Vienna is a perfect place to think about European history, and a strange place of history – and especially so when it comes to the Imperial Treasury.
In countries that used to be empires, signs of former glory typically remain.
In the form of palaces of kings and buildings of state, they become sights, but they also disappear into the cityscape; in the form of crowns and other insignia of state, they are objects uncommon enough to still speak of very different times.
Vienna is a very peculiar case.
It is the former capital of the vast Habsburg empire, a veritable crown jewel of arts and architecture (and more, actually). And at the same time, it is one of the most livable cities of the world in large part because it was and is a rather small city.
Many of the major sights are well within walking distance of each other; many of the special objects and connections the city holds hide themselves away.
The Imperial Treasury
Case in point: The Imperial Treasury in the Neue Hofburg castle on the edge of the city’s innermost first district, towards the Ring road.
The treasury holds some of the crowns and other regal insignia of some of the most important kingdoms in European history, some of the treasures of the Habsburg family – but if you only went this way and that through the city on your errands, you would probably miss it. (As an almost-Viennese, I have done that for years.)
The entrance to the treasury lies hidden in a little side court of the sprawling castle complex (and that’s saying something, considering there were plans for another wing that was never built). It feels like it’s hidden away under the stairs to the Imperial chapel.
In, down a short ramp, past the ticket booth and gift shop, up an open and bright staircase, you enter the dim halls of this collection. In the low light all around, it is not only the literal jewels but also the many imperial coats (and coats of arms) that shine.
Treasures and Connections
As with so many collections, the objects can be taken as very different things… Art objects, examples of workmanship, symbols of (former) power and glory – things that connect.
Connect with history, for example: The secular collection includes the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire.
Styling itself the successor of the Roman Empire, if devoutly Christian and reaching not around the Mediterranean but up to the North Sea across German lands, it laid some of the foundations of modern Europe.
… and ‘Other’ History
The objects connect with a different kind of history one often hears about, in pop culture, too: Two of the major “treasures” are a narwhal tusk which was thought to be a unicorn’s horn, and an agate bowl from Byzantine (which, as I only found out after, was thought to have been the Holy Grail).
And there’s also the (supposed) Holy Lance one regularly sees in B-movies and similar entertainment. And a cross claimed to include a splinter from the holy cross itself…
Like I said, it was all devoutly Christian.
So, it all also connects with the religious background of Europe – and I haven’t even mentioned anything that strictly belongs to the Ecclesiastical Treasury. These objects were essential as secular power was seen as deriving from God himself.
Connections across geography are of potential interest and definite importance here, too: The items of the Holy Roman Empire came from Aachen and Nuremberg, for example (to be kept safe from Napoleon’s troops).
The Holy Roman Empire extended north-south from Italy across Austrian lands and Germany. The later Austro-Hungarian Empire was – in spite of the popular notion here that Austria is and was the center of Europe, very much of the West – a very Eastern empire in Europe.
Thinking across such connections – looking closer, learning more – rather than just drifting by jewels of former royal treasure sure appeals to me, as a way to get at home…