Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Vienna (1)

You rarely get the best view of a city on the journey into it, and Vienna is no exception. The train from the airport loops around this refinery; this sort of complex elaboration turned out to be something we would meet again.

In their heyday, the Habsburg emperors acquired (mostly by marriage, it would seem) the overlordship of many different realms and territories. In one Tirolean village, I saw from the bus a wall painting recording some mediaeval grant or honour to a worthy local citizen, in a text where the recipient got the briefest mention, but the emperor's titles were recorded in full: not just Holy Roman Emperor, but Archduke of Austria, King of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Portugal and every separate province of Spain, Duke of Burgundy, with various titles relating to Silesia, Galicia, Bukovina, etc., etc., - and thanks to Columbus, "King of the Atlantic Ocean" into the bargain.

This profusion of detail is emphasised in the vast size of the Hofburg palace. On the outside, there are images of heroic struggle: pompous roof statues celebrate victories and the Labours of Hercules loom over leisurely fiaker rides.

Inside, the Schatzkammer holds some ancient treasures - a crown from the 10th century, an agate dish from the 4th century - but it's noticeable that many of the symbols of all the different titles and realms of the Habsburgs seem to be designed - like so much of our George IV's grandiosities - as a riposte to Napoleon. If he was going to declare himself an Emperor and the Holy Roman Empire dissolved, then the Habsburgs would become Emperors of Austria, and carry on adding titles (with the crowns and robes and assorted bling to go with them). By the time you get to the state apartments, that kind of excess applied to things like massive silver and gilt tableware, combined with the relatively spartan military discipline with which Franz Josef conducted his life makes the story of his wife Elizabeth (Sisi) entirely understandable.

No wonder that, like many other nineteenth-century women, she developed the kind of undefinable illness that required extensive "cures" away from court life (though it's quite another story why that, even combined with her assassination on her travels, should have led, some 60 years and more later, to such a Diana-like cult in the German-speaking world that there's a special exhibition just for her).

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