In 800, at Mass on Christmas day in Rome, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Imperator Romanorum. Most history books, in an attempt to simplify a complex series of events, regard this ceremony as the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire. Apparently Charlemagne was not entirely sure he could legitimately make use of his new title and a few years later sought the consensus of the sole legitimate Roman Emperor, that of Constantinople.
It is more evident why Pope Leo III used those words: he wanted to deliver Rome and himself from the authority of Byzantium.
A clearer vision of the new empire and of its relationship with Ancient Rome was brought about by the Emperors Otto I the Great, Otto II and Otto III. In particular Otto III attempted to revive the glory and power of ancient Rome by placing himself at the head of a theocratic state. He engineered the election of his cousin Bruno of Carinthia as Pope Gregory V, the first German pope, and the new pontiff crowned Otto emperor on May 21, 996. Otto made Rome the administrative centre of his empire and revived elaborate Roman customs and Byzantine court ceremonies. He took the title of "emperor of the world".
Later on the alliance between the (German) emperors and the popes broke down because of the "Investiture Controversy", a dispute concerning who would control appointments of church officials (investiture). In Italy this led to the formation of two factions, the Guelphs, who supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines, who sided with the emperor: a split which marked the history of Italy for many centuries.
Vienna seen from the Belvedere Gardens
An elaborate system presided over the appointment of the emperor who was chosen by a panel of seven members (Electors), three of whom
were archbishops of important German towns and four were lords of key regions.
They usually confirmed the dynastic rules of succession by appointing the son of the previous emperor, but in some circumstances the Electors chose differently.
Two emperors of the Hohenstaufen family, Frederick I "Barbarossa" (red bearded) and Frederick II strongly fought to assert their role in Italy, but eventually their party was defeated. The last of the Hohenstaufen, Conradin of Swabia, made a final attempt in 1268 to regain the former imperial possessions in southern Italy, but at Torre Astura he was imprisoned and handed over to his enemies.
As a result of these events Italy, with the exclusion of some of its Alpine provinces, was no longer regarded as part of the Holy Roman Empire. Eventually the empire was formally defined as "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations".
The fall of the Hohenstaufen led to a period of disorder in Germany at the end of which in 1273 Rudolph of Habsburg was appointed emperor. The Habsburgs, starting from their original fief in Switzerland, had expanded their possessions eastwards gaining control of most of today's Austria. Rudolph set his residence in Vienna, then a small town on the Danube.
Vienna was the ancient Vindobona a military town (castrum) founded by the Romans to protect the Rhine-Danube limes which constituted the northern border of the Empire. In 180 Emperor Marcus Aurelius died in Vindobona, where he had set the headquarters of his campaign against the Marcomanni (men of the frontier), a Germanic tribe constituting a constant threat to Roman settlements. The campaign of Marcus Aurelius was celebrated in the lower part of Colonna Antonina in Rome.
Vindobona was sacked by the Goths towards the end of the IVth century and later on fell into the hands of the Avars, a tribe coming from Central Asia, who established their rule over most of the Pannonian plain (today's Hungary).
The Habsburgs lost the imperial title in 1308 to regain it in 1438 with Albert II; his son Frederick III managed to be crowned emperor in Rome in 1452 and
he signed an agreement with the pope to rule their relationship which lasted until 1806. It was the beginning of a strong alliance. One of its first results was
the establishment in Vienna of a bishopric.
His son Maximilian, having married Mary of Burgundy, expanded the possessions of the Habsburgs. His son Philip (the Handsome) married the Spanish princess Joanna (the Mad). Their son Charles V was to inherit an empire which extended across Europe, from Spain and the Netherlands to Austria and the Kingdom of Naples - it even stretched overseas to Spanish America. He could truthfully say: "In my empire, the sun never sets."
Charles V, however paid little attention to Vienna; when he abdicated in 1556 he split his possessions between his son Philip and his brother Ferdinand, who became the new emperor, but ruled on just the original possessions of the Habsburgs.
In the meantime these possessions were under a dual threat: a) the Lutheran reform weakened the allegiance of several towns and provinces to the strongly Catholic emperor; b) the Ottomans expanded their influence over Hungary and in 1529 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent besieged unsuccessfully Vienna.
Ferdinand and his successors re-catholicized parts of Austria (including Vienna), Bohemia and Hungary; in this effort they were strongly supported by the pope and this led to increased cultural links between Vienna and Italy. The Habsburgs were well aware of the difficulties of keeping together the different nationalities living in their empire and thought that their task would be helped by emphasizing their role of modern "Roman Emperors", who like the ancient ones, were entitled to rule over the whole world. This policy was supported by the Habsburg's motto: A. E. I. O. U. (Austriae Est Imperari Orbi Universo - It is Austria's destiny to rule the world) and by their coat of arms: the double-headed eagle looking eastwards and westwards: the same symbol of the Byzantine Emperors (image used as a background for this page).
Modern statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Marc-Aurel Strasse; Monument to the Emperor Joseph II portrayed as Marcus Aurelius in Josefsplatz
This "Roman" aspect of the empire became even more apparent in 1713 when the Spanish Succession War was
concluded by treaties which gave to Emperor Charles VI the Lower Netherlands (today's Belgium) and in Italy: Sicily, Naples and Milan. Charles VI
to ingratiate himself with his new subjects made every effort to appear as a universal sovereign and to give to Vienna, the capital of the empire,
the appearance of a new Rome.
His policy was followed in a more moderate fashion by his daughter Maria Theresa, who became empress only when her husband Francis Stephen of Lorraine was elected emperor in 1745.
The following emperor Joseph II, had different views: first of all on religious matters: he moved away from the traditional strong support of Catholicism and introduced bills which allowed religious freedom and declared German the official language of the empire: these decisions were aimed at enhancing the acceptance of the Habsburgs as potential leaders of the German nations (many of which had a largely Lutheran population). Notwithstanding these aspects an 1806 monument celebrated him in a very Roman attire. He was portrayed as a Roman emperor and more specifically Marcus Aurelius, who had died in Vienna, as the positioning of the horse and the gesture of the hand definitely derive from the emperor's statue in Piazza del Campidoglio. The reliefs which decorate the monument show key events of his life: his visit to Rome and a purported conquest of parts of Romania (the ancient Dacia): these two reliefs follow academic patterns; the third one is strikingly novel: it shows two religions shaking hands: something we all would like to see even today.
The inauguration of the monument almost coincided with the decision on August 6, 1806 by Emperor Francis II to disband the Holy Roman Empire (he then became Francis I, Emperor of Austria). Francis II was forced to this step by Napoleon, but it is true to say that the notion of a universal empire had no citizenship in the emerging context of strong European national feelings.
Reliefs celebrating events related to the Emperor Joseph II: his visit to Rome; the partial conquest of Romania (the ancient Dacia); religious freedom
This section of the website is a limited attempt to show the monuments of Vienna in the light of
their connections with Italy and more specifically Rome. For this reason some landmarks of Vienna
(Stephansdom, Schonbrunn, modern buildings) are entirely omitted and other important monuments are covered only for some aspects.
The spelling of German names is often incorrect because of the lack of diaeresis and other signs of the German alphabet.
References to Italian influences are by no way to be regarded as diminishing factors of the value of Austrian architects, painters and sculptors, nor as excluding the influence of other countries (chiefly France).
The basic aim of the section is to show Vienna as it appeared to an educated Italian subject of Empress Maria Theresa.
Pages in this section of the website in recommended order:
Introduction: the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations
The 1683 Siege of Vienna
XVIIth century churches
XVIIth century palaces
Monuments celebrating the end of plagues
The walls of Vienna
XVIIIth century churches
XVIIIth century palaces
Italian sculpture and sculptors
A political manifesto: Karlskirche
Churches without the walls
Palaces and Villas without the walls
A day in the countryside: Perchtoldsdorf