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Vienna Marks Centenary of Emperor Franz Josef’s Death

This year the centenary of the death of Emperor Franz Josef I is being marked with a series of special exhibitions spread across several sites in Vienna and in Lower Austria, which will be open to the public until 27 November 2016.

These centenary exhibitions will focus on the life of the Emperor in four separate themes, ‘Mensch und Herrscher’ (Man and Ruler), ‘Representation und Bescheidenheit’ (Representation and Modesty), ‘Fest und Alltag’ (Ceremonial and Daily Routine) and ‘Jagd und Freizeit’ (Hunting and Leisure Time). Franz Josef ruled as the figurehead of the Danube monarchy for 68 years, ascending to the throne at the age of eighteen in the turbulent, revolutionary year of 1848; and his reign spanned a period of immense social, economic and political change. By the time of his death, the Emperor had given his name to an age and was legendary in his own lifetime. When he died in 1916, Europe was two years into the First World War, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este and his wife, Sophie Chotek in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914 and the subsequent declaration of war against Serbia, which would propel Europe headlong into World War One. Franz Ferdinand had become Austrian imperial heir-presumptive on the death of his father, Archduke Karl Ludwig in 1896, Franz Josef’s own son Crown Prince Rudolf having died in 1889 in his hunting lodge at Mayerling, through what history now generally accepts to have been suicide.

The first of these exhibitions, ‘Man and Ruler’, will take place at Schönbrunn Palace, the great imperial summer residence of the Habsburgs in Vienna, where Franz Josef was born in 1830 and uniquely, also died in 1916. The renovation of the old palatial hunting lodge of Schönbrunn was a commission in the 1690’s from Emperor Leopold I and intended for his son and successor, the future Emperor Josef I, the old lodge having suffered devastation during the Turkish siege. It was however only during the reign of Empress Maria Theresia that Schönbrunn acquired its status of splendour and magnificence as an imperial residence, the Empress transforming the palace into very much how we see it today. Very different to the neo-rococo rooms of the West Wing of the palace, Franz Josef’s Spartan bedroom at Schönbrunn retains very much the essence of the man and the ruler, located close to his study where his working day normally began at 5am. The room contains family photographs, a praying stool and holy pictures; it is typical of the Emperor’s modest and thoroughly bourgeois tastes, underlining his deep sense of humility and emphasising his description of himself as the foremost servant of the State, rising every morning at 4 am.  It was in his iron bed – displayed in this room – that the Emperor died aged 86 on 21 November 1916, whilst the conflict of the First World War still raged. An oil painting by the artist Franz Matsch was made of him after death and it is usually exhibited in this room, near to the bed in which he died.

‘Man and Ruler’ will focus on Franz Josef’s childhood and accession and place him in the context of his time and of his predecessors. It will also take as a main theme, key events of personal importance in the life of the Emperor, including his betrothal and marriage to his cousin Princess Elisabeth in Bavaria, better known to history as Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who predeceased her husband by eighteen years, being assassinated by an Italian anarchist Luigi Luccheni, in Geneva in 1898. Uniquely, the whole of the ground floor of the east wing of the palace – rarely opened in its entirety – is throwing open all its doors to accommodate this exhibition; these historic spaces in their own right include the so-called ‘White-Gold Rooms’, the ‘Bergl Rooms’ and the ‘Crown Prince’s Apartment’, which were gorgeously decorated with exotic animal paintings and landscapes by the artists Johann Wenzel and Martin Steinrucker. Objects on display will include official paintings of the Emperor which underline his representational duties, such as the celebration of 100 years of the Maria-Theresia-Order alongside poignant exhibits such as a watercolour of the Emperor’s first daughter, Archduchess Sophie, who died as a toddler.

A second exhibition, ‘Representation and Modesty’ is celebrated at the ‘Wagenburg’ or Court Carriage Museum of the Habsburgs – located in the formal gardens at Schönbrunn – which contains alongside the sumptuous state ceremonial coaches of the imperial family, also carriages for more daily use, as well as sleighs and other vehicles for the imperial children, constituting a collection of immense historical value, ranging from the baroque through to the Classicist period. A prominent feature is the great funeral hearse of the Habsburgs normally kept on permanent display here, which was used for the funeral of Franz Josef in 1916 and most recently for the burial of Empress Zita in 1989. Exhibits in the Wagenburg to complement this exhibition include various gala military uniforms worn by the Emperor, hunting dress and the so-called ‘Imperial Carriage’ which was used as the coronation coach for Franz Josef and Elisabeth when they were crowned King and Queen of Hungary in Budapest in 1867. In this way, key events in his life and reign are ‘told’ through the carriages that featured at the occasions themselves.

The third exhibition, ‘Ceremonial and Daily Routine’, is hosted by the Hofmobiliendepot (Imperial Furniture Depot) in Vienna – one of the world’s largest museums of furniture – which contains a wealth of items relating to the domesticity of the Habsburgs and to the way in which they lived. As part of this exhibition, the sense of Franz Josef’s deeply held feelings of duty is an overriding theme as is the longevity and endurance of the monarch across a period of unprecedented advance and change, despite numerous assassination attempts and also crushing personal tragedy. Equally emphasised is the sense that Franz Josef was the face of a passing era and that with his death, this very epoch also passed – something that is also deliberately implied in a double-meaning with the presence of the funeral carriage in the Wagenburg at Schönbrunn. Such a feeling is often expressed at the passing of other monarchs whose reigns have been particularly lengthy and whose names have given themselves to whole eras, the death of Franz Josef’s contemporary Queen Victoria, being a case in point.

Finally, the fourth part of the exhibition is hosted at Schloss Niederweiden in Lower Austria, with hunting and the Emperor’s preferred leisure activities as its main theme. The Emperor was an enthusiastic mountain climber into old age and was passionately fond of hunting, the latter being something which was very much shared as a preferred pastime by other members of the imperial family, both historically and contemporaneously. Normally the castle is only opened on weekends but has opened on a daily basis for the duration of the exhibition.

The Schloss Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges. m.b.h has co-operated with the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna for this exhibition, which opened over its four sites on 16 March 2016.



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