A couple of weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, we headed off to the races. In a part of the Prater called Krieau (Kree-ow) one finds a harness racing track. No galloping, these horses trot along at extreme speeds pulling a little cart, called a sulky. Instead of a jockey, they have a driver.
As at a standard racetrack there is a grandstand, wagering, and plentiful beer. Unlike at a standard racetrack, a horse is eliminated if he or she gallops. (The horses I bet on pretty much invariably galloped.)
There is actually a non-operational galloping track a little farther down in the Prater — it’s absolutely beautiful, an elegant, spindly Jugendstil structure that’s now used only for the occasional event; we were most recently there for a bicycle festival. The track itself is having a second life as a golf course. Though there’s no more racing there, the structure is under Denkmalschutz (historic preservation), so for the moment they’ve not knocked it down.
The nearby Trabrennbahn, or trotting track, was finished in 1913 in a Vienna Modernist style. It’s the second-oldest harness track in Europe. One does worry for its future, though. It’s poorly populated and looks run down. An entire section of the grandstand is not in use, basically in a shambles. Theoretically the horses are going to get new stabling (they’re now in older facilities beyond the track). But it’s a little hard to believe they won’t eventually tear the whole thing down and replace it with some awful contemporary structure that more immediately advances the cause of international capital.
The Krieau track sits cheek-by-jowl with the brand new, hideous, overweeningly self-important WU (Wirtschaftsuniversität, or Economics University), built on the edge of the Prater just in the last couple of years. It is seriously the ugliest thing ever, a mishmash of mishapen buildings by important architects, thrown up in haste. In this photo you can see the WU behind the track as well as the Messe Wien — the convention center that already put pressure on this area:
The area around the Prater is changing rapidly. New campus housing for the WU has already been built; more is being constructed. The old, pastoral, rambling days of the park are on borrowed time — and land. So are the trotters, and the timeless atmosphere that surrounds them. The race meet ends on June 1st. Still opportunity for a pleasant Sunday afternoon at the track.
On a couple of occasions in my long and diverse teaching career, I’ve been asked to teach a course on museum studies. A prominent feature of that course — and it’s a really fun course to teach, by the way — is a series of lectures on cabinets of curiosities. These are essentially the early modern precursor to the museum, ad hoc collections of all manner of materials strange, unusual, marvelous, and beautiful. The cabinet of curiosities is a concept with enormous range — with origins in Italian studioli (little studies) and royal treasuries, it takes a particularly elaborate form in the collections of the Austrian Habsburgs, who bought, stole, commissioned, or were given every imaginable kind of object.
I’ve written about some of the fruits of this collecting before—indeed, the newly reopened Kunstkammer in the KHM in Vienna has the very best objects from the Habsburg cabinet of curiosities (at its height called a Wunderkammer); these objects were, in the late 19th century, split off from the paintings and sculptures, and from the naturalia, that became the basis of the rest of the KHM and of the neighboring NHM (about which I’ve also written). But if you want to see the collections of rare and precious objects presented as they would have appeared in the 16th century—that is, at the height of European craftsmanship—you need to head to Innsbruck, and to Schloss Ambras. Here, the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II, ruler of Tyrol, can be seen still in their original setting, some of them in their original display chambers. It’s a rare and extraordinary window into Renaissance collecting—and also just some really cool shit.
The castle/palace complex is 16th century, with gardens set against a spectacular Alpine backdrop that you unfortunately can’t see while looking at the palace, rather from it (who gets the good view? The inhabitants, that’s who):
Inside, the first room you come to is a large hall of armor—some of it rather interesting. The armor has an incredible intricacy; this was, after all, the 16th century, and Habsburg gear. It was more likely to be used for parades than for riding into actual battle. Also, these people were seriously tiny.
There were also some pretty weird choices—like these helmets given the shape of Moors’ faces, to be worn by archdukes and their like.
“What were they thinking?” you ask. Good question. In further rooms you can see the cabinet of curiosities as it was originally displayed in the 16th century. This is a rare, indeed unique, opportunity, because most objects that were originally part of these collections are scattered, with their original settings destroyed, and only inventories give a sense of how they might have been assembled. At Schloss Ambras, you can see that the collection is organized according to a set of taxonomic principles that make little sense to modern minds. That is, by material, regardless of any other consideration (for example, art vs. nature).
Among the highly curious objects in the collection, a sort of carved coral diorama of the Crucifixion:
A carved wood dancing death:
And, in a corner that it shares with a tree trunk that has grown around a set of deer’s antlers, you will find a taxidermied forerunner to the early work of Damien Hirst:
Wait…let’s get a better look at those antlers, shall we?
The collection does not distinguish, as I said, between works of art and nature, and so it includes a series of paintings of the extraordinary hirsute family of Pedro Gonzalez, a Spanish man who was part of the court of Margaret of Parma, the governor of the Netherlands:
No doubt such hirsutism caused the family distress. But surely it was better than a sharp stick in your eye. Not sure? Consider the trials and tribulations of one Gregor Baci, unsuccessful jouster:
Gregor’s portrait is just one of the dozens upon dozens in Ambras’ extensive and quite quality portrait collection; you can also see many of the original rooms (including an incredible bathroom with a deep pool meant to be kept warm with heated stones). In contemplating what picture to give you in closing, I choose this incredible example, which I think captures the curiosity’s concept of limitlessness. Why live in a world with a concept of the impossible, when you could instead live with this guy:
Last weekend, tired of rainy, cold Vienna, we decided to head for the Czech Republic, where the sun actually briefly shone. The usual destination would be Prague, which is all the rage these days as a next stop for Vienna visitors, but if you only have a day or two for traveling, you might want to do what we did and head for Brno instead.
Prague is over 3 hours by train, and too rich a city for a weekend trip. Brno, on the other hand, is about an hour and a half by train—not far across the Czech border. But though it’s a short jump away, it feels very unlike Vienna. Some features are recognizable—the Habsburgs were obviously there, for instance. One can see it in the architecture:
And in things like this over-the-top fountain (by the Viennese court architect Fischer von Erlach):
At the same time, there was a pleasantly Eastern European feeling of socialist-style architecture and run-down businesses. Vienna is too rich for this sort of thing these days:
In the city center, a vegetable market is held against the backdrop of a mishmash of these historical moments:
On the upscale side, take a bit of a walk uphill out of town (winding through the edges of the city, where we took the photo of the lonely Tabak) and you come to an extraordinary early functionalist villa by Mies van der Rohe. The Villa Tugendhat was built for a young Jewish industrialist couple; it was seized by the Gestapo after they fled to Switzerland, and eventually transferred to the city of Brno, which, at times in cooperation with the family, has restored it several times. The villa has reopened after its most recent restoration, in 2012; its ownership is contested by the family, who have asked for restitution (for a summary of those events, read this). Its history is bitter and conflicted, but the building is an unmixed statement of purely functionalist architectural principles:
Back in town, you can visit a Capuchin crypt, where bodies, mummified in the open air, provide a bracing confrontation with one’s mortality:
Oh, cheer up. The beer in the Czech Republic is some of the best in the world, and there were also fresh peas:
One last reason to visit Brno: Because trying to pronounce Czech is fun!! Schladzscky! Moravuschky! Hurayescheschk! Or something.
In the U.S., May 1st is the first day of May—and that’s all it is. In fact, if you polled Americans, I would bet that a very small minority would have any idea what May 1st means in the rest of the world. Labor Day in the U.S. is safely quarantined in September, where it can in no way join with labor movements elsewhere to create any kind of actual advocacy, and is associated primarily with barbecues (family over solidarity) and end-of-season-sales (everybody in service industries works on Labor Day).
Vienna, however, is a socialist city in a country with a long history of socialism (as well as fascism, of course, which only makes the resonance of socialism stronger) on a continent with an endemic tradition of socialist activism. If you think anyone expects to go shopping here on May Day, otherwise known as International Workers’ Day, otherwise known as the true Labor Day, you can think again. Everything is closed, everything is red for the day, and the public presence of the SPÖ, otherwise known as the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, otherwise known as the Austrian Social Democratic Party, is ascendant.
Invited by friends who are party members and functionaries, I successfully infiltrated the annual massive May Day parade and waved a flag, carried a balloon, and shared a cheese-filled sausage, all in the name of international labor rights. Below is my photojournal.
The first thing to know is that Vienna is structured by its districts — 23 of them. On May Day, all of the districts gather and march, loosely organized under sectional banners, toward the Ringstrasse, which circles the city center and along which one finds the major structures of government. Eventually the parade passes by the Parliament (not to mention the former Habsburg court and even the Opera) on its way to its final destination, the Rathaus, or town hall, where the Mayor and other government functionaries await on a viewing stand.
Here, our particular troop is under way as representatives of the 5th district, called Margareten (full disclosure: none of us actually lives in the 5th, but one of our party is a High Ranking Official in the SPÖ for the 5th, so in the name of Solidarity, we were all Margaretens for a day).
Our route led through the crowded streets of the 5th, eventually passing by the Naschmarkt, or giant food market.
Allow me to present my comrades, who include professional employees of the SPÖ, as well as folks who have been out all night partying (I name no names).
In general, as we headed toward the Wienzeile (nice scenic route we had), there was a celebratory air, fueled in part by the first “pause,” a stop at a little bar that, in solidarity, fortified the marchers with a spread of free bread, meats, sweets, and, of course, the worker’s elixir, vodka.
Speaking of solidarity, along the way one sees its signs (literally):
Eventually, we arrive at the Ring, and hang a left at the historic Opera.
As we march along, we pass other districts waiting to make the turn onto the Ring:
Each group has its own drummers and musicians, and cultivates a distinct identity:
I got a huge kick out of this unconventional juxtaposition:
As we go, we pass many of Vienna’s public landmarks, including the Parliament:
Eventually — so very eventually — we arrive at the Rathaus simultaneous with the districts coming in the opposite direction (the Ring is a circle, after all). We alternate turning into the Rathausplatz, where a giant crowd cheers from behind barricades, and the mayor awaits on a viewing stand:
The view from behind our banner:
I have to say, I love this picture. Thanks to whoever handed me a flag just in time:
After passing through the Rathausplatz we were disgorged back onto the Ring, where we had the opportunity to view a few of the districts still waiting to make their way in. Like these guys:
Or my favorites, these guys:
Directly behind them, this contingent:
Yikes. And it wouldn’t be Vienna if wine did not make a significant appearance:
After you leave the Rathausplatz, directly across the Ring is the “Red Market,” that is, a pop-up outdoor cafe for drinking giant quantities of beer and wine — and liberally populated by firefighters, who are a prominent presence at May Day festivities:
Later in the day, the festivities move over to the Prater, Vienna’s giant public park, where there is music, food, more drinks, and balloons for the kids:
Last weekend, we went to visit my parents, who are spending the month in Paris. I hadn’t been to Paris in nearly 20 years, but was surprised by how recognizable it was — which I suppose should not be a surprise in a city that is thousands of years old, but one does often have the sense that there’s a kind of sameness that’s beginning to make itself felt across the European capitals. Go anywhere and it feels a little like everywhere else.
So I was reassured by how much Paris still felt like Paris. As a gift to my parents (who so generously hosted us for the weekend — ohmygoodnessthefood!) we brought a Sachertorte, Vienna’s famous delicacy. The Sachertorte, for those who don’t know, is a chocolate multi-tiered cake with chocolate ganache on the outside, served by the Hotel Sacher, which is directly behind the Vienna Opera. The recipe is proprietary, and so while there are many tortes in Vienna sold as “Sacher Art” (Sacher-style), only one is the “original.” It is therefore sold by the Sacher at multiple locations in special wooden boxes and costs an ungodly fortune.
Once our Vienna Sachertorte got to Paris it turned out that it, like my spouse, had never actually seen the city before. So we took it on a little tour, starting at the Institut du Monde Arabe:
From the Institut, we made our way toward the Seine, where we sighted an important landmark in the distance, and made it our goal:
Though it was Sunday, a few booksellers were already opening, and we looked for a book for the plane:
Further delays thanks to a compelling menu and abundant spring sunshine:
And then suddenly, there we were:
We waited until the torte was safely in the possession of my parents to buy chocolates to take back to Vienna. We didn’t want to hurt its feelings.
The Kunstkammer in the KHM (the Kunsthistorisches Museum) has been closed for as long as I’ve been coming to Vienna, and longer. It reopened this weekend to great fanfare, and I spent the first sunny Saturday in months (for which I get bonus points) as one of the earliest visitors. It is simply and absolutely spectacular.
The works in the Kunstkammer are difficult to characterize in general, and especially within a museum setting; they’re a legacy of medieval notions of collecting, extended by the Habsburgs into the 17th century, that did not follow modern forms of classification. Despite the name (Kunstkammer means literally “art room”, though it refers to a concept more than a space), the collection intermingles painting and sculpture with works that float between categories — highly altered natural objects, aesthetic inventions, and refined creations out of precious materials executed at the limit of the craftsman’s skill. For example, these intricately carved ivory vessels:
Such objects—and there is no single term for them—were an enormous part of Habsburg collecting, but in modern museums they are separated off from the works of painting and sculpture defined as “high art” by academies; at very roughly the same time, they ceased to fit the “art vs. nature” taxonomy that, as a result of changing notions of science, came to define museums and their collections. But it is for precisely this reason that the works of the Kunstkammer are so extraordinary—they are either unlike anything else, or the very best examples of their highly unusual kind.
For the last decade, the works in this part of the erstwhile Habsburg collections were hidden away, or distributed somewhat haphazardly through the other galleries. It was this redistribution, combined with the ongoing reconstruction, that provided the opportunity for a thief, in 2003, to make off with the collection’s most famous occupant: the Salt-cellar, or Saliera, executed by Benvenuto Cellini in the 1540s.
The Saliera is a highly elaborate piece of royal tableware; originally made for the king of France, a minimal 1/8th or so of its surface is occupied by a little bowl for holding salt, which at the time was a precious commodity. The remainder is a mythological extravagance representing the mingling of Ceres and Neptune to make salt, as well as figures of the four winds and the times of day. It’s a riot, and I have been in love with it since I was a freshman in college. I’ve taught the Saliera dozens of times, waxed on about its brilliance, and was traumatized by its theft—but oddly enough, thanks to the timing of its disappearance and the closure of the Kunstkammer, I’d never actually seen it.
It did not disappoint. The Saliera is vastly more astonishing in person than in reproductions—the sheer intricacy of the thing was beyond anything even I had expected. Not to mention that there are a host of animals swimming across its surface that don’t show up clearly in photos. I found myself saying things like, “Holy moly!” and “Unbelievable!”, no doubt to the deep joy of my fellow visitors.
Overall, my experience of the Kunstkammer generally mirrored that of the Saliera: It’s simply great. If one theme holds together the wild diversity of objects housed there, it is that they were largely created to signal artistic and imperial dominance over all of art and nature, and possession of the kind of wealth and power that can command the best of each—not to mention the ability to hire the kind of labor capable of reshaping them. Far from diverging the fruits of divine and human endeavor, the Kunstkammer craftsmen deliberately crossed the wires of creation, yielding objects like this ostrich egg/coral/silver/gold extravaganza:
Whatever material you would like to see brought to its absolute limits of intricate artistic refinement—bronze, marble, precious stones, wood, ivory, metal, paint—it’s all there. Among my favorites — the room (room) of ivories contains this phoenix—a true testament to the artist’s ability to transform one living material into another living form and, not coincidentally, a somewhat oblique reference to the Habsburg eagle:
I’d like to write more about some of the specific themes of the Kunstkammer later — the game sets, for instance, and the automatons, as well as the medallions and small portraits (not to mention the small bronzes….gorgeous). But for the moment let me just say — get thee to the Kunstkammer, GO. And right now is the perfect moment. The sun is shining, and all of Vienna is outside, pretending like it’s spring. The tourists have not yet arrived. The galleries on Saturday afternoon were practically empty.
Last week my dear friend and riding trainer, T, came to visit. As it happens, through the miracle of Facebook, she is friends with the Chief Rider (Oberbereiter) of the Spanish Riding School, home of the Lipizzaner horses. For those not horse-crazy since youth: The Spanish Riding School was created in the late 16th century as the equestrian arm of the Habsburg court; they train in spectacular late-Baroque facilities built in the mid-18th century (this is the famous Winter Riding School, in the Hofburg in Vienna). The Lipizzaners are a specific breed, much like Thoroughbred or Dutch Warmblood or what have you—but the original stock were Spanish, hence the naming of the School.
(Sorry. Spend long enough in German-speaking territories and you start being like Winnie-The-Pooh, capitalizing all your nouns.)
All the horses used in the School’s famous performances are white (well, technically grey in horse terms, but they look white to the lay person), though they’re born dark and lighten over time, as do most grey horses. They are famous because they do spectacular airs above the ground—highly-trained rears, leaps, hops and other balletic movements that are not part of a standard dressage horse’s repertoire, though they do all of the rest of the dressage movements as well (lateral work, piaffe, passage, tempi changes, etc.).
At any rate… T arranged for us to see the school courtesy of one of the Riders (Bereiteranwärter), a fantastically generous and friendly gentleman named Christopher (now my FB friend!), who showed us the stables and the tack room, as well as hosting us for morning exercise, where we got to sit at ground level at the end of the arena (the rest of the viewing is done from the gallery above).
Here are some photos of backstage at the Spanish Riding School, among the top 5 coolest things I’ve ever seen (do you ever wish you could go back to your childhood self and say…you won’t believe the totally random and unexpected ways that your dreams will suddenly, out of nowhere, literally come true?).
Takin’ a tour of the stables
Lipizzaner in his stall – with marble basin!
Love the horse heads in the wall.
Getting introduced (thanks, Christopher!!)
God’s tack room.
Saddle racks, Lipizzaner-style
It’s the details, really.
They have Albion saddles. I have an Albion saddle. Just sayin’.
Everybody has his own bridle.
On the bits, the Habsburg eagles.
This is what exercise looks like from the best seat in the house.
Thank you, Christopher, for the incredible tour! Thanks, horses, for being the most extraordinary creatures on the planet!