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29 June 2017

Tour Director Alex Koller shows the importance of looking beyond the city’s reputation as a centre for music, to explore its wealth of artistic treasures.

A Personal Perspective on Vienna

by Alex Koller

On my travels in the Far East it often took somewhat of an effort to explain my home country to enquiring locals.

Once they exclaimed: “Ah music country!” I knew they had understood. Indeed, even as art-history students at Vienna University we were warned about the “primacy of music” among the arts in Austria.

Culturally, Vienna may thus be known to most of the world above all as a centre of music but there is obviously much more to it. The Vienna of the visual arts is the focus of this tour.

Vienna is not an easy place to understand, not for the Viennese and not for the outsider either.

While it is geographically at the very centre of Europe it has often found itself in a marginal position: on the border of the Roman Empire, in the Carolinigian Eastern March, in frontier territory during centuries of Ottoman aggression and on the fringes of the free world during the Cold War.

According to Prince Metternich, the Balkan Peninsula begins at the Rennweg, a street in Vienna 3, one of the Eastern districts.

Architecturally, the city benefitted in particular from two periods of expansion that are still visible everywhere in the city.

The first followed the victory over the Ottomans in the late 17th century which saw the transformation of the suburbs of Vienna into palaces and gardens.

Karlskirche, Belvedere, Schönbrunn, Gartenpalais Liechtenstein are all examples of this. The second period began with the demolition of the city fortifications in the middle of the 19th century and saw the growth of the imperial capital over the next sixty years to become the fifth largest city in the world.

This is the Vienna of the Ringstraße, the museums, the Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Nouveau monuments.

All of this is inextricably linked with the patronage of the Habsburg dynasty, Archdukes of Austria and Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire.

At the former imperial palace, the Hofburg, the decoration of the historic reading room shows Karl VI’s vision of the Habsburgs’ universal empire.

The latter may only ever have been half-fulfilled but the exhibits in the adjacent Imperial Treasury show how many strands of European history come together in this place: the regalia of the Holy Roman Empire, going back to Charlemagne, the coronation robes of the Norman-Sicilian king Roger II. from Palermo or the treasure of the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece.

This is perhaps the best place in which to gain an understanding of the importance of this city over the centuries.