Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches is one of the world’s finest art museums, even though it isn’t always mentioned in the same breath with the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum or the Prado. That may be partly due to the difficulty of saying the word Kunsthistorisches in the same breath with anything. The name is pronounced KOONST-hist-OR-eh-shess; in German that means Museum of Art History, but is often rendered in English as Museum of Fine Arts.
It is the repository of treasures collected by the Habsburgs, and we’re not talking Ed and Ginny Habsburg from your bowling league. This was the Habsburg dynasty, which for several centuries ruled over big chunks of Europe until the conclusion of World War I. Before the map got forcibly rearranged, though, the Habsburg emperors went around saying “I want that,” and they got a lot of wonderful stuff. Emperor Franz Joseph I had the Kunsthistorisches built to store all the goodies; it was completed in 1891.
When talking about this museum, it’s difficult not to repeatedly use the adjective “grand”. You enter a grand lobby, ascend a grand staircase to an entire floor of grand paintings, beginning with Room I, which is all works by Titian. Nearby are three rooms filled with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens. You get the idea — the Kunsthistorisches is loaded with grand things.
It’s not possible to list all the masterpieces here, but I want to mention a few of my favorites:
• An oil by Johannes Vermeer you’d instantly recognize; it is known by different titles, but most often is called The Art of Painting. You can’t look at it without saying (or at least thinking) “wow”.
• One of the three paintings Mantegna did of St. Sebastian shot full of arrows. This is the version used to illustrate my blog post of 1/8/09, titled “Saint Sebastian: That Had To Hurt”.
• Madonna of the Meadow, by Raphael. The artist managed to make Jesus and John the Baptist look like real toddlers in spite of their halos.
• Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow. There is an entire room (Room X) devoted to this 16th-century master; indeed, the Kunsthistorisches has somewhere between a third and a half of all known works by Bruegel. Take your time here; marvel at the details in his paintings.
• Cellini’s Saliera was stolen from the Kunsthistorisches in 2003, but the gold salt cellar was recovered in 2006. This piece is the highlight of the sculpture department, which, as far as I’m concerned, is not the museum’s strength.
The Kunsthistorisches is proud of its Egyptian Collection, and the Habsburgs also looted an assortment of Greek and Roman antiquities that are now on display here, but paintings — especially from the 16th and 17th century — are why this museum is so highly regarded.
I can also recommend the haus torte in the museum café, but I’m not sure it’s world-class. Well, no, now that I think about it… in its way, the Kunsthistorisches cake actually might be as good as the delicious ham-and-cheese sandwich at the Louvre.