Monday, May 14, 2018

The Schonbrunn Palace Gardens

 Last October was the first time HM and I have been to Vienna and we we were completely blown away by all the city had to offer. There seemed to be no end to the amazing museums, great food and wine, fabulous desserts and fancy coffee houses. For some unique entertainment there are the fantastic Lipizzan horses and of course lots of music, especially Mozart! It's a great place visit! 

On our first day of sightseeing we decided to go all out and take on Schonbrunn, the former summer residence of the Habsburg family. They ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire from this beautiful place for 450 of their 765 years in power. It's fun to have a good snoop around a royal residence, especially a baroque one. Unfortunately photography wasn't allowed inside but there are hours of tours and documentaries on YouTube if you're curious. My favorite is a blurry black and white film of a reception in the Great Gallery following a cold war summit between President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union. Jackie is all smiles, chatting away to Khrushchev, who seems to be enjoying the attention in spite of the fact that she towers over him. The meeting was considered something of a diplomatic failure but at least they managed not to blow up the world. 

Since I only have pictures of the gardens, it seemed like a good idea to narrow down the Habsburg movers and shakers to the one ruler who was most responsible for it's current look, Maria Theresa. The Emperor Maximilian II purchased the land in 1569 to use as his personal hunting grounds. A couple centuries later it was transformed into it's current state by the Empress, who was the first and only female Habsburg ruler. 

When Maria Theresa was six her father chose a husband for her with the intention of having him rule in her name but she wasn't having that! She did actually follow through with the marriage but never left any doubt about who was in charge. Immediately following the death of her father, she became embroiled in the War of Succession and later the Seven Years War. During her reign, 1740 to 1780, she spent nearly two decades at war, rebuilt the Austrian army, reformed the government and it's judicial systems, instituted public education, turned Schonbrunn into her personal shrine and produced sixteen children, one of whom was Marie Antoinette.

Although she reigned during the Age of Enlightenment and her reforms followed the humanist philosophy she wasn't all sweetness and light. While she did manage an impressive amount of accomplishments she did not treat all her subjects alike and had no tolerance for non-Catholics. Under her rule Austrian Protestants were tortured and the Jews were exiled from Prague. A few years later, she did regret her treatment of the Jews and allowed them to return. On the grounds of Schonbrunn she made some pretty heavy handed statements about who was in charge. Visitors showing up at her front door in 1775 were greeted by this fountain representing the recent addition of the kingdoms of Galicia, Volhynia and Transylvania to her empire. The three figures seem happy enough to have allied themselves with the Habsburgs - or are they just reconciled to their fate?  

The name Schonbrunn means beautiful spring and there is one located somewhere in the 435 acre complex but between the palace, Gloriette, several formal, botanic and Japanese gardens; a dairy farm, the Children's Museum and playground, an Imperial Carriage Museum, a labyrinth and maze, the Palm and Desert Houses, the Orangery, a vineyard and the Vienna Zoo - we totally missed it!

The dramatic Neptune Fountain stands at the end of the Great Parterre or the divided lawns that lead from the palace. Neptune is holding court in his sea shell chariot and is being petitioned by Thetis to allow her son Achilles, to have a safe voyage on his way to Troy. It was a popular theme at the time, symbolizing how the monarch controlled the destiny of their nation.

On a lower level the sea horses, called hippocampi, are anxiously waiting to draw Neptune's chariot across the seas. They are being wrangled by Tritons, half-man, half-fish creatures who wielded conch shell trumpets. The sound is said to be able to instill fear in both humans and animals which is pretty much of an idle threat since they're made of stone.

Most of the large fountains are accessible from all sides and offer some pretty interesting views - if you don't mind getting wet! The gardens have been open to the public since 1779, a year before Maria Theresa's death. That seems to have been a common practice at the time and may explain all the underlying meanings of the statues in the fountains. The Habsburg monarchy ended in November of 1918 and Schonbrunn became the property of the newly founded Austrian Republic.


 Off to the east of the palace there are several huge gardens full of exotic potted trees and shrubs as well as the Orangery where they are housed during the cold months. It dates from 1716 and is twice the length of a football field. In the 18th century Seville orange trees were a popular status symbol among European royalty and they were famous for throwing lavish parties amidst their tropical specimens during the dead of winter.

In February of 1786 this was the scene of the famous opera competition between Mozart and the Imperial Court Composer Antonio Salieri. It was actually held in the Orangery because it was the only heated building at Schonbrunn. These days there are regularly scheduled concerts several times a week and even though Mozart lost that competition it's his music that is always performed here. 

I'm a sucker for crazy names so we had to visit the The Garden on the Cellar. It's unusual name comes from the fact that it's actually sitting on top of storage cellars built in 1700. The flower beds are called "parterre de broderie" because the designs were borrowed from embroidery patterns. There's nothing like having your garden match your dress! The pink and yellow areas between the flowers and lawn are made up of dyed sand, I guess that's one way to bring color into the garden! 

Around the outside there is an enormous pergola that is interspersed with four huge lattice pavilions and one contemporary one. The original pergola was also lattice but didn't last long and had to be replaced with this one that is made out of iron in 1770. Guess that worked out well.

At the furthest end of the garden is a new viewing pavilion. A note on the garden map said it was designed to be a modern interpretation of the original lattice one. I'm all for adding contemporary structures to historic sites but this really looked more like temporary scaffolding done on a budget.

At least the new viewing platform gave us a great view of the beautiful Virginia Creeper just starting to come into it's autumn color. It was planted in the 1800's - so it's one of the newer additions to the garden, ha! Two restored 18th century lattice pavilions can be seen at the upper right.

To the left of the Neptune fountain, at the foot of a wooded slope of Schonbrunn Hill is the Roman Ruin. Built in 1778, it's an artificial garden feature carefully set into the surrounding landscape in order to give the impression that it's an ancient building slowly crumbling to pieces. Directly up the hill through the arch is a statue of Hercules fighting Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the entrance to Hades. There was no sign of Hagrid. 

In the pool in front of the ruin are figures representing the gods of two important Austrian rivers, the Danube and Enns. Originally the structure was called the Ruin of Carthage and was meant to reinforce the fact that the Habsburg's believed they were the rightful heirs to the Holy Roman Empire, even though it was actually an elected office.

This is a view of part of the maze with the labyrinth beyond. We were lost for quite awhile in the maze and never would have made it to the center if we hadn't started following a teenager who's dad was shouting directions (in English) from the center viewing platform.  

The Gloriette sits on the top of Schronbrunn Hill and was partly constructed of elements recycled from an unfinished Renaissance palace that was begun by a previous Habsburg. Other parts were incorporated into the Roman Ruin. Half of it was destroyed by Allied bombs during WWII, along with the palace and a lot of the city of Vienna. We worked up quite an appetite walking up the hill but it was worth it to stuff ourselves with schnitzel and strudel at the cafe located inside. There's an incredible view from the roof. If you look closely you can just barely make out people standing near the edges of the center section.


There seem to be a number of opinions on the reason the existence of the Gloriette, one claimed Maria Theresa had it built to honor a "just war" or a war carried out by necessity, that would lead to peace. Perhaps she was referring to the war she was forced to fight against her cousin's husband and his allies when they contested her right to reign because she was merely a woman? That's one possibility but the official Schonbrunn web site states that it was part of an original plan drawn up in the 1680's when the property was first acquired.  

It's hard not to notice the spooky ox skull decorations running around the interior frieze. They're called bucranium and are another one of those hints that the Habsburgs liked to leave around to let everyone know they were the rightful rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. Apparently, in Roman times and earlier, the heads of sacrificed oxen were hung on the temple walls and festooned with garlands of flowers. I'm so glad these were made out of plaster. 

This post has been sitting in my drafts file for a very long time while I read up on the history of the Habsburgs and attempted to make sense of it all - like that was ever going to happen, ha! I had to try, if only to satisfy my own curiosity. Apart from the fact that they were one of the most powerful royal families of Europe, they made a significant impact on the development of western civilization from medieval times until the end of World War I. Although they were often ill-fated they were never dull. So if you ever find yourself in Vienna, it's a great place to visit.

A belated Happy Mother's Day to all the Moms of human and fur babies out there! I do hope you are enjoying lovely weather wherever you live. My backyard is currently a sea of mud so it looks like springtime will be a little delayed here. Thanks for stopping by!

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