Every body knows that Vienna for many ages has been the seat of the German emperors. (..) It is a large populous city, situate in a fine fruitful plain on the south side of the Danube, on a branch of that river which here divides itself into many streams, forming several small islands. The little river Wien, which gives its name to the place, flows on the east part of the city and falls a little below it into the Danube.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and France - 1749
Charlemagne appeared in the long robe of the patrician and, as military governor of Rome, presented himself to the people as a Roman. The church was filled with the nobility of Italy and France, and all that they saw around, after they entered its vast walls, must have told them that some great ceremony was about to take place. At the high altar stood the head of the Christian church, surrounded by all the splendid clergy of Italy; and the monarch, approaching, knelt on the steps of the altar and for some moments continued to offer up his prayers. As he was about to rise, Leo advanced and raising an imperial crown, he placed it suddenly on the brows of the monarch, while the imperial salutations burst in thunder from the people. "Long life and victory to Charles Augustus, crowned by God great and pacific Emperor of the Romans". Whether the extraordinary preparations which he must have seen in the church had given Charlemagne any suspicion of the intentions of the pope, or whether the conduct of the pontiff really took him by surprise, must ever be a matter of doubt.
George Payne Rainsford James - The History of Charlemagne - 1833
Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Imperator Romanorum at Mass on Christmas Day 800 in S. Pietro. 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 sure he could legitimately make use of his new title and a few years later he sought the consent of the sole legitimate Roman Emperor, that of Constantinople. Why Pope Leo III used this title is known: he wanted to free himself from the authority of the Byzantine Emperor who had the last say on the appointment of the Bishop of Rome.
Emperor Otto III and his court (from the Gospel of the Emperor)
A clearer vision of the new empire and of its relationship with Ancient Rome was conceived 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 took the title of Imperator Mundi (Emperor of the World), made Rome the administrative centre of his empire and revived elaborate Roman customs and Byzantine court ceremonies, but his rule lasted only until 1002.
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 conflict which marked the history of Italy for many centuries.
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 Empire which was eventually defined as "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations".
Vienna seen from the Belvedere Gardens
The House of Hapsburgh (is) a family which entering Germany in the person of a Swiss knight, unexpectedly chosen to wear the imperial crown, has raised itself, in defiance of all the political storms which have attacked it, to so powerful a rank among the sovereigns of Europe.
John Russell - A Tour in Germany, and Some of the Southern Provinces of the Austrian Empire - 1825
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, expanded their possessions eastwards gaining control of most of today's Austria.
Rudolph set his residence in Vienna, then a rather small town which stood on the site of ancient Vindobona, a castrum (military town) on the northern border of the Roman Empire. In 180 AD Emperor Marcus Aurelius died at Vindobona, during a campaign against the Marcomanni (men of the frontier), a Germanic tribe constituting a constant threat to Roman territories.
The Habsburgs lost the imperial title in 1308 and regained 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 Pope Nicholas V to regulate the relationship between the Empire and the Papacy 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. Frederick, in his imperial capacity, granted the Habsburgs the title of Archdukes of Austria.
His son Maximilian, having married Mary of Burgundy, expanded the possessions of the Habsburgs. His grandson Philip the Handsome married Joanna of Castile. 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 and even stretched overseas to Spanish America. He could truthfully say: "In my empire, the sun never sets."
Charles V abdicated in 1556 and he partitioned his dominions between his son Philip and his brother Ferdinand, who became the new emperor, but ruled on just the original possessions of the Habsburgs.
An elaborate system presided over the appointment of the emperor who was chosen by a panel of seven/nine Electors, three of whom were archbishops of important German dioceses and four/six were sovereigns of key states, e.g. the Duchy of Bavaria (but not the Archduchy of Austria). They usually confirmed the dynastic rules of succession by appointing the son of the previous emperor, but in some circumstances they chose differently.
(left) 1887 Monument near Molkerbastei to Johann Andreas von Liebenberg, Mayor of Vienna in 1683, who oversaw the defence of the city; (right) detail showing the lion of the House of Habsburg which crashes a shield and a standard of the Ottomans
The dominions of the Austrian Habsburgs were under a dual threat: a) the Lutheran reform weakened the allegiance of several towns and provinces to the strongly
Catholic emperor; b) in 1526 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent defeated the King of Hungary at Mohacs and in 1529 he attempted to conquer Vienna; the Ottomans retained a great influence over most of Hungary, although they did not always ruled it directly.
In 1683 a revolt by Hungarian princes against the Habsburg efforts to re-Catholicize their fiefdoms was backed by the Sultan. Vienna was about to fall, but eventually the siege was broken and in the following years the Ottomans were repeatedly defeated. A second war against them in 1716-1718 led to substantial territorial gains by the Habsburgs. These wars, which were strongly supported by the Popes, led to an alliance with the Republic of Venice; these political and military bonds increased the cultural links between Vienna and Italy.
The links with Italy increased in 1713 when the Spanish Succession War was concluded by treaties which gave Emperor Charles VI sovereignty over the Duchy of Milan, the Kingdom of Naples and that of Sicily (in 1720). Charles VI to ingratiate himself with his new subjects made every effort to appear as a universal sovereign and to give Vienna the appearance of a new Rome. 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 as modern "Roman Emperors", who, similar to the ancient ones, were entitled to rule over the whole world by divine right. 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 the coat of arms of the empire: the double-headed eagle looking eastwards and westwards: the same symbol of the Byzantine Emperors (you can see it at Salesianerinnenkirche in the image used as a background for this page). The increased importance of Vienna was recognized in 1722 when it became an archbishopric.
Monument to Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I Stephan by Balthasar Ferdinand Moll in
The two following Succession Wars had less positive results for the Habsburgs, with the loss of Naples and Sicily to Charles of Bourbon and of the title of Holy Roman Emperor in favour of Karl Albrecht of Bavaria. In 1745 however Francis Stephen of Lorraine, husband of Maria Theresa, daughter of Charles VI, was elected emperor; he had also acquired the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, which remained a separate nation, but was since ruled by a cadet branch of the Habsburg family. The Austrian political hegemony over Italy was strengthened by the marriage of two daughters of Maria Theresa with the rulers of Naples and Parma.
Vienna had particularly close cultural bonds with Venice, although the Venetian licentiousness was not appreciated by Empress Maria Theresa: Juliette was only fourteen years of age when her father sent her one day to the house of a Venetian nobleman, Marco Muazzo, with a coat which he had cleaned for him. He thought her very beautiful in spite of the dirty rags in which she was dressed, and he called to see her at her father's shop, with a friend of his, the celebrated advocate, Bastien Uccelli, who, struck by the romantic and cheerful nature of Juliette still more than by her beauty and fine figure, gave her an apartment, made her study music, and kept her as his mistress. (..) She made rapid progress in music, and at the end of six months she felt sufficient confidence in herself to sign an engagement with a theatrical manager who took her to Vienna to give her a 'castrato' part in one of Metastasio's operas. (..) In Vienna, Juliette appeared on the stage, and her beauty gained for her an admiration which she would never have conquered by her very inferior talent. But the constant crowd of adorers who went to worship the goddess, having sounded her exploits rather too loudly, the august Maria-Theresa objected to this new creed being sanctioned in her capital, and the beautiful actress received an order to quit Vienna forthwith. (..) She came back to Venice, where, made conspicuous by her banishment from Vienna, she could not fail to make her fortune. Expulsion from Vienna, for this class of women, had become a title to fashionable favour, and when there was a wish to depreciate a singer or a dancer, it was said of her that she had not been sufficiently prized to be expelled from Vienna. (..) In Vienna everything is beautiful; money was then very plentiful (in 1753), and luxury very great; but the severity of the empress made the worship of Venus difficult, particularly for strangers. A legion of vile spies, who were decorated with the fine title of Commissaries of Chastity, were the merciless tormentors of all the girls.
The Memoires of Casanova, by Jacques Casanova de Seingalt. Translation by Arthur Machen
Since Joseph II had the manliness and justice to forsake the barbarous policy of his mother Maria Theresa, who hunted down even the few straggling Protestants that lurked in the mountains of Styria, every other form of worship has been tolerated. Russell
Emperor Joseph II moved away from the traditional Habsburg strong support of Catholicism and he introduced laws which allowed religious freedom: these decisions were aimed at enhancing the acceptance of the Habsburgs as 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, because the posture of the horse and the gesture of the hand definitely derive from the Emperor's statue in Rome.
Reliefs celebrating events of the life of Emperor Joseph II: (left) his Italian Grand Tour (1769-1770); (centre) the introduction of administrative reforms in Transylvania, a region of today's Romania, the ancient Dacia (1773); (right) religious freedom. The relief in the icon of this section refers to his birth on March 13, 1741 and the Emperor is portrayed as Infant Hercules strangling the snakes Hera sent to kill him (see a similar relief at Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne)
The Italian Grand Tour of Joseph II included visits to the Arena of Verona and Villa d'Este and a portrait by Pompeo Batoni against the background of the monuments of Rome (it opens in another window).
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). He 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 national feelings which characterized the XIXth century.
Lower Belvedere: Apotheosis of Prince Eugene of Savoy in the ceiling of the Great Hall by Martino Altomonte aka Martin Hohenberg (1657-1745), an Italian painter who mainly worked in Poland and Austria
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 on the Ring) 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, or 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 traveller in 1750.
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 cultural and artistic influence
A political manifesto: Karlskirche
Churches without the walls
Palaces and Villas without the walls
A day in the countryside: Perchtoldsdorf
in other sections of this website:
Vindobona, Roman Vienna