This stunning building was designed at the behest of Franz Joseph I not as a palace, but to get the priceless Habsburg collections out of private palaces into suitable surroundings accessible to all.
The identical building across Maria-Theresia-Platz houses the natural history museum. I had to deak in to see Venus of Willendorf. This fertility goddess was carved during the ice age between 22,000 and 24,000 BCE, when a plump, healthy body was especially valued for survival of the species. I never imagined crossing the span of 26,000 years, and I look at her and see my knees, my hips, my hair, my bone structure. And my connectedness to my past, present and future and my place in that continnuum wraps me like a warm blanket. Even though she is only 11 cm high, she carries the weight of humanity powerfully on her shoulders.
The majority of the rest of my day was spent in the Kunsthistorisches. Housing one of the most significant art collections in the world, it includes fine art, Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities and part of “Schatzkammer,” a playful name I can’t help thinking sounds a lot like “kitsch,” the Imperial Treasury.
The grand double staircase leading up to most of the exhibits is a work of art in its own right. The marbles and glorious frescoes, painted by Klimt and other artists, surround you.
(Recognize Caravaggio’s muse and model from the angel painting in Berlin?
(So many painters have depicted Raphael’s foreboding and threatening scene: John the Baptist and Jesus as two sweet cherubs, John introducing Jesus to a toy-sized instrument of his future torture.)
A couple of Roman exhibits especially impressed me, Muse, a late 4th C. AD stunning statue, and a dramatic display of Roman busts.
One of the museum’s most important objects, the Cellini Salt Cellar sculpture, made from gold, enamel, ivory and ebony by Benvenuto Cellini, was stolen on May 11, 2003 and recovered on January 21, 2006, in a box buried in a forest near the town of Zwettl, Austria. It had been the biggest art theft in Austrian history. Its theft is featured in an episode of the tv show, The Art of the Heist. Created in 1543 and representing the earth and the sea, this sexy sculpture is the sole remaining object by Cellini.
Other pieces are made from gold, precious gems, ivory and various priceless materials.
A great little 2012 film was made with the Kunsthistorisches as its backdrop and one of its characters. Museum Hours was reviewed by a Vancouver critic: “In Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, an Austrian guard at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum finds himself compelled to talk to a Canadian visitor. This tiny gesture serves as the catalyst for one of this year’s most alluring and accomplished films.”