Vienna’s art history museum reopens its Habsburg prize

Benvenuto Cellini’s 16th-century Saliera (Saltcellar) is a part-enameled gold table sculpture. The male represents the sea, the female, the earth.
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Benvenuto Cellini’s 16th-century Saliera (Saltcellar) is a part-enameled gold table sculpture. The male represents the sea, the female, the earth.

VIENNA — Many families accumulate treasures over generations, later relegating the exotica and artworks to the attic or a tag sale. Not so the Habsburgs, the imperial family that ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their wealth, power, and 640-year duration provided them with unparalleled opportunities and access to acquire extraordinary works. Beginning with Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, they splurged on artworks, natural curiosities, and scientific wonders that elicited surprise and amazement. They sought the rare and strange as well as grandiose works crafted in ivory, bronze, and gold by virtuoso artists. And for the most part, they kept these prizes. This unrivaled collection reopened in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum on March 1 after a 10-year closure.

A museum-within-a-museum, the refurbished Kunstkammer Wien exhibits 2,200 artifacts from the Habsburg collection in 20 purpose-designed, architecturally stunning galleries. This cabinet of curiosities provides a window not only into the lives of these wealthy aristocrats, but also into evolving mindsets and expanding worldviews from the late Middle Ages through the Baroque period. No clear path weaves through the galleries. Each is interrupted by showcases that provide 360-degree views of the most important pieces. Throughout iPads offer presentations that add depth.

Kunstkammer initially referred to a collection of small pieces of art that might have been kept in one room of a castle or palace but grew to include tapestries, paintings, small sculptures, vessels, mechanized pieces, and exotica from distant lands. One enters the Kunstkammer from the museum’s rotunda, a grand space richly ornamented with neo-Baroque decoration. Paintings depicting heroes of 19th-century Viennese art encircle the lower level of the domed ceiling. Above them, portraits of the Habs-burgs inhabit the cupola. “These portraits aren’t of the most important Habsburgs in the traditional sense,” says Caecilia Bischoff of the museum’s curatorial staff. “Instead they were chosen for what they did in collecting arts.”

Kunsthistorisches Museum
Mathias Steinl’s ivory sculpture of Emperor Leopold I on horseback was likely to have been commissioned for his 15-year-old son Joseph’s election and coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 1690.

Within the galleries, the Kunstkammer story is told chronologically, beginning in the Middle Ages with ecclesiastical treasures, including a complete liturgical set from the Wilten Abbey that’s considered one of the most important extant works of Romanesque goldsmith work. It progresses through the centuries, with each collection mirroring the contemporary view of the cosmos, from a world defined by the church through one embracing the Enlightenment. Religion, superstition, science, and geopolitics share the stage.

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The Kunstkammer’s symbol is a saliera, or saltcellar, crafted by Benvenuto Cellini in the early 1540s. “Cellini made a lot of works in gold, but this is his only surviving, fully authenticated piece,” Bischoff says. The sali-era, valued at more than $60 million and dubbed “the Mona Lisa of sculptures,” is a richly ornamented allegorical representation of the earth. “Days, winds, earth, water; the whole world is symbolized in this object,” Bischoff says. What sealed the saliera’s status, she adds, was its theft in 2003. It vanished for three years before being recovered.

Exotic natural objects such as nuts, shells, and ostrich eggs, from Africa, Asia, and the Americas, mounted on ornamented bases by court artisans, became a key part of the collection. One room is filled with ivory statuettes, commissioned by Emperor Leopold I for display in the Imperial Treasury.

Automated gadgets designed to delight and impress often combined sophisticated technology with virtuoso music. A gilded 1585 musical clock, in the form of a ship, is one of the earliest examples. It could roll across the table as musicians on board played their instruments. Later automatons were far more elaborate. Although none is shown working, iPad presentations bring the action and sounds to life.

Julius Victor Berger’s 1891 ceiling painting depicting patrons from the House of Habs-burg and their favorite artists is a fitting finale. Leopold is at the center, surrounded by influential Habsburg collectors along with key artists and scientists. Keen eyes will spot Cellini and his saliera and Peter Paul Rubens. The iPad presentation allows the viewer to zoom in and identify people and objects.

The Kunstkammer Wien
 Admission to the museum ($18) includes a time-slot ticket to the Kunstkammer Wien. Entry is at 20-minute intervals, Tue-Sun, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Once inside visitors may stay as long as desired. Within the Kunst-historisches Museum Vienna, Maria Theresien-Platz, Vienna. 011-43-1-525-24-1,

Hilary Nangle can be reached at