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To sleep at a palace: Schönbrunn’s Grand Suite

The imperial palace of Schönbrunn in the western suburb of Hietzing on the outskirts of Vienna, was the summer residence of the former Habsburg dynasty. It stuns with its magnificence, but then this, of course, was part of its purpose and is the power of its architecture. It has the glory of the monarch’s glare. The palace, like the great country house in an imperial form, was intended to proclaim the power and ancestry of the family that owned it, reinforced by the manipulation of landscape design.

Arriving at the palace was, in fact, the first experience of the presence of the monarch even before the series of rooms began, defining your importance by the degree to which you could obtain physical access. Because the monarch actually was resident inside all this architectural power, for this is also what these palaces were. The further you proceeded, the higher the honour. Schönbrunn was an astonishing, Austrian response to the royal statement of Louis XIV’s Versailles. Its lustrous panorama was famously immortalised by the brush of Bernando Bellotto, [Canaletto] who in 1758-61 painted both the principal cour d’honneur (Ehrenhof) and from the back, as seen from the baroque Great Parterre. Remarkably since 2013, Schönbrunn Palace also offers the option of guest accommodation in the set of restored rooms known as the Grand Suite. 

The Habsburg imperial family generally moved over to Schönbrunn at Easter time; each of the sixteen children of Maria Theresia – Holy Roman Empress by marriage and Queen of Hungary – had its own Hofstaat and individual suite within the palace’s 1,441 rooms. The Vienna Hofburg was more of a winter residence. It was during Maria Theresia’s reign that it acquired much of the appearance we recognise today, relatively unchanged since the eighteenth century. This was when the Empress ordered the expansion of the palace under the Italian-Austrian court architect Nicolo Pacassi, modernising the original building as earlier laid out by the great Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach. Napoleon stayed twice at Schönbrunn, in 1805 and 1809 respectively, when he quite literally, ‘occupied’ it. The penultimate Emperor, Franz Joseph I, was born at Schönbrunn and also died there in 1916, in the middle of the First World War. It was an imperial sunset.

The Grand Suite was supposedly the suite of rooms once occupied by the only (legitimate) daughter of Emperor Franz Joseph’s heir apparent, the Crown Prince Rudolf – Elisabeth, Austria’s legendary ‘Red Archduchess’. Although this, like many traditions, now forms part of the cultural history of these rooms, concrete proof still lacking. It is also believed to be have been earlier used by an aged lady-in-waiting to Maria Theresia, in a similar way to how Hampton Court Palace contained its various living occupants (now two remaining) rent-free, in the numerous Grace-and-Favour apartments, for services rendered to the Crown. For the lady-in-waiting, it would have been as much of a perquisite as a consequence of the privileged access she had to the Empress.

Arguably the foremost cultural and historical monument in Austria, the palace’s magnificence is a celebration in architecture of the Habsburg dynasty, one reflecting the other, so that the deliberate impression standing at the splendid gate on the Schönbrunner Schlossstrasse, then as now, is of the supreme power of display – of reigning architecture, imperial eclat.

Much of the presence of the great Empress Maria Theresia still remains at Schönbrunn, which remains more or less as she knew it, although its famous shade of ‘Schönbrunn Yellow’ was not added until between the years 1817 and 1819, when the façade of the palace was remodelled under Franz II/I, Maria Theresia’s grandson. The lush Rococo decoration installed by Pacassi was removed over a period by court architect Johann Aman, when the strict baroque design was relaxed into simpler ornamental lines. In these gardens – the admiration of Europe – the Classicistic Gloriette – a triumphal arch – forms the absolute high point looking back onto the palace and further out to distant Vienna – the collonaded achievement of Johann Ferdinand Hetzendorf von Hohenberg, who redesigned the park. The magnificent ensemble of imperial palace and gardens were declared freely open to the public in Maria Theresia’s lifetime, in 1779, ‘[provided that] the Court was not in residence and an appointment had been arranged with the palace administration’. They were entered on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List in 1996. Today, the palace is run by an independent management company, the Schloss Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H, set up in 1992 to oversee the palace’s administration.

The Grand Suite is within the east wing of the palace, the same wing which also contains the imperial apartments of Maria Theresia on the piano nobile. The Suite is let in partnership with Austrian Trend Hotel, measures 167 square metres and can accommodate up to four guests at any one time. The kitchenette overlooks the Kronprinzengarten [Crown Prince Garden], which forms a botanical pendant to the Kammergarten [Chamber Garden]. The decorated corridor contains copied reproductions of the famous pair of paintings of Franz Joseph and the legendary Empress Elisabeth of Austria, by the fashionable artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter, the latter being the full-length portrait in a ball gown with the diamond stars in her hair.

The salon likewise contains copies of portraits of Maria Theresia’s family, including the iconic painting of the Empress with her husband, Holy Roman Emperor Franz I and their family, by Martin van Meytens, 1754-55. The old baroque, double-opening windows look out towards the Gloriette and the Neptune Fountain in the middle distance.

Two bedrooms complete the suite with adjacent salles de bain; the main with a four-poster canopy bed in white and gold, a second in gold-trimmed black and red. The red moire silk wall covering is the famous ‘pineapple damask’ – an exclusive design pattern of the imperial court and found throughout the former imperial residences, so complimenting the State Apartments in a domestic replica. Schönbrunn Palace contains a number of historic beds, including the sole surviving ‘rich’ bed of state from the Austrian Court (kept sealed behind glass) and the mahogany bed once shared by Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth in the West Wing, a sad comment on the imperial marriage.

I stayed overnight in the Schönbrunn Grand Suite; allowing me a privileged insight into living in the palace which was both unexpected and surprising. Small touches delighted, such as the chocolate medallion coins known as Mozarttaler, produced by Mirabell of Salzburg, next to the beds; or the umbrella stands in the decorated hallway, for the possibility of a long rainy walk in the park, which reminded me of Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s saying: ‘At Schönbrunn, those parts of the park which belong to me are the Gloriette and the ones which the public don’t like.’

The gardens glowed in the late evening sun of old Austria, lighting up again when the Gloriette was illuminated as it is during the summer, the flood lamps turned off at ten o’clock. Other times it was comedic, with the loud croaking of the frogs in the Neptune Fountain in the late evening and the roar of the animals in the park from the famous Schönbrunn Zoo founded by Holy Roman Emperor Franz I in 1752 – that royal love of exotic menageries! Glimpses of life in the palace’s calendar were also extraordinary, hearing the strains of an evening Strauss concert in the ‘Great Gallery’. And of opening the metal gate with a key and walking up the back staircase to the Suite; at midnight the classical statues in front of the formal hedges and shallow alcoves look positively phantasmagorical.

Waking up at Schönbrunn Palace is predictably, dream-like. The view in the morning is privileged. Like many historic buildings, however, it is still discreetly occupied. In Schönbrunn’s case, it is home to some 400 people, whose living quarters are the former rooms once built to house members of the imperial household or staff. It is this same blending of the palatial and the domestic – that reminds us that these palaces, whilst bastions of monarchy, were also, of course, homes.

The Grand Suite is included in the distinguished list of Schlosshotels, an exemplary catalogue of European Castles and Historic Hotels, established in 1965. In British equivalent, a string of small castles and historic houses allow guest accommodation, some of the most notable larger ones being Warwick Castle, Leeds Castle and Hever Castle, no less. Hampton Court Palace has hosted event-based sleepovers on occasion.

For one night though, the palace of Schönbrunn is surely an address unlike any other.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.