Visiting Vienna is the equivalent of savoring a delicate torte topped by a large dollop of whipped cream — both are elegant, rich and irresistible. The capital of Austria has glorious Baroque architecture, exquisite landscaped gardens, lively sidewalk cafes, and a music and theater scene that rivals any in the world.
To go beneath the glittering surface of Vienna, however, requires some knowledge of its history. This year is a good time to delve deeper, thanks to a multi-site exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the death of Franz Joseph I, the longest-reigning monarch in Austrian history. His life, which began in imperial splendor and ended in the mire of World War I, provides a window for viewing many of Vienna’s major landmarks. Along the way, visitors will learn more about a city that has played an important role in world history.
“The exhibitions give a balanced picture of Franz Joseph, whose public image was — and in many ways still is — shaped by myths and cliches,” said Karl Vocelka, one of the curators of the four Franz Joseph exhibitions, three of which are in Vienna and one in Schloss Niederweiden, located 30 miles east of the city.
Born in 1830, Franz Joseph led the Austro-Hungarian monarchy for 68 years. He had a keen sense for the power of media and was the first emperor to make use of film and sound recordings. During his life he was one of the most famous individuals in the world, his bewhiskered visage instantly recognizable by millions.
The best place to start a Franz Joseph tour of Vienna is at Schonbrunn Palace, a magnificent estate that served as the summer residence of the Habsburg emperors. A tour through its ornate rooms gives a sense for the incredible luxury that surrounded the emperor throughout his life, which both began and ended at Schonbrunn. Outside, lushly landscaped gardens include a zoo, hedge maze and Victorian-era greenhouse.
Schonbrunn’s “Man & Monarch” exhibition tells the story of Franz Joseph’s personal life through memorabilia, photographs, paintings and audio interviews with scholars. From childhood he was groomed to be a leader. Dutiful and highly organized, he had an enthusiasm for all things related to the military, and even in peacetime he almost always wore a uniform.
Displays at the palace’s Imperial Carriage Museum focus on the public image of Franz Joseph. On display are elaborate state coaches, intricate riding harnesses, and formal court livery from three key moments in his life: his marriage in 1854, his coronation in Hungary in 1867, and his state funeral in 1916 were all occasions to parade the wealth of the empire.
“Coaches and clothing helped broadcast a specific image of Franz Joseph to the public,” said Mario Doberl, a curator at the museum. “He had to live up to an image of grandeur, and yet in his personal life he was quite Spartan and unpretentious.”
Another part of Franz Joseph’s story is told at the other great palace in Vienna: the Hofburg. The main residence of the Habsburg dynasty for six centuries, this huge complex of buildings and gardens includes several museums as well as the Austrian National Library, the Spanish Riding School where the famed Lipizzaner stallions perform, and the President of Austria’s offices.
At the Hofburg, the Imperial Apartments give a sense for the day-to-day lives of Franz Joseph and his family. The emperor was a tireless worker, typically rising at 3:30 a.m. to begin a long day of paperwork, meetings with court officials and audiences with his subjects.
The Hofburg also includes the Sisi Museum, which is devoted to Elisabeth, Franz Joseph’s wife, who was affectionately known as Sisi. Married at 16, she quickly grew disillusioned with the formalities of court life. Headstrong and beautiful, she spent less and less time in Vienna as the years passed, becoming one of the most accomplished horsewomen in Europe and traveling widely. Her life is told through displays of her clothing, portraits, the poetry she composed and other memorabilia displayed in her personal rooms.
Despite her frequent absences, Franz Joseph loved his wife. One of the most poignant parts of the tour is seeing how he kept a large painting of her positioned in front of his desk, to keep her close to him even when she was far away. While later in life the two grew emotionally closer, tragedy stalked the family. Their only son Rudolph, the heir to the throne, committed suicide at the age of 31; Sisi was killed by an Italian anarchist in 1898; and the assassination of Franz Joseph’s nephew Ferdinand was the spark that ignited World War I.
Nearby, the Austrian National Library provides additional insights into Franz Joseph. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire frayed, he became its most important unifying figure. Among the documents on display here are the suicide letters left behind by Crown Prince Rudolph and the lover who died with him. This marks the first time the letters have gone on display since their sensational discovery earlier in the year.
Finally, the Imperial Furniture Collection, a museum that has one of the largest collections of furniture in the world, showcases other aspects of the ruler, including the ways in which technology enabled his image to be widely broadcast. On display are film footage, sound recordings, personal effects such as his dressing gown, and even the knife that was used against him in an assassination attempt in 1853.
By the time Franz Joseph died in 1916, his nation was embroiled in a conflict that would permanently diminish its strength, size and prestige. While a century has passed since his death, it’s not surprising that memories of his vanished world still fascinate. Franz Joseph — both a tireless servant to his people and an autocratic ruler — continues to intrigue the world.
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IF YOU GO
A combined ticket to the exhibits marking the 100th anniversary of the death of Emperor Franz Joseph is $27. While the special exhibits close November 27, all the sites listed have permanent displays relating to his life. For more information see www.franzjoseph2016.at. For general tourist information on Vienna, see www.vienna.info.