Any trip to Vienna would be incomplete without a visit to the city’s palaces and famed gardens. The Belvedere Palace, divided into upper and lower palaces, and including the historic orangery and stables, is one of the city’s most elegant. Located in Vienna’s third district, the Palace is constructed on a gentle, terraced slope from the Upper to the Lower Palace, and acted as Prince Eugene of Savoy’s summer residence in the city. As with any ornate palace, both Belvederes are chock full of classical art. The Upper Palace, with its wonderful Greek-inspired white marble entrance hall, mainly houses art from the 1800s-1900s, covering periods such as the Viennese Secession movement (including, notably, the work of Austrian artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele), as well as impressionist, romanticist, and baroque collections. The Lower Palace and Orangery, on the other hand, are host to Prince Eugene’s collection of sculptures and paintings and a temporary (often modern) art exhibition, respectively.
No story of Austrian art is complete without mentioning the Viennese Secession movement. In the late 1800s, the Secession artists objected against the conservative artistic styles favoured by the Viennese Künstlerhaus and instead exhibited at the Secession building, a striking exhibition hall. While no artistic style especially characterised the movement, the artists were above all concerned with challenging the traditions and boundaries of fine art. The movement was no better embodied by the works of Klimt and Schiele. Best known for his “Golden Phase”, Klimt had a particular fascination with erotic art, in both abstract (most notably represented by the luminous and famous painting “The Kiss”) and classically-inspired works. The Klimt and Antiquity exhibition (summer 2017) in the Belvedere’s Orangery contrasted Klimt’s risqué sketches with classical vase paintings and the Dialogues of the Courtesans (from the 1st century) to offer a glimpse into Klimt’s inspirations.
With Klimt about 30 years Schiele’s senior, the pair shared a mentor-mentee relationship; indeed, many of Schiele’s early works share elements of Klimt’s. With Schiele’s work also often focusing on the erotic, it carried a darker palette and more unsettling interpretations. Schiele’s oeuvre mostly took the form of portraits and self-portraits, often posed in vulnerable angles and settings. Schiele’s unique style also stands in great contrast with traditional portraiture in fine art.
Another magnificent Viennese palace is Schönbrunn Palace, one of the most important architectural legacies of the Habsburgs. Located to the southwest of the Vienna city centre, Schönbrunn acted as the summer palace for the royal family from the 17th to the early 20th centuries. The changes in the many rooms and massive gardens at Schönbrunn in turn reflect shifting tastes and interests of the ruling Habsburgs. Perhaps unlike other palaces, and in a way similar to Versailles in Paris, the highlight of Schönbrunn may be its extensive and outstanding gardens, almost an organic extension of the physical palace and its psyche. The gardens have been open to the public since the late 18th century and are dissected by avenues and alleyways running parallel and perpendicular and diagonally through the massive patches of grass and well-pruned trees.
The Great Parterre is the largest open space of the garden, and extends from the south-facing side of the palace. With the embroidered strips of trimmed grass flanked by clipped hedges housing hidden passageways, the space opens out towards the Neptune Fountain and, on top of a small hill, a two-storied colonnaded Gloriette, housing triumphant archways and dominating stone sculptures.
The Schönbrunn orangery, at almost 200 metres long, is one of the largest in the world. Historically, the orangery was kept at a constant warm temperature in order for tropical plants, a particular Habsburg collectible, to survive harsh Viennese winters. This was done through an underfloor vaulted system, through which hot air from coal fires could be spread along the structure.
Buried amid the geometric criss-crossing boulevards and paths is the palm house, all steel and glass, located on the site of the former Dutch botanical garden. In contrast with the rest of the gardens, which are demarcated largely by curved stonework and sprawling vegetation, the palm house is geometric, inorganic. The interior of the palm house is divided into three climate zones – cold, temperate, and tropical – temperatures are maintained through a steam heating system, allowing rare specimens to be grown.
Amid the slanting sun of the late afternoon, gardeners tended to the perfectly conical hedges and spherical bushes, snipping furiously with their shears. Others, harnessed, stood on raised platforms and trimmed the trees which line the gravelled avenues. By five, right on cue, just about all have disappeared, abandoning trimmings and branches in their wake. Instead, they were replaced by runners and pram-pushers. Crowds of tourists thinned amid a rare moment of serenity during our time in Vienna.