Exciting Discoveries: The Rich History Of Vienna

By Nasser Tufail

Enduring splendor of Vienna

I am back in one of my favorite cities, Vienna, and am fortunate to have a very dear friend from my IBM ‘Charm School’ days in Dallas to provide us the kind of ‘insider’ tourist information, history and tidings that only a local can (he has lived in Vienna for over two decades). This time we have 3 weeks to explore the city.

We first visit several stunningly beautiful palaces that are a reminder of the grandeur of the Habsburg era in Austria, as well as museums – Schönbrunn, Belvedere, Hofburg (Imperial Palace), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Albertina, Naturhistorisches Museum (all highly recommended).

The only ‘serendipity moment’ to report from these visits is that it was in Schönbrunn Palace where a 6-year old Mozart jumped into Empress Maria Theresa’s lap and gave her a kiss after performing for her. And the state dinner after the historic meeting between US president John F Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev also took place right in Schönbrunn Palace!

Empress Maria Theresa – A Procreator par Excellence!

Empress Maria Theresa was the only female ruler of the Habsburg Dynasty and her reign lasted for 40 years until her death. There is a statue of her in a large public square appropriately called Maria-Theresien Platz!

Statue of Empress Maria There in Maria-Theresien Platz

This was the principal Imperial palace of the Habsburg dynasty for over 600 years known as The Hofburg, and is now the official residence and workplace of the Austrian President.

The Hofburg, Imperial Palace
The Hofburg, viewed from Haldenplatz

Empress Maria was a prolific baby maker – she gave birth to 16 children in 20 years (almost always pregnant) right here in this palace, and one of them deserves a mention – Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, her youngest daughter. Maria Josepha Johanna would later become the Queen of France and take on the (infamous) French sounding name, Marie Antoinette!

She was the quintessential epitome of privileged aristocracy, absolute monarchy, promiscuity, class conflict, relentless pursuit of wealth and archetypal narcissistic greed. Whether or not she dismissively said “Let them eat cake” to the poor peasants who couldn’t even get bread whilst she was ensconced in the luxury of the Palace of Versailles, or “Let them eat brioche”, or neither of the journalistic clichés, we may never know. But what we do know is that the peasants demanded nothing less than her head and they got it.

Pardonnez-moi, monsieur. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès” (Pardon me, sir, I did not do it on purpose) would be her last words after she accidentally stepped on her executioner’s shoe, as Marie Antoinette was promptly guillotined before a large gathered crowd and her head was displayed by the executioner for all of the cheering French revolutionaries to see (UFF ALLAH!). I took this picture in Paris of the location where Marie Antoinette was guillotined at Place de la Concorde (her husband, Louis XVI, too was guillotined at this same place a few months earlier).

Place de la Concorde, Paris

Karlskirche – provenance out of the tragedy of the plague

Today, I am visiting Karlskirche (St. Charles Church), a lovely baroque church located in Karlsplatz. Given that the church was built by Emperor Karl VI as a symbol of victory over the plague that hit Vienna in the early eighteenth century, many are lead to believe it is dedicated to Emperor Karl VI. However, it is in fact dedicated to Saint Charles (Karls in German) Borromeo, archbishop of Milan and a cardinal during the Renaissance period, presumably because of the belief that his intercession stopped the plague.

Karlskirche in Karlsplatz, Vienna

The inside of the church has a warm marble color scheme accentuated with gold leaf.

Karlskirche from inside

A young Austrian girl named Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler won a beauty contest in Vienna at the age of 12. In the August of 1933 at the age of 19, wearing a black-and-white print dress and carrying a bouquet of white orchids, Ms. Kiesler stood inside this very church where I am standing. She was getting married to an Austrian military arms manufacturer and then the third richest guy in Austria, Fritz Mandl.

The marriage was not a happy one, and after 4 years Ms. Kiesler secretly fled from her husband to Paris, disguised as a maid, and then on to London. In London she met Louis Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio, who offered her a Hollywood movie contract, and soon began promoting her as “the world’s most beautiful woman”. The rest, as they say, is Tinseltown history!

Ms. Kiesler would go on to marry 5 more times, keeping a husband for about 5-6 years on average before divorcing each one of them, including the last one! Her beauty was equally matched with brains: She is credited with the invention of ‘frequency-hopping spread spectrum’ communications system which became a precursor to the ubiquitous Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth technologies that billions today use and take for granted. Her face would appear on the Corel Draw graphics editing software suite. The lady I am talking about was Hollywood’s Golden-era actress, Hedy Lamarr (of Samson and Delilah fame)!

Hedy Lamarr

Il Prete Rosso (The Red Priest) Died a Pauper Without a Trace

I next visit the Technische Universität Wien, a short walk from the church, and as I check out the campus, I come across a plaque on one of the buildings mentioning Antonio Vivaldi’s name on it.

Plaque honoring Antonio Vivaldi

The only Antonio Vivaldi I know of is the great Italian composer and virtuoso violinist of ‘Four Seasons’ fame from Venice, Italy. Maybe he came to Vienna to perform a concert and they remember him with that plaque, I speculate? Surely, you’d think he is buried somewhere in Italy, perhaps his hometown Venice, with a fabulous monument to recognize the great composer.

It turns out that Emperor Charles VI was so enamored by Antonio Vivaldi that he invited him to visit Vienna as his guest. Unfortunately, the Emperor suddenly died of death cap mushroom poisoning soon after Vivaldi arrived in Vienna! With no means to support himself, and having soon developed internal inflammation, Vivaldi started wasting away quickly and finally died a pauper. He was given an ordinary funeral the same day he died and was buried in an unmarked grave in an area called ‘Spitaler Gottesacker’ next to Karlkirche, which also held the remains of executed criminals!

With all the urban renewal under way in the early 1800s, the Vienna Technical University ended up taking part of the space used by the burial grounds and Vivaldi’s grave was “lost forever”. The plaque is there to honor him, and Karlskirche frequently hosts Vivaldi concerts to pay tribute to him.

The institution that could have changed the course of human history

I am now in Schillerplatz facing the stunning bronze Schiller Monument which honors the German poet Friedrich Schiller standing on a granite pedestal with four figures from the four ages of Schiller’s poem “The Song of the Bell” at the corners.

Schiller Monument in Schillerplatz

The significance of the monument is that up until then, monuments were only made for rulers and generals and Schiller was the first artist to be given a representative monument on a public square in Vienna. Just behind the statue is the institution that could have changed the course of human history – Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien.

Academy of fine Arts Vienna

For it was here at the Academy of fine Arts Vienna that Adolf Hitler was denied admission to the drawing class, shattering his dreams to become an artist and leading him to leave Vienna for Munich to pursue political ambitions and ultimately perpetrating a great tragedy on mankind!

Here are a couple of Hitler’s art pieces – Karlskirche and Maddona and Child.

L to R: Karlskirche and Maddona and Child

Cast a bucket of paint on blank canvas and call it art!

I am no artist to comment on or critique Hitler’s work, but if I was asked to, even as a layperson I might suggest that perhaps he needed a better grasp on perspectives or that his figures of people left a lot to be desired. But hey, isn’t that exactly why he applied to the institute – to learn and improve! Perhaps he could have pursued “modern art”.

Surely, he would have learnt to fill up a bucket of maroon paint, throw it on a piece of glass, call it “red blood” and sell it for $1.1 Million as Richter did… with a little help from the tuxedoed Sotheby-Wallahs, what with their white gloves and aprons! Muttering something like: ‘May I invite you to indulge in the depth of colors; feast in that layering, the form, the space, the extent of color palette; delight in the balance and visual weight; contemplate the shifting of moods as you traverse the color fields; behold the juxtaposition of similar and divergent tones‘…  and the rest of the artsy blah, blah, blah!

Better yet, how about a couple of horizontal yellow and blue bands/stripes and calling it (what else but) “Yellow and Blue” with a price tag of $46.5 Million in the footsteps of Rothko or throwing some blue paint on canvas, drawing a vertical stripe down the center and calling it “Onement VI” in the footsteps of Newman. Which suggests one still has a shot at 5 more “Onement” inanities! A third stripe could even bump the price up to $86.9 Million like the Newman ‘art thinghy’ with orange, red and yellow horizontal stripes, called (what else but) “Orange, Red, Yellow”!!

L to R: Red Blood; Yellow and Blue; Onement VI

Personally, if I was forced to choose a “Yellow and Blue” art piece with a gun to my head, I’d go for the IKEA logo!

Yellow and Blue… another perspective!

How about me muttering something like: ‘May I invite you to behold this archetype of collective conscious that transcends the confines of current contemporary symbols and values? And if I may perhaps also prevail on you to excogitate the abstraction and spatial movement of hues… the mystery behind it, favoring the simple expression of complex thought by telling so little and letting the art itself speak to you, and tell all. MOREOVER, it’s three dimensional, you see, this IKEA art.’ Take that… Sotheby-Wallahs!

I know… I get it – you can’t cast pears before swine, you might say! But if you must, I’d prefer the term ‘bull’ over ‘swine’ – it’s a little kosher! I am being facetious and cynical, but I think the Academy of fine Arts folks in Vienna let the world down by enabling a pesky pest pursue a murderous passion when he could have kept busy just throwing buckets of paint on canvas or making vertical and horizontal stripes and happily making a few millions!

Those Pesky Ottomans at the Gates of Vienna

The Ottomans made two unsuccessful attempts to lay siege to Vienna – the first in 1529 led by Suleiman the Magnificent after he had run over Hungary, and the second one in 1683 under the command of Kara Mustafa Pasha. I am now a bit on the outskirts of Vienna. About 7 KM North of Vienna city center is a park called Türkenschanzpark, and as the name suggests there is a Turkish connection to it.

Türkenschanzpark Vienna

It was this very place almost in the heart of the city where some Ottoman Turks were hunkered down in entrenchments when the second historical siege of Vienna took place in 1683. Another 8 KM north of here is the Kahlenberg Mountain where the Ottomans had besieged the city for two months. Their defeat was the turning point in the 300 year Ottoman-Habsburg wars after which “the Ottoman Turks ceased to be a menace to the Christian world”, and also the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

This is the view of Vienna from the place where the decisive battle too place and the Ottomans were beaten and driven out, once and for all. I thought that “Ottomans at the gates of Vienna” was meant in a figurative way and didn’t realize the pesky Ottomans had come this close to Vienna! You can see the Danube River in the picture.

Vienna as seen from Kahlenberg Mountain


Continued… More Startling Discoveries in Magnificent Vienna

Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings: More Startling Discoveries in Magnificent Vienna

Nasser Tufail

Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the USA where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies. After working in aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence/analytics and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.

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  1. Hello Nasser, thank you for that very interesting trip to Vienna, your enthusiasm was infectious and I enjoyed the illustrations too.
    Regards Liza

  2. Nasser is a great travel companion. He does a lot of research before, during, and after. I’m glad you liked his post. Thank you! xo

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