Mona Winks Tour of Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum Part 1

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

If you like kicking back and enjoying the good things in life, you'd have made a great Hapsburg -- and you'll love their museum. The Kunsthistorwhateveritis museum houses the beautiful, sensual and light-hearted art collected over the centuries by Austria's beautiful, sensual and light- hearted rulers. The Kunsthistorisches Museum is pronounced... well, let's just say "Koonst"

Getting there:

On Vienna's main ring road across from the Hofburg palace. Subway U-2 to Mariahilfer Strasse or trams 1, 2, D or J. Info: Info desk on upper floor is friendly and English-speaking. Misc: Expensive coffee shop (salad and "Tagesuppe" are best deals). Nearby there's several cheap places on Mariahilfer Street, where struggling artists munch Big Macs.

Your ticket is good for two fine museums across the Ringstrasse in the Hofburg:

  • The Neue Burg, the lavish newest wing of the Imperial Palace, is filled with Greek armour and historic musical instruments.
  • The Hapsburg royal treasury, in another wing of the Hofburg * Also excellent and nearby are the Academy of Fine Arts (Bosch, Botticelli, Rubens) and the Albertina Collection of Graphic Arts (with sketches by nearly all the masters). Starring: Bruegel, Raphael, Titian, Durer, Rubens.


Enter and let yourself be impressed by the marble Entrance Hall with its three-story cupola and broad staircases. The two side stairways to the left and right lead to historical collections which you can visit later. Also to the right is the cafeteria.

Now, head up the main stairway in front of you toward the statue of "Theseus Clubbing the Centaur" and, to its right, a bust of Kaiser ("Caesar") Franz Joseph I who was patron to many great artists including his barber. At the top of the stairs you'll find a bookstore and information desk. Have a seat under the cupola.

The Picture Gallery, the heart of what we'll see, is all on this one floor:

  • Italian Art in the right half of the building (as you face in the direction of "Theseus Clubbing the Centaur")
  • Northern Art to the left.

Look up into the cupola at the Austrian emperors (in round frames) whose taste in art made this museum necessary. The collection reflects the grandeur and opulence of the Hapsburg family who ruled Austria and its possessions for five centuries, until World War I. At their peak of power in the 1500s, the Hapsburgs ruled Austria, Hungary, North Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and possessions in America.

They were not merely kings, but "emperors"; not merely emperors but "Roman" emperors; not merely Roman emperors but "HOLY" Roman Emperors. Holy Roman Emperors, Batman!! Claiming to be descended from the great King Charlemagne who united much of Europe in 800 AD, they were the self-appointed guardians of "civilized" Europe dating back to ancient Rome. The Kunst collection contains many of the most beautiful things that European civilization has created.

Let's start with the Italian wing, since it gives a good introduction to the opulent Hapsburg style. From the information desk, cross to the opposite side of the stairwell, turning right into the first gallery, marked "Saal I." The Raphaels are on the right-hand wall.

Italian High Renaissance (1450-1550)

You immediately get a sense of the richness of this collection -- you've walked right into the High Renaissance. Most museums lead you up to this splendor through tortuous rooms of crude medieval crucifixions and altarpieces. But the Hapsburgs had no patience for primitive art.

RAPHAEL - Madonna of the Meadow ("Die Madonna im Gruben") May as well start with a bang. Raphael (pron. roff-eye-EL) epitomized the High Renaissance, combining symmetry, grace, beauty and emotion. In true Renaissance fashion, this picture of mother Mary with her child Jesus and the baby John the Baptist (holding the cross) is perfectly balanced -- the three figures form a solid pyramid with Mary's face at the peak, her foot as one base and John as the other.

All Renaissance art was balanced, as you can see by glancing around the room (especially to the left) at Madonnas by other artists. But Raphael's balance is more subtle. Baby Jesus and John the Baptist aren't standing stiffly on opposite sides of Mary, but toddling playfully within the triangular outline of her blue and red robe and sloping shoulders. Mary is a mountain of motherly love enfolding the babies in tenderness.

The lovely landscape, serene atmosphere and Mary's adorable face make this a masterpiece of sheer grace, but it also packs an emotional wallop with an ironic fist -- we know the eventual deaths of cute little baby Jesus and John the Baptist. Mary's sweet motherly smile is tinged with sadness, as though she too knew the gruesome fate awaiting these two pudgy tykes.

Just to the right you'll see...

RAPHAEL - St. Margaret ("Die hl. Margarete")

Raphael, a child wonder, had painted the ultra-graceful "Madonna of the Meadow" when he was only 22. In later years, he became impressed by the power and heroic size of Michelangelo's sculptural work, turning to more robust scenes like this female saint who slew a dragon.

Margaret (she's the one with her mouth closed) has a face as beautiful as the Madonna of the Meadow's. But her body! She's big as a statue, with forearms that Popeye would die for. Raphael gives us a saint that could kill a dragon with one hand and heft eight steins of beer with the other.

From Raphael, turn around and notice the next Hapsburg gift to art -- plush benches! Art, like sex or a good meal, is best savored slowly. You're not being lazy if you sit down while enjoying a painting. More museums should be so courteous.

On the wall to the right of the Raphael wall, find...

CORREGGIO - Jupiter and Io

Jupiter (or Zeus), the king of the Greek gods, has turned himself into a stormy cloud in order to get a date with a beautiful nymph named Io. ("Io, Io, it's off to earth I go.") Isn't that Jupiter's face and hands within the cloud?

This work is typical of the Hapsburg taste in Italian art -- fleshy, bright colors, a voluptuous nude, Greek theme, emotional, pretty. Although Correggio was a contemporary of Raphael, he went far beyond Renaissance "balance" -- Io may be perched vertically in the center of the canvas right now, but she won't be for long.

Find the round painting to the right.

PARMIGIANINO - Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror

This is an obvious attempt to stun the viewer by the sheer difficulty of painting yourself distorted in a fun house mirror. It works. Parmigianino's (pron: like the cheese) exaggerated style -- Mannerism -- was a favorite of the Hapsburgs. "Io" is also somewhat Mannerist in that it exaggerates reality, creating a world more beautiful than the real world. We'll see plenty of technically polished works of exaggerated beauty in this museum.

Pop your head through the doorway to the right of Parmigianino. The first painting on your left is...

MANTEGNA - St. Sebastian ("Der hl. Sebastian")

We've talked about the Renaissance without really saying what it was -- the time around 1500 when there was a rebirth of interest in the art, literature, government and science of ancient Greece and Rome. In art, that meant learning the realism and three-dimensionality of ancient statues.

St. Sebastian, an early Christian martyr who was shot through with arrows, stands exactly like a classical Greek statue, leaning on one foot. The anatomy of this human statue is explored meticulously. Mantegna then places the three- dimensional figure into a three-dimensional setting, using floor tiles and roads that recede into the distance to emphasize the depth.

In this Renaissance work full of classical images, there's scarcely a hint of the medieval world... unless it's the knight on horseback in the cloud above.

Return to the large Raphael gallery, heading left into the next large gallery fully of Titians. On the right hand wall near the far end...

Venetian Renaissance (1500-1600)

TITIAN - Danae

Jupiter is running amok again with a female, this time descending to earth as a shower of gold coins. (And again, his face is barely discernible in the cloud at top.) This is not a restrained classical statue here, but an elegant, colorful and sensuous display of human flesh.

Yet Titian the Venetian (that rhymes) was also of the Renaissance, believing in a balanced composition. But his balance was that of color, not figures -- hot reds and flesh tones on the left, cool blues and greens on the right. Jupiter as the shower of gold spills down connecting the two halves.

Over your left shoulder, you'll find...

TITIAN - Ecce Homo

Let your eyes wander over this large canvas for a few seconds. It's a crowd of people, ancient Romans and Jews, all dressed colorfully. But suddenly, there's a commotion, people are whispering to each other and beginning to point. You follow their outstretched hands, up the stairs to a battered figure entering way up in the corner. "Ecce Homo! Behold the man," says Pilate and presents Jesus to the crowd. Titian has made a statement. For us, as for the unsympathetic crowd, Christ is not the center of the scene, but almost an afterthought.

Pass into the next gallery. On the right-hand wall near the center...

VERONESE - Adoration of the Magi ("Die Anbetung der konige")

Venice was Europe's richest city, the funnel where luxury goods from the exotic East flowed into Northern Europe. Paolo Veronese shows us how East met West in a splendid way. These-Three-Kings-From-Orient-are dressed not in Biblical costume, but in the type of rich silks that Venetian traders imported in Renaissance times. Mary receives them on a Renaissance staircase. Veronese loved silks (and painted them lovingly) and exotic paraphernalia (like the nosy camel sticking his head in the picture).

If Veronese gave us nothing else, he gave us green. (The Kunst has to water them daily, I believe.) Check out "Lukrezia" to the right of the Magi. This Roman heroine is a vision in blonde emerging from a sea of green.

Exit the Veronese gallery, turning right into the next large gallery. At the far end...

TINTORETTO - Susanna and the Elders ("Susanna im Bade")

First, look around the room at all the highly realistic portraits. Tintoretto mastered the realism of the Renaissance masters, but he was restless to boldly go where no Renaissance Man had gone before.

This is a commonly-painted story from the Bible (though it's not in King James' collection of books), common for obvious reasons -- it gave the Venetians a chance to show some skin under religious pretenses. In the story, righteous Susanna is spied on by some dirty old men who then wrongly accuse her to hide their own peeping tomfoolery.

We're drawn into the story by Susanna's beauty -- and by Tintoretto's craftiness. The wall of flowers extends almost straight back, making the painting an extension of where we stand -- we feel like we could step right into the scene. Now notice the one old guy at the far end of the wall leering at Susanna. Who is at this end? There's another old man and then there's... us! The painting's frame is like a window that we're standing here looking through. Tintoretto has made us peeping toms too, as involved in the scene as the characters.

Enter the next gallery.

Realism - Caravaggio And Velazquez (1600-1650)
CARAVAGGIO - David with the Head of Goliath ("David mit dem haupt des Goliath")

Artists are always looking for new ways to shock us. And to some extent that's what art is -- giving us a new way of looking at things. And the new is almost always scary, the perennial future shock.

Caravaggio (pron. carra-VAH-je-o) focuses on the one thing that shocks people most -- reality. Rather than painting outlandish scenes with unreal colors or distorted figures, he simply painted the real world brutally honest, without glorification.

Here he turns a third-degree-interrogation light on an old Bible story. David (and, in a sense, Caravaggio himself) is shoving the hideous dripping head of the slain giant right in our noses. Out of deep darkness shine only the few details that Caravaggio shows us, or rather, that he forces us to look at. The painting, bled of color, is practically a black and white photo, slightly over-exposed, like one taken by a police photographer chronicling a crime. The grotesque head of Goliath is none other than Caravaggio himself, a spit-in-your-face self-portrait.

But the most shocking thing to the people of Caravaggio's day wasn't the gory Goliath, but David. This is not a heroic David, nor a glorified idealized "David" like Michelangelo's famous statue. This is no Renaissance Man but a grubby street urchin that Caravaggio hired as a model. Caravaggio scandalized the authorities by using common people -- servants, beggars and drunkards -- as models for his Biblical figures.

Just to the right...

CARAVAGGIO - The Virgin of the Rosary ("Die Rosenkranzmadonna")

Think back on the idealized supernatural beauty of Raphael's Madonna of the Meadow and compare it with Caravaggio's plain-faced Virgin of the Rosary. This "Holy Mother of God" here looks like she could be a maid at a hotel -- which she probably was when Caravaggio hired her as his model. In fact, none of these people are glorified.

Caravaggio's hyper-realism was a healthy slap in the face of the art world. It came at a time when lesser painters were copying the grace of Raphael and the sensuousness of the Venetians to churn out sickly-sweet and overly- delicate imitations. And notice the crowning touch of reality in this down-to- earth heavenly vision -- the dirt on the feet of the kneeling saints.

Exit the Caravaggio room to the left (as you face the "Virgin"). Jog to the right, entering the Velazquez room. In the far corner...

VELAZQUEZ - Portrait of Charles II ("Konig Karl II von Spanien")

While we're on the subject of gritty realism, check this guy out. Uuuug- ly! Big Durante nose, lips you could balance an egg on and a three-foot jaw. Yet Velazquez -- who obviously could keep a firm hand on the brush even while dying of laughter inside -- painted him in all his non-glory.

Caravaggio's realism influenced the great painters of Spain's "Renaissance" of the 1600s, especially the great court painter Diego Velazquez (pronounced vel-LOSS-kes). When the Hapsburgs ruled both Austria and Spain, one way these courtly cousins kept in contact was by exchanging portraits of themselves and their children. They hired court painters like we would use an Instamatic to take a family snapshot.

Velazquez was the greatest of "photo-journalist" painters, capturing the likeness of his subjects perfectly, without passing judgement, flattering or glorifying them.

On the wall to your right...

VELAZQUEZ - Portrait of Phillip Prospero ("Der Infant Philipp Prosper")

Little Prince Phillip is only five years old here, but with his elaborate costume and wise, solemn expression, he looks like a tiny priest come to give us a blessing. It's easy to see why Velazquez was such a favorite of the Spanish court. Notice the family puppy in the chair, a happy contrast to the super-sober little Phillip.

To the right of Phillip are three portraits of...

VELAZQUEZ - Portraits of Margarita Theresa ("Die Infantin Margarita Teresa")

We get to watch Phillip's sister grow up in these three different portraits at different ages. Margarita was destined from birth to marry the young Austrian prince, and she eventually became Holy Roman Empress. Pictures like these, sent from Spain every few years, were for her pen-pal-and-future- husband to get to know her.


Velazquez's just-the-facts-ma'am realism was completely different from most artists of his time. This was the Baroque period when motion, emotion, fantasy and surreal colors ruled. Not content with reality, Baroque artists painted scenes of exaggerated prettiness, exaggerated violence -- or both. If you want to get a quick handle on what "Baroque" is, here's a hot tip -- pudgy winged babies. If there's a pudgy winged baby in a painting, it's Baroque.

Exit the Velazquez room and pass through four small rooms -- how many "p.w.b."s can you spot? Then take your first right into the large Italian Baroque gallery.

CARRACCI - Venus and Adonis

This vision of exaggerated prettiness has pretty people, lush Venetian- style colors and a Titian-type reclining nude. Oh yes, and a pudgy winged baby.

MANFREDI - Cain Killing Abel ("Kain esschlagt Abel")

In its own way, this is more violent than, say, Caravaggio's more realistic "David with the Head of Goliath." The artist quickens our heartbeat by showing the moment before the club hits, not after. We anticipate the pain and gore, which is more horrible than actually seeing it.

GIORDANO - The Archangel Michael ("Der Erzengel Michael")

Giordano puts violence and prettiness together, as the handsome archangel Michael (with his p.w.b. entourage) subdues shrieking, rebellious devils in the battle for heaven. (My favorite face is the dude at lower right -- favorite feet, lower left.)

GIORDANO - The Fish Eater ("Fischesser")

Giordano must have had a streak of Velazquez in him. This is an honest and ridiculous snapshot of a guy stuffing his face with fish. He pauses and looks at us like, "What's so funny?"

No doubt this picture has made you hungry. Pass through the last gallery, noticing the portraits of people who actually hung the Fish Eater on the walls of their homes, then head downstairs to the cafe and treat yourself to some good Vienna coffee and pastry... or some fish. Anyway, take a break. Meet you back at the book stand.


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