It occurred to me as I was wandering around Vienna that I’ve managed to hit most of the imperial capitals of Europe. Rome, obviously, but Istanbul has the unusual claim of being the capital of two empires. As for more modern empires, there’s London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow. Further down the list, Athens counts for the brief era of Athenian power, as does Stockholm from the Swedish short golden age of martial might, pre-Peter the Great of Russia, who moved Russia’s seat of power from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Even Copenhagen squeezes in for the Kallmar Union – am I missing any? (As near as I can tell, I need Madrid and Lisbon to complete the set.)
Unlike Berlin, which had a wonderfully cosmopolitan identity crisis, Vienna knows that it’s an imperial capital. Though as capital of the Holy Roman/Austro-Hungarian Empire, it has a bit of competition: if we go all the way back to Charlemagne, there would probably be more imperial capitals than I would have time to list. Nonetheless, Vienna knows what it is and was, and its architecture practically shouts out “Hey, we used to have all the power in these parts.”
The best example that I saw of this was in the twin Kunsthistoriches Museum and Natural History Museum. Both are suspended halfway between being modern museums and reminding visitors of how they started: as the collection houses of Emperors, designed to show of their patrons’ power and sagacity through the display of works of art and historical and natural curios of every type that could be found.
As museums go, they’re a lot of fun to walk around, and while these ones weren’t looted as badly as their counterparts in Berlin, the Natural History Museum in particular suffers from the fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a relatively minor imperial player compared to France and Britain from the Age of the Enlightenment onwards (its array of taxidermy is startling though). As for the Kunsthistoriches Museum, it’s a delight to wander around, as there’s been an effort made to attach the works of art there to the rulers who commissioned or collected them, meaning that they help to tell the strange and twisted story of the Habsburgs and their ever-increasing jawline.
The combination of old-fashioned and modern approaches helps these museums to stand out from the crowd. It works for the city as a whole too. Vienna feels relaxed and confident, and very western in a way that might not be the case today if its once-famous, now vanished walls hadn’t been quite so impregnable. History has treated the city pretty gently, and visitors to the city have reason to be grateful for that.