not solid gold, included almost obscene quantities of gold, silver and gems.

Two particularly special pieces were an agate bowl and what looked like a long pole tapered at the top. What made them special was that the Hapsburgs believed they were the Holy Grail and a unicorn horn. I’m not buying it. The origin of the bowl is unknown, but the text accompanying the pole said it was a narwhal tusk.

Unicorn horn. Yeah, right. Do you know how rare those things are? Even the Hapsburgs couldn’t afford one. And the Holy Grail? If they had that, then what would we use as the exemplar of things much sought, but never found?

After visiting the Imperial Treasury I reached a decision. In my next life I’m coming back as an emperor. Anything less, then why bother? The robes and mantles weren’t my sartorial style, but that’s the advantage of being an emperor. You can declare the imperial dress code to be whatever you want. Jeans and sport shirts it shall be.

Here are some photos of just a small sampling of the treasury’s treasures. See if you can spot the “Holy Grail” and “unicorn horn.”

Sisi Museum and the Hofburg Palace Imperial Apartments

While listed separately in guidebooks, the Sisi Museum and The Imperial Apartments are effectively a single, continuous flow museum.

The Sisi Museum displays artifacts of Empress Elizabeth’s life. Empress Elizabeth was married to Emperor Franz Joseph. Her common nickname was Sisi. She died in 1898 in Geneva, where she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist. OK, so maybe I don’t want to come back as an Empress.

Artifacts on display included dresses, furniture, paintings of her, and one painting of her husband, the emperor. There were also a few busts of Sisi. (That, obviously, is busts as in sculptures of her head, shoulders; not the other definition of bust because that would have been in poor taste and, considering she’s been dead for more than 120 years, macabre.)

Imperial Apartments

When I hear “apartments” I think of Toronto condos or rental buildings. A few decades ago, that typically meant 800 to 1,200 square feet for a middle class apartment. Although, today it’s typically more like 400 to 800 square feet.

The Imperial Apartments were not like that. I didn’t count the rooms but there were a lot, including a bedroom, dining room, a couple of salons, a conference room, and a bunch of rooms I’ve forgotten. Some were probably almost as large on their own as my whole condo unit.

All of the rooms were lavishly decorated. My condo isn’t.

As with the state rooms at Shönbrunn Palace, the rules forbid taking photographs in both the Sisi Museum and the Imperial Apartments. Neither my memory, nor my skills at descriptive narrative have improved in the last couple of days. So, you’re again going to have to use your imagination to visualize these sites and sights.

Orchids, peacocks and waterfalls are still pleasing things to visualize. They have no more to do with the Hofburg Imperial Apartments or the Sisi Museum than they have to do with Shönbrunn Palace, but you might still enjoy imagining them.

Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Art History)

The one place I went to that wasn’t in the Hofburg Palace was the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which translates to the Art History Museum. Although, it was quite close to the palace.

It is a large art history museum in a beautiful building. When I say large, I don’t mean anywhere near Louvre-class big, but still large.

The museum was built in 1888, commissioned by Emperor Franz Joseph to display the Hapsburgs’ collection. Because, of course the Hapsburgs had a collection that required a large museum to display it.

If you love art galleries and art you would probably love it. If, on the other hand, you are like me, your eyes will probably glaze over within the first half hour and your mind will likely wander to the questions like “I wonder how much a lobotomy costs” and “how one goes about getting a lobotomy.”

The museum displayed a great many works, and many great works, including some by artists with names I heard before. This means they must be fabulously famous because, when it comes to art, as you no doubt surmised from the above, I’m a Philistine. I’ve heard of only the most renowned of artists.

(I’m also a Philistine when it comes to most other aspects of culture, but that’s irrelevant here. So, never mind.)

The names known to me were attached to a few paintings by Caravaggio, a number by Reubens, and many by Tizian (I assume that’s the same painter as I and my spell checker thought was spelled Titian, but his paintings were labeled Tizian at the museum).

One of the great many names not known to me was Bruegel. Apropos of nothing other than his name appearing next to some paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (ok, so it was apropos of something), I at first read his name as Brueger. This probably explains my sudden craving for a bagel. Although, to the best of my knowledge, there are no Bruegger’s bagels in Vienna.

Despite not being an art aficionado, I’m not afraid to admit that some of the works really spoke to me. I plan to seek help for that because hearing voices emanating from paintings can’t be a good sign.

The museum also offered a good collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman sculptures and other artifacts.

In the pictures below, the first is a monument that sits across from the entrance, the second is the exterior of the building and the rest consist of a couple of interior shots and pictures of a minuscule sampling of the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s works on display.

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