Saturday, March 15, 2014
Mid Pleasures and Palaces
This week's fine weather, alas, failed us today, with glowering low skies, a biting wind, and sharp, sudden showers that scuttled, among other things my idle thoughts about going out to Schönbrunn, the Hapsburg's cozy little summer place at the edge of town (I joke, of course - when Marie Antoinette went from here to Versailles, she was probably disappointed that her new house was so much less impressive than where she grew up).
Nonetheless, I made the best of things with a visit to the Albertina, a palace-museum dedicated to the memory of the fascinating couple who turned it into one of Europe's great treasure-houses. They were Prince Albert of Saxony, a princeling on the make, and the Archduchess Maria Christina, the oldest surviving daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa and the only one of her sisters (including poor Marie Antoinette) permitted to marry for love rather than the exigencies of eighteenth-century court politics.
She was pretty, smart, and charming enough to get away with being nicknamed Mimi; he was an intellectual who had no objection to being an adjunct to an Archduchess. Together they were first the imperial representatives in Hungary and then in what is now Belgium, and when the revolution that toppled her sister got dicey, they fled back home to Vienna and built up their collections, now on show in one of best exhibitions I've ever attended - a combination joint biography of the two royals and a perfect setting for the goodies, principally drawings and prints but also anything you can think of from an emerald-handled sword to Napoleon's hat, that ended up in first their and then the widowered Prince's possession (he outlived her by several decades).
That, in combination with a hearty lunch, a couple of café stops, and a good long nap, made for a highly satisfactory rainy day - sadly, my last in the these parts, as tomorrow it's back across the Atlantic. Knowing that the Mister and the dogs await makes leaving more inviting, although in terms of faded imperial capitals, emblematic of lost hopes and fleeting grandeur, I think I prefer Vienna to Washington by a long shot...
The Albertina, by the by, is built on a little bluff that puts it up above the quaint square (the Hotel Sacher on one side) that connects it to the city (it's just adjacent to the grand Hofburg Palace). As a resuilt, a sheer, windowless wall curves along its base, and into that wall is set a series of niches, which are decorated with statues like the one above - vaguely menacing, highly muscled children, three meters high or so, who doubtless have some symbolic or mythical significance. Their slightly feral air is amplified by the netting that, while it's of course mean to keep out pigeons, seems equally designed to keep them in and safely at bay, prevented from leaping upon the unsuspecting passers-by.