Vienna, Europe’s Imperial City

Something about the heart of Vienna breathed heavily with grandeur, “it looks imperial,” said my travel companion.

I took a closer look at the buildings around me, stocky, broad buildings washed in white conveying the sheer largeness of these buildings make you feel tiny in comparison. The buildings are held by sturdy pillars with beautiful flourishes at the base and tip, Large windows and even larger balconies hung from the walls overlooking broad boulevards.


Unlike Edinburgh, Zurich and Tallinn that retain a medieval look to their old town, Vienna’s is a historic imperial town, one that conjures images of its proud imperial history – that of the Austrian Hapsburg and Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Austrian Empire emerged from the ashes of the Holy Roman Empire, of which Vienna was the capital, after the latter was dissolved after the defeat by Napoleon. The story of the founding of the Austrian Empire is rather complicated, the then ruler of the Holy Roman Empire Francis II (who belonged to the Habsburg Monarchy) oversaw a series of changes in the HRE in 1803 when the parliament of that empire voted on bills to dissolve imperial and ecclesial cities so as to compensate the many German princes of the empire. Realizing that this could end his families centuries old grip on power, either by dissolution or replacement by Napoleon, Francis II declared in 1804 (while he was still Holy Roman Empire) the establishment of the Austrian Empire. Francis II’s fears were realized when in 1805, the HRE was completely dissolved and reorganized by Napoleon into the precursor of modern Germany.

The Austrian Empire was no small fry, it was the third largest empire in all Europe with a population of 21 million at its peak encompassing what are today part of southern Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and all of Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary.

[Yes, the tune of Austria’s Imperial Anthem was adopted by modern Germany]

This vast empire was centred around Vienna. The empire bore the main brunt of resistance to Napoleon for a decade, culminating in the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after Napoleon’s capitualtion at the Battle of Waterloo. The congress was called for and chaired by the Austrian statesman Clemens von Metternich to find ways to settle boundaries and rebalance the major powers to maintain peace on the continent (it worked for a centuy).

The Austrian Empire was later reorganised as Austria-Hungary when both provin es were given equal power within the running of the state. This new state surpassed the former in land mass, population size, and economic strength becoming on of the leading industrial powers of the era. Like its former empires, this empire was a multiethnic one with the subjects of the empire connected by their ruling monarch and nothing much else. Vienna was now made to share glory and time with Budapest as a co-capital, but more on that another time.

It is this proud history that still paints the streets of Vienna today.

While older structures such as the medieval St Stephens Cathedral as well as more modern Gründerzeit flourishes can still be found,   others such as the Baroque style Hofburg Palace, In der Berg and Belvedere Palace define the Baroque-Imperial design of the city.

In fact the city’s UNESCO inscription does a comprehensive job explaining the city:

At the beginning of the 12th century the settlement here expanded beyond the Roman defences, which were demolished. During the Ottoman conflicts in the 16th and 17th centuries, the medieval town’s walls, which surrounded a much larger area, were rebuilt and provided with bastions. This remained the core of Vienna until the medieval walls were demolished in the second half of the 19th century. The inner city contains a number of medieval-era buildings, including the Schottenkloster, the oldest monastery in Austria, the churches of Maria am Gestade (one of the main Gothic structures), Michaelerkirche, Minoritenkirche and Minoritenkloster from the 13th century, and St Stephen’s Cathedral, which dates from the 14th and 15th centuries. The same period also saw the construction of civic ensembles, such as initial parts of the Hofburg Palace. Whereas the monastic complexes were generally built of stone, becoming part of the defences of the medieval city, the residential quarters were of timber and suffered frequent fires.

In 1683, Vienna became the capital of the Habsburg Empire and developed rapidly, becoming an impressive Baroque city. The Baroque character was expressed particularly in the large palace layouts such as the Belvedere Palace and garden ensemble. A growing number of new palaces were built by noble families, many existing medieval buildings, churches, and convents were altered and given Baroque features, and additions were made to representative administrative buildings. Several historic Viennese buildings are now associated with the residences of important personalities such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, when the city played an essential role as a leading European centre for music.

A new phase in the history of Vienna took place when its 34 suburbs were incorporated into the city and the emperor ordered the demolition of the fortifications around the inner city. The opportunity was taken to create one of the most significant 19th-century ensembles in the history of urban planning, which greatly influenced the rest of Europe in this crucial period of social and economic development. In 1874, the Hofburg complex was extended with the addition of the Neue Hofburg, an ‘Imperial Forum’, and joined with large museum complexes into a single ensemble. The Burgtheater, parliament, town hall, and university formed another ensemble linked with these structures. To this was added the opera house as well as a large number of public and private buildings along the Ringstrasse, on the line of the demolished city walls. The late 19th and early 20th centuries testify to further creative contributions by Viennese designers, artists, and architects in the periods of the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau), the Secession, and the early Modern Movement in architecture.

As does this rather old UNESCO/NHK video.

Cover Image Source


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