Vienna is the strangest of cities. During the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it began to expand and absorb immigrants from elsewhere in the Hapsburg empire, most obviously the Jews that were to be at the heart of its cultural and economic life. Its cuisine began to resemble that of Bohemia, Hungary and even Italy more than that of the German states. With the demolition of the city walls encircling the medieval city, the construction of the Ringstrasse began and the city’s architecture became progressively more and more heavily influenced by French and Italian baroque and neo-classical designs. As the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, Imperial Rome was a model for the iconography of much of the city. The older gothic buildings in the inner city became the exception, not the rule. In short, Vienna became increasingly deracinated, something that inevitably lead to anti-semitic backlashes. In music, the likes of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern pioneered forms of music utterly disconnected from traditional forms. In art and literature, a preference for the surreal and the fantastic emerged in the likes of Klimt’s paintings. Freud dedicated his work to the interpretation of dreams and in Schnitzler’s Dream Story portrays Vienna as an unreal mirage, behind which the machinations of the unconscious lie. Even more traditional art, like that of Strauss or Roth is all surface.
Arriving, I walked around the boulevards of the Ringstrasse, starting with the Byzantine fortress that is the Museum of Military History. Since the ring was designed to be broad enough for the easy military suppression of dissent and protest, this was designed as the city Arsenal. Nearby is the elegant French gothic of the Votivkirche, through to the Rathausplatz. The ring is where most of Vienna’s artistic life emerged, from its national gallery, museums, music halls, academies and opera houses. It is also where Vienna’s most chaotic and schizophrenic aspects emerge, with differing architectural styles at every turn. Here, the baroque Burgtheater and neo-classical Parlament are confronted by the odd sight of the modern Flemish gothic of the Neues Rathaus, one of the few examples of modern gothic in the city. Like much of the city the platz is occupied by parks and fountains, filled with statues of musicians and kings. From here, the strasse leads to Karlsplatz. Again, much of the trees and fountains are dominated by the bizarre sight of Fischer Von Erlach’s KarlsKirche dome and its two flanking pillars, both in imitation of Trajan’s column. More oddly still, a Henry Moore sculpture rests in the pond in front of the church. The frescos on the interior were being restored and it was possible to ascend to a platform under the dome and see them in detail. Elsewhere in the platz are Otto Wagner’s pavilions for the underground, Jugendstil creations in white marble and gold. Scorning ‘folk art’ Wagner’s designs were every bit as radical as Klimt’s paintings. Wagner rather reminded me of Soane’s plans for a London modelled on Imperial Rome or Wren’s plans to recreate the city along the lines of the great European capitals. Wagner drafted design after design for a Vienna that was gleamed in white and gold art nouveau. As it happened, only his underground station designs, a church some villas and a few other buildings were ever to come into being. Nearby is Joseph Maria Olbrich’s even more outrageous Secession building, white marble surmounted with a gold dome. Finally, one comes to a Russian monument for Soviet soldiers which would seem more at home in Moscow (written into the terms of the state treaty, the Austrians were not permitted to demolish it). Finally, the strasse comes to a conclusion with the Stadtpark, filled with statues of the likes of Strauss and Schubert.
Within the Innere Stadt, the street lines of the medieval city remain but, like London, the majority of the buildings are as modern as those in the Ringstrasse. The exception lies at the epicentre of the city; the Stephansdom. few buildings merit the term ‘gothic’ (in its modern sense, at least) as this. In spite of the tiled green and yellow roof, the exterior is blackened while precious little light filters into the dark interior, while beneath it extend the catacombs, filled with the bones of plague victims. Although baroque paintings have been placed at the bases of many of the columns, medieval wooden sculptures remain above them and very little seems to have changed in the cathedral for hundreds of years. Much the same can be said of the nearby Kaisergruft, which contains the tombs of the Hapsburg Emperors. A Capuchin church, its vaults are filled with pewter coffins decorated with images of skulls, swords and bat wings. Other churches, such as the eighth century Ruprechtskirche with its plain white interior and ivy covered exterior also reflect the city as it was when it retained its walls. But beyond these, the Innere Stadt is as diverse as the Ringstrasse. Wagner’s secession Ankerhaus has a Jesuit plague column in front of it, while the second most striking church is the baroque dome of the Peterskirche. Others baroque churches, such as the Jesuitenkirche were decorated with elaborate trompe l’oeil effects alongside the typical red marble and gilt. Other churches, like Griechische Kirche reflect the increasing multi-cultural character of the city as it grew. Designed in mock Byzantine style for the Greek immigrants, the redbrick exterior hid the most ornate gold interior.
On the edge of the Innere Stadt lies the original Hapsburg Palace, the Hofburg. Entered through a baroque gateway surmounted by a copper dome, the palace is a confusing labyrinth of passages and courtyards, until one passes through to the Volksgarten and the Burggarten. The former of these is dominated by a replica of the Thesion in Athens, while the latter now houses a jugendstil butterfly house, containing White Tree Nymphs and Green-banded Swallowtails from Malaysia and Red Helen butterflies from South East Asia, as well as a number of moths and birds (rather portly and apparently grounded).
In time, the Hapsburgs created a new palace outside the city. Schoenbrunn lacks the idiosyncratic character of Sanssouci at Pottsdam but makes up for it in scale. Its park is enormous, lined through with lime and beech trees and inhabited by brazen red squirrels and ravens. The park is dotted with various follies and fountains, most strikingly a set of fake Roman ruins (once more intended to reinforce the Roman character of the Hapsburg Empire) a maze, Japanese garden and the large Victorian Palmenhaus. The Crown Prince Garden next to the palace is filled with fig, orange and lemon trees; a yew tree lies at its centre to commemorate the prince’s suicide. After this, the building is nondescript; a squat structure painted in a nasty mustard colour. The interior is more promising, with rooms like the Chinese Cabinet (white walls inset with black and gold lacquer), the Porcelain room (decorated with blue and white plaster) and the Millions room (rosewood inset with Indo-Persian miniatures). Leaving the palace, one is confronted with one of the most ornate of Otto Wagner’s U-Bahn pavillions, while the surrounding area is home to many of his villas and tomb in the nearby Friedhof. The pavilion was built for the Emperor, whose disdain for modernity meant that he only travelled through it twice. Though the most clearly successful Hapsburg was Maria-Theresa, the personality of Franz-Josef is stamped throughout Schoenbrunn. Haunted by tragedy (his bother and wife were both assassinated, his son committed suicide) he still seems an oddity, more like George the Third than Queen Victoria.
Further oddities came into being as the city expanded beyond the Ringstrasse. Here two houses lie within a few streets of one another; one designed with austere precision by Wittgenstein, the other the famous HundertwasserHaus and the KunstHaus Wien. Hundertwasser’s reputation was that of a latterday Gaudi, the disdainer of the straight line and creator of strange and colourful buildings. In practice, I was rather more inclined to view his buildings as being essentially grimly functional but with the esoteric grafted onto them in a way that seemed annoyingly comic, like a rather forced joke. Further afield within the former Jewish ghetto of Leopoldstadt lies the Augarten. Once a formal garden where Mozart and Strauss gave concerts is now presents a rather sad spectacle, being dominated by the crumbling ruins of two of Albert Speer’s World War Two flak towers. These massive concrete towers are almost certainly amongst the largest of Speer’s buildings to remain in existence. Around them, the park is largely untended and is being turned into a nature reserve; a sad fate for a park whose beauty Roth had the protagonist of The Emperor’s Tomb lament for in Siberia. Nearby lies the Prater fair and its famous ferris wheel. The entire area here reminds me somewhat of the disreputable Southbank (albeit in the age of Vauxhall Gardens rather than in the age of Tate Modern); a seedy and disreputable area given over to pleasure.
In front of the Hofburg on the Ringstrasse lies the Kunsthistoriches Museum. The first floor of this is taken up with the Hapsburg’s painting collection. I began in the Italian section, which houses a formidable number of works by the likes of Bellini, Raphael, Giorgione, Bordone, Tintoretto and a particularly extensive Titian collection. The undoubted highlights were the few Caravaggio paintings and some Belotto views of eighteenth century Vienna (the views and buildings were still easily identifiable). The collection then passes on, via a few Velasquez paintings to Germany and the Netherlands where gothic styles were being combined with renaissance painting techniques by Durer, Holbein, Cranach, Bosch and, above all, Breughhel. For all of these is fascinating to see how religious themes were beginning to be combined with realism; for example, paintings of the crucifixion turned essentially into landscape portraiture or realistic scenes with allegorical connotations replacing straightforward Biblical scenes. The later sections with the likes of Rembrandt and Van Dyck showed the outcome of this process, excepting oddities like Arcimboldo and his veering away from realism altogether, depicting faces made up of elemental forces like fire and water. A further highlight was a solitary Vermeer towards the end of the collection.
The lower floor was occupied by Egyptian, Greek and Roman exhibits. The Egyptian section was especially noteworthy, with an entire tomb being built into the building and the supporting papyrus stalk pillars being taken from an Egyptian temple. Much of the statuary represented familiar stylised design, but there a number of Roman influenced realistic figures lacking headdress. Conversely, the Greek section was heavily influenced by Eastern designs, with a Cypriot statue showing clear Egyptian and Assyrian influences. A particularly beautiful statue of Isis, where the robes and figure were cut from different stone was particularly striking; if only in that showed such a clear basis for later representations of the Virgin Mary. This section was largely striking for having an especially good collection of Graeco-Roman crafts beyond statuary and stonework though; painting, bronzes, mosaics, metalwork, glass and even textiles. The highlight was clearly the Brygos-Scythos and its beautifully detailed depiction of Priam’s supplication to Achilles. Within the Hofburg was a further museum of ancient history, mostly containing exhibits from Ephesos and Samothrace. This was perhaps more striking, containing octagonal tombs from Ephesus, a statue of Artemis and the Parthian frieze depicting Roman victory and the deification of the Emperor Varus.
The other principal gallery in Vienna is the Belvedere. Formerly a palace for Eugene of Savoy it still contains cabinets gilded with gold and a formal garden dotted with sphinx statues. Its lower gallery is dedicated largely to medieval art, dwelling in particular on the paintings of Michael Pacher, an early example of combining gothic forms with renaissance techniques. Oddly, the pictures of the Virgin Mary proved an interesting example to the principal works in the upper Belvedere, Klimt’s most famous paintings. His painting of Adele Bauer, all covered in gold is very clearly drawing on the same iconographic techniques. Sadly, much of the permanent collection was unavailable (so no Munch or Van Gogh) though an exhibition of Finnish art had some striking paintings by the likes of Magnus Enckell and Akseli Gallen-Kallela, mostly based around the Kalevala. Finally, there was the Leopold Museum, a rough equivalent to the Tate. Although this has some interesting nineteenth century Austrian landscapes by the likes of Emil Jakob Schindler and modern works by the likes of Oskar Kokoschka, its collection is heavily dominated by the works of Klimt’s contemporary, Egon Schiele, and his intense self portraits and paintings of Bohemian towns. Outside, the belvedere lies the Vienna Botanical Gardens, current residence of a Wollemi pine, a living fossil from the Jurassic period that was formerly thought extinct. A combination of eighteenth century formal gardens and more modern design, the gardens include some small tropical houses, a pinetum and an alpine garden.
Having one day to hand, I wanted to see how Vienna compared to the other capital of the Dual Monarchy; Budapest. As it happens, Budapest is rather more like Prague than Vienna; bisected by a river, one side is dominated by a hill surmounted by a castle and churches where the national galleries and museums are housed. The other is where the more modern city has grown. Arriving at Keleti train station, a nineteenth century structure dominated by a massive glass window, I walked downwards to the Danube. Unlike Prague, this area of the city was clearly impoverished, its buildings characterised by dilapidation and decay (as integral to its aesthetic as that of New Orleans) and the Parisi Udvar arcades seeming more like street markets. With that said, this was rather less disturbing than Vienna’s inequality and the sheer number of beggars on its wealthy streets, and the anti-immigrant posters plastered around the city by the far-right Freedom Party (showing social democrat politicians with mosques in the background); though in fairness to Vienna I should note that it has always tended to vote for socialist and social democrat parties. Nonetheless, compared to that Budapest’s poverty seemed less disturbing than it perhaps should have; in theory I feel that poverty without inequality is worse than prosperity with inequality, but in practise this seemed less justifiable.
My walk took me through Budapest’s old Jewish quarter, with its Moorish and Art Nouveau synagogues until I arrived by the river, crossed into Buda and began climbing up the hill of Varhegy to the castle. The centrepiece of the castle is the Holy Trinity Square, home to the Matyas Templom and the Fisherman’s Bastion. Although the red and yellow roof of the former is pretty it gives little idea of how beautiful the inside is, with every inch of the interior being painted so that it seems to blaze with colour. By contrast, the Fisherman’s Bastion’s is pure white but is like the Matyas Church in that it is a hyperreal construction; the church reconstructs the thirteenth century structure through modern eyes, while the bastion is an attempt to give Hungarian myth and history a concrete form, its seven turrets representing the seven Magyar tribes. Oddly though it reminded me most of Gaudi’s Greek theatre at Parc Guell. Crossing back into Pest over the chain bridge and into the Belvaros and Lipotvaros districts, the first building I came across was the art nouveau Gresham Palace before walking along the Danube to the Hungarian Parliament. The other striking building here is St Stephen’s Basilica; like St Paul’s it is possible to climb to the top of the dome from where the entire city can be seen.
As mentioned, Viennese cuisine is esoteric and meals in Vienna included horse goulash (served with fried egg and gherkins), Wiener Schnitzel, Potato salad, and coffee laced with liqueur served with torte in the likes of Cafe Central and Cafe Demel (the imperial confectioners). More interesting was Heurigen in Heiligenstadt, historically a vineyard licenced as a wine tavern for a brief period. The traditional costumes seemed a little arch to someone for whom such things reek of morris dancing but the sturm new wine was rather pleasant; not unlike fermented grapefruit juice. Austrian dark and wheat beers are also particularly recommended.