Postcard from Vienna: Michaelerplatz sculpture

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ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 28 June 2015

Trip to Europe 7 September to 8 December 2007

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   Going back to Vienna in 2007 seems like a time capsule to me, and it’s not long ago. I’d read John Irving’s first novel Setting free the bears years ago and it had alerted me that Vienna might be a cool place to visit. Yet, it had never risen to my priority list.

Neptune in Power on the sea
Neptune in Power on the sea

We only went because Austrian Airlines was offering a cheap deal. As long as we flew via Vienna, we could do a flexible ‘open jaw’ with stopovers ending in Amsterdam on the way and leaving from Barcelona on the way back. We spent a couple of days in Vienna each time and also in Bangkok.

Denise had been talking to Austrian friends with an apartment in Salzberg and they had convinced her that it was ideal from Australia to Vienna because the two flights via Bangkok were roughly the same duration. Denise comes from more than three generations of horse people. A childhood dream of dancing white horses made the Spanish Riding School a necessity, especially because we’d land there on her birthday.

We arrived in Vienna at 5.30 am and were ripped off as usual in changing a small amount of cash at the airport. The attitude was: ‘What do you expect, it’s a Sunday.’ Immigration had the same attitude, perfunctory at best.

Power on the sea detail
Power on the sea detail

However, we did manage to get on a suburban train rather than the express, purchased tickets at the cheap rate and got off at the right suburban station. Our guesthouse was only five minutes walk, but after half-an-hour of wandering in circles, no-one we asked knew the street. We succeeded when a helpful taxi driver used his sat nav to pinpoint the location (which we thought marvellous).

The time capsule — this was 2007, Apple had only just released the iphone 1 on 29 June. Today, no matter where in the world you are you never have the problem (except when you haven’t quite bought the sim) and even then you’ve probably downloaded and saved the right part of the map onto your smart phone beforehand.

Labour of Hercules statue
Labour of Hercules statue

Once we’d dumped our luggage (the room wasn’t ready yet), we took a tram into the centre of town. It wasn’t far. We were staying near the Belvedere Palace. A short pleasant walk through the wonderful centre of Vienna brought us to the Spanish Riding School. Denise found that there were spare tickets and that I could attend. I actually enjoyed the performance. The riding hall is beautiful built by a baroque architect about 1735.

The Riding School is part of the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Michaelerplatz and just beside Michaelertor, the three gates leading into other major areas and wings of the palace. We had some spare time but not much, so we concentrated on St Michael’s Square. There are some excavated Roman ruins, four huge statues of Hercules performing some of his labours, and two quite impressive multi-statue fountains, one of which I admired very much. There were other statues on the roof and facades.

Power on the land Edmund Hellmer 1897
Power on the land Edmund Hellmer 1897

In Vienna there are hundreds of statues littered everywhere. Some reek of the pomp and splendour of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Hapsburgs and some are just pompous. However, I did not know who the sculptors were for any of them.

I did try half-heartedly over the years to find out more about the ones I liked. The sculpture I most admired wasn’t famous enough to stumble across. It was an itch in the mind but as with many things, it remained something that I must investigate someday.

Now I have. The two fountains flanking four of the labours of Hercules are late 19th century. The one I don’t like that much is called Power on the land by Edmund Hellmer 1897 and the other Power on the sea by Rudolf Ritter von Weyr 1895. They are both neoBaroque sculptures and as such were an anachronism, considering the type of sculpture that was being made elsewhere in Europe in the late 19th century. Looked at from a distance neither sculpture has the commanding presence of a major world art piece. It is from up close that Power on the sea reveals its charm.

Power on the sea by Rudolf Ritter von Weyr 1895 Photo by Klaus H
Power on the sea by Rudolf Ritter von Weyr 1895
Photo by Klaus H

Nevertheless, I still think that Rudolf Ritter von Weyr ’s fountain is a marvellous sculpture and deserves more praise. Power on the sea was the pinnacle of his career as a sculptor.

Both fountains by the way commemorate the Austro-Hungarian Army and the Austro-Hungarian Navy, the latter initially seems a contradiction. The Habsburgs ruled from 1282 by the way, but their navy was much more ephemeral. It began with the Treaty of Campio Formio with France in 1797, whereby the Austro-Hungarians lost some things elsewhere but gained half of the Venetian territories, including Venice, Istria and Dalmatia, together with the Venetian naval forces and facilities. Probably not a bad deal, though Napolean had already looted Venice’s art treasures.

Power on the sea detail
Power on the sea detail

After World War I the Austrians and Hungarians were deprived of their coasts and the navy was confiscated. Hence Weyr’s sculpture commemorated an organisation that survived not quite twenty-five years longer.

However, both fountains are unusual for imperial and military commemorative sculpture, which for some reason generates mediocre statues world-wide. I particularly think of most of those in Britain at the height of its 19th century pomp and splendour. I can even think of several more recent mediocre military examples in my own city of Canberra — though there are surprisingly a few good ones as well.

Hercules slaying the Lernaean Hydra
Hercules slaying the Lernaean Hydra

I think Rudolf Ritter von Weyr ’s Power on the sea deserves to be better known. Few guide books give either fountain attribution, but worse still the Hercules statues, which aren’t hideous are never attributed.The twelve labours of Hercules (scattered around the Hofberg) were sculpted by Lorenzo Mattielli 1678/88-1748 an Italian of the late Baroque.

The other things we particularly enjoyed in Vienna were the Kunst Historisches Museum one of the world’s great art museums (more of which later); and the Belvedere Palace and Museum where we saw what we expected to see, particularly the Gustave Klimts and Egon Schiles, but also a fabulous temporary exhibition of medieval wooden statues, mainly from Poland, in the Palace stables.

Power on the sea detail
Power on the sea detail

We enjoyed many other things including, when we came back, the market stalls for Christmas in front of the Kunst Historisches. There were also important things we didn’t get to in Vienna, which gives us an excuse to go back.

Key words: Vienna, Michaelerplatz, Michaelertor, statues, sculpture, Spanish Riding School, Austro-Hungarian Navy, Habsburg, Rudolf Ritter von Weyr, Power on the sea, Edmund Hellmer, Hercules, Lorenzo Mattielli, John Irving, Setting free the bears, Kunst Historisches Museum, Belvedere Palace, Gustave Klimt and Egon Schile.

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