VIENNA

Austria

A crown would become us

The Hofburg is a labyrinthine behemoth that spreads its buildings, wings and courtyards in the centre of Vienna like a huge organism the growth of which nobody has ever wanted or tried to curb throughout the centuries. We made a test this morning, in front of the mirror, and we have to say this: we really have heads made for crowns. That's why we quickly proceed to the oldest part of the Hofburg, the Swiss Wing, which houses the Holy of Holies: the Schatzkammer, in other words the Imperial Treasury. We step through the Swiss Gate, made of red and grey stones. In our backs we hear the clop-clop-clop of horses' hooves on cobblestones. A fiacre stops, and we imagine a countess stepping out of it; she'd be wearing a crinoline dress and have come to pay her respects to the Emperor or to an arch archduchess.

Our "Open Sesame!" is a simple ticket. It allows us to enter this Aladdin's cave, the subdued lighting of which makes the fairy (and, let's be honest, glitzy) side of the objects on show stand out. We walk on tiptoes as if we had come to steal a crown. But don't worry—despite our heads made to wear crowns, we shall merely admire them under their bell glasses. The most prestigious examples of this headgear for royals is just in front of us. It's octagonal, surmounted by a vertical arch and a cross in front, set with gold plates, pearls and countless precious stones, and dates back… to the 10th century, if you please. That's the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. It seems to weigh a ton; too heavy for our frail necks after all. But we'd rather fancy taking the Imperial Cross back home with us; it would look pretty neat on our Ikea bookcase.

There's another crown which tops this first one in terms of impressiveness, glitz and showiness: the so-called Crown of Rudolf, a "private" imperial crown Emperor Rudolf II had had made in 1602 in order to be able to don it whenever he wanted while wandering through Prague castle, where he lived a rather hermit-like life. On a painting at its side, you can see his remote successor Franz wearing this crown. Not only does he look positively stupid with that on his head, but above all, he seems exceedingly gay and happy. We know at once that despite its splendour and the nice accessories that come with it (orb and sceptre), a crown that makes you look all lemony is not our style. We are modest and discreet people, after all.

Alright, let's not dwell too long on the archducal crown called archducal hat in German ("Erzherzogshut"). We don't fancy it because, come on, do we look like beggars? We have to say this, though: the real crown is stored in the museum of Klosterneuburg Abbey. Here in the "Schatzkammer", you only get to see the skeleton of a copy made for Emperor Joseph II for his coronation as the Holy Roman King in 1746. After the ceremony, the precious stones and pearls were taken off immediately, hence the destitute look of the object.

But we'd be seriously interested in the crown of Stephen II Bocskai, prince of Transylvania. He accepted it as a gift made by the Ottoman sultan Ahmed I in 1605. This crown didn't do him any good, alright, because he died only a year later, not without having bestowed it on the Habsburgs before. Thus it's not what you'd call a "lucky charm"-crown, and its political meaning is more than limited, but—gosh, it is beautiful!

But life's not only about crowns, even if you're an Emperor (or a dentist, by the way). If you want a court life worthy of the name, you'll need some nice robes of state, too. The ones you can see here are very beautiful, extremely ostentatious, even if they don't look neither easy to don nor nice to wear. Tons and tons of velvet, silk, all of it embroidered with gold threads, and there are ermine parts and all that. Alright, nothing extraordinary here—you wouldn't wear a crown on your head and then put on a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, would you?

We cannot NOT mention the special room dedicated to the King of Rome, that is Napoleon Bonaparte's only son. As we know, Napoleon married his second wife Marie-Louise of Austria (she was a daughter of Emperor Franz—remember, the one with the lemony face), and she gave birth to his son in 1811. After Napoleon had abdicated, mother and son were brought back to Austria, where Napoleon II was raised at court, carrying the title of Duke of Reichstadt (a small town in Bohemia). In July 1832 he died in Schönbrunn Palace from tuberculosis. In the "Schatzkammer" you can admire his cradle of state, a gift by the Parisians for his birth. Suffice it to know that the townspeople didn't it a joke—it's almost throne-like, and imagine, 230 kg of silver have been used to manufacture it!

GOOD TO KNOW

  • On the website of the Imperial Treasury, you can purchase your entrance tickets (12 euros for the Schatzkammer, or a combined ticket for the Treasury and the Kunsthistorisches Museum for 20 euros) – DE, EN
  • A link concerning Stephen Bocskai, who is maybe one of those royals one doesn't immediately recognize, nor does one necessarily know when and where he exactly lived and reigned – EN
  • Dorothy Gies McGuigan has written a biography of the Habsburg family which is very easy and entertaining to read – EN
  • Probably the best book about the Habsburgs and the countries over which they reigned is undoubtedly Simon Winder's "Danubia"—a very personal, subjective book, but a really outstanding one for its erudition, its experiences and that inimitable humour only British historians seem to be able to find when writing books – EN

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