One of the most interesting tours I’ve ever been on was in Vienna at the Schönnbrunn, which is a stunning palace made up of 1441 rooms! Built between the 16th & 17th century and further improved upon in the 18th century to its current standard and design, by Maria Theresa, who was given the estate as a wedding gift, which I’m sure would’ve been a nice surprise. This is one of the most magnificent palaces in the world and is World Heritage Listed. It remains the property of the Austrian people. However, it’s had a fascinating history of splendour, grandeur, victory and success, sadly contrasted with conflict, conquest, decline, depression and death.
Stepping into the grounds of the palace, I was immediately impressed by its sheer size and magnitude. I can imagine in its heyday, anyone riding into the city from the countryside would have been blown away by it. However, it’s not until you step inside that you get the true sense of just how magnificent it really is. The high fresco ceilings, intricate gold leafed embossed paneling, grand furnishings and sumptuous artwork, makes you feel somewhat insignificant in comparison with what has gone on within its walls.
When you add in the fact that Maria Theresa was the mother of Marie Antoinette (who most famously suggested the French to eat cake, before losing her head in a disagreement with some poorly dressed commoners wearing silly hats over the said comment), you start to see how important the business of the palace was to the political landscape of Renaissance and post Renaissance Europe. The palace was even suitably grand enough for Napoleon, who commandeered it and took up residence in 1805 when he captured Vienna. It was an ideal location for a visiting tyrant, as it has a very attractive backyard in which you could accommodate an entire army, right next to the zoo.
Palmenhaus Schönbrunn, A 128-Meter-Long Greenhouse
However, it wasn’t just the site of political power, diplomacy and a pleasant weekender for the invading French army. It was a central hub of the arts, music and culture, with Mozart playing his first ever concert here at the age of 5! “If the walls could talk,” has never been a more appropriate term uttered for a grand building that’s seen hundreds of years of fun, excitement, glamorous parties filled with ballroom dancing, as well as forced marriages, intrigue, poisonings, suicides, hostile occupations, declarations of war and finally capitulation after years of bloody conflict in the Great War that saw a family destroyed, an empire collapse, millions killed and the world changed forever.
The Schönbrunn Palace Park Is A UNESCO World Heritage Site
When we visit a palace such as Shönnbrunn, or Versailles, we can often romanticise what it would have been like living with everything. The land, the grandeur, the wealth, the armies, the servants, the parties, the decadence! The strolls through the gardens, the visiting envoys bringing gifts you don’t really need, the polite yet saucy lovers and the luxury to do whatever you wanted to do. Sounds wonderful right? Unfortunately however, the reality was quite different. Austria was on the frontier to the Middle East and the threat from the Turks was ever present. After the reformation, Austria was one of the few European countries that remained Catholic, which was yet another source of conflict within the Central European States. Suddenly the money, the palace, the fast sport carriage and the decadent parties feel a little less attractive when you have to deal with all the intrigue, wars, death, destruction and lots of people wanting to kill you all the time.
Despite these constant threats, Austria prospered and became an extremely powerful empire. Having gained control over Hungary, Tuscany and a few bits of Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Czech areas, Slovakia, Croatia and a bit of Poland for good measure. The empire was the third largest power in Europe by population and was an economic powerhouse. However, having everything was ultimately a poison challis for Emperor Franz Joseph I who was emperor from 1848 to 1916. During his reign, despite his best efforts, the empire started to decline. Plagued by ethnic problems, assassination attempts, economic strains and ultimately the Great War, Franz Joseph remained a diligent leader to the end. With the assassination of his nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, being the catalyst for WWI, this was just another devastating event in what can only be described as a tragic life. Franz Joseph died in 1916 from pneumonia and although he was succeeded by Charles I, this reign was short-lived when Austria lost the war in 1918. Charles also died from pneumonia four years later in 1922 at the age of 34.
When you look at the history of such a magnificent palace, the Schönnbrunn, you only have to scrape away the thin veneer of wealth to see how fickle and empty life can be when you supposedly have everything.
In today’s world of endless consumption, marketing and imagery targeted at people for the desire to have it all, we must be mindful of the fact that having everything can come at a very heavy price. Power, wealth and material goods whilst on the surface look wonderful, scratch that surface and it can reveal that it’s nothing more than the same thin veneer covering another deeply unhappy and flawed core. Why in an age where we can have more than we’ve ever been able to have before, are mental health issues such as anxiety, body image and depression on the rise? It’s because our relationships are what is fulfilling in life and not all the stuff and power over others we can amass for ourselves. Vienna and its palaces are truly stunning, as are many throughout the world, but it’s always worth looking a little deeper at the true cost of those palaces and the lives lived within them.