The current Austrian Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen – like his predecessors – holds his office in the former imperial Palace Hofburg.
Hofburg used to be the residence of the most important personalities of the Austrian monarchy who had a big influence on the history of the whole Europe: since Emperor Ferdinand I. (he reigned from 1521 – 1564) – the first Habsburg who really felt Vienna as his home, until Franz Joseph who led the monarchy from 1848 until his death in 1916. Hofburg used to be a winter residence while in summer the emperor dwelt with his family in the palace Schönbrunn.
It is interesting that every time when there was a change on the throne the new monarch did not move into the rooms of his predecessor but chose another wing (the choice was big because there are 16 wings in the complex), some other part or at least another chamber.
Maria Theresa, one of the most capable personalities of the Austrian history, chose the Leopoldine wing. It was built in the 1660s under Emperor Leopold I., her grandfather, and thus named after him. Later the wing was rebuilt by the Italian architect Giovanni Pietro Tencala and an additional floor was installed. There were also some smaller improvements under Marie Theresa, especially new, larger windows.
When the Republic of Austria was established after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, the head of the new state opened his offices in the building where the office of the Austrian chancellor is now located (Ballhausplatz 2). This was considerably destroyed in the World War II. That is why after the war, the Austrian president moved into the former chambers of Maria Theresa in the Leopoldine wing in Hofburg. And that is how it is until today.
The rooms are usually not open to the public. But because I have already managed to get in I would like to invite you as well to a tour together.
When you come to internal castle square (Burghof) from the Michael’s dome and you will have the statue of Franz I. on your right site, look straight ahead: behind the largest windows, there are the rooms I will be talking about.
The first impression is similar to other castles. There is an endless row of doors in front of you, you have to go through all rooms to get into the last one. The chambers have the same names as they had under Maria Theresa. The first two rooms are named Bellaria 1 and Bellaria 2. There are white walls with rich golden decoration, paintings…
Can you imagine that until Franz Joseph there were neither toilets nor bathrooms in Hofburg? They were just using special mobile chairs and wooden bathtubs. But – because this was a winter residence – it was heated with tiled stoves. This was the task of court stove operators who were not allowed to enter the living rooms. They stoked from corridors between the rooms only. 40,000 cubic meters were needed to heat just this one wing. A complete small forest! It is obvious that after the president moved into this part of Hofburg after the war, they installed a central heating system and built sanitary facilities. The tile stoves remained just like a decoration.
The Chamber of Roses follows – named after a painting with roses above the door. We could see that we were in the former residence of Maria Theresa – there are portraits of both her and her husband, Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor.
This beautiful baroque mechanical clock caught our attention immediately. It was a gift for Maria Theresa from her brother-in-law to the ten-year-jubilee of her reign. The clock weights 128 kg and 50 kg of silver were used to make it.
The next room looks like a gallery. There are 67 pictures on the walls.
But you have to come closer and you will see that they are not paintings painted by brush but special mosaics made of semi-precious stones. This inlay technique of using highly polished and finely sliced coloured stones, cut, assembled and glued together in such a way that the contact between is invisible, is called pietra dura (“hard stones”). It reached its full maturity in Florence where also these masterpieces were created in 1737 – 1767. Francis I, the husband of Maria Theresa, ordered them.
The Mirror Chamber – great that we came here towards the evening. Countless lights were reflecting in the huge mirrors and made the room more sumptuous, more festive. Here, at the flames from the wood in the fireplace (no tile stoves!), members of the imperial court used to gather at spectacular celebrations.
In this room in 1955, a day after the State agreement was signed, the Austrian president Theodor Körner served a breakfast to the ministers of foreign affairs of the four world powers.
The Cabinet with Miniatures – some people like to put pictures of their families on their office desks. So it was in the past. The writing desk of Maria Theresa once stood here (in the adjoining room now). Miniatures with portraits of some members of the family and court are on the walls.
Finally we enter the Chamber of Maria Theresa which is familiar to all Austrians through the TV-news. This is the room where the president of Austria welcomes official visits, where the government is inaugurated and where foreign ambassadors present their diplomatic credentials to the head of the Republic of Austria. A live size portrait of Maria Theresa dominates the room, but there is also one of her husband.
When her husband died, Maria Theresa moved her bedroom into this chamber. Her bed with a baldaquin stood in the middle of the room. The sovereign was devastated by her husband’s death. She dressed in black for the rest of her life, withdrew from court life, suffered from insomnia and because Francis I died on August 18, every year she spent the whole of August and the 18th of each month just alone in her chamber. This is also the place where she died on November 29, 1780. She was only 63.
I looked from the window. The view did not change too much after centuries.
I was thinking, how many sleepless nights did Maria Theresa spend here? She might be standing at the same window, worried about her son Joseph who lost his second wife because the smallpox epidemic spread in Vienna, even she had fallen ill but survived blaming herself for infecting her daughter Maria Josepha who died as well. And who knows, maybe she was standing here thinking about her other daughter Maria Antoinette. It was Maria Theresa who had arranged her marriage with French king Louis XVI. The worried mother was writing letters to her daughter where she reproached her for frivolity and laziness… And what about the other children? Who should marry whom to ensure peace and prosperity to her monarchy?
There is also a clock in this room, standing on its place for almost 300 years. It is still working but the hands are moving in the opposite direction and also the clock face is turned. There are several theories why it is like that. The most probable is the simplest one. Heavy side curtains on the bed obstructed the view at the clock. But you just needed to take a look at the mirror opposite of the bed and you could see the time.
During renovations in 1957, a niche in a wall in this room was discovered. There was an altar from the 18th century built inside. Historians are persuaded that Joseph II ordered to arrange it before the visit of the pope Pius VI, whom he accommodated in his late mother’s rooms. After the pope left, they hid the altar in the wall.
Hardly anybody knows that there is a real chapel inside the Leopoldine wing. It is the St. Joseph Chapel which even exceeds one floor. Maria Theresa was a devoted Christian, known for her ascetic lifestyle, especially during her 15-year-long widowhood. Here she could participate at the holy mass without leaving her home.
The painting Death of St. Joseph from the Italian painter Carlo Maratti was originally on the altar. Today, there is a portrait of the imperial family in an allegorical depiction. The painting is from the Austrian painter Hans Canon and was a gift for Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Sisi to their silver wedding anniversary from their children Rudolf, Crown prince of Austria, Gisela and Marie Valerie.
If you pass Hofburg one day, just notice the first four windows from the left on the Leopoldine wing which are a little bit bigger. These are the windows of that chapel.
Hofburg is no conserved historical monument. Many international forums, conferences, meetings and other political, cultural and social events take place in its rooms. The Leopoldine wing is home to the head of the Republic of Austria. Since January 26 it has its new master. The Austrian flag is flying above its roofs. The presidential rooms can be visited during the National Day of Austria – October 26th.
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri