With its invaluable collection of artworks from Ancient Egypt to the late 18th-century, the palatial building of Kunsthistorisches Museum, crowned with an octagonal dome, is located on Ringstrasse in Vienna, the Capital City of Austria and reckoned as the largest art museum in the country and one of the most important museums in the world. Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary commissioned the building, along with another building of identical design, directly opposite Maria-Theresien-Plaza, to house the huge and rich accumulation of treasures procured by the successive Habsburg rulers from the 16th century onward, notably by Archduke Leopold William in the mid-17th century and make them accessible to the public.
Designed by Gottfried Semper and Baron Karl von Hasenauer, the construction of the buildings commenced in 1871 and both were officially opened in 1891. Other than the building of the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, the second building houses the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien or the Natural History Museum Vienna, one of the most important natural history museums in the world.
The twin buildings, belonging to the art and natural history museums, meticulously designed as mirror images of one another and separated by a landscaped square, formed one part of the wider project of the Imperial Forum or Kaiserforum, conceived as an impressive complex of majestic buildings and arches spanning the Ring Boulevard.
However, the forum never reached completion for financial constraints, as well as the growing disinterest of the Emperor. Ultimately, the whole project effectively ended with World War I and the subsequent end of the monarchy.
The majestic building of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which seems to be a palace, is rectangular in shape and aesthetically decorated with symmetrical Renaissance facades of sandstone, lined with large arched windows on the main levels. The surface walls are adorned with a series of statues, representing the personification of the arts and art history, along with the famous artists and their sponsors.
It seems that the statues were purposely arranged chronologically, beginning with the ancients at the back of the building and moving forward in time clockwise. In addition to that, the representation of Alexander the Great and Pericles, a Greek statesman and general during the Golden Age of Athens, are placed at the rear of the building, while the masters of the Renaissance, namely Titian, Michelangelo, and Raphael are conspicuously present at the front, along with the great centres of Renaissance culture like Venice, Florence and Rome. Symmetrically, the side of the building facing the Ring exhibits the cities possessing great art museums during the prevailing period like Milan, Madrid and London.
The interiors of the museum, lavishly decorated with marble, stucco ornamentation, gold-leaf and murals, reflect the grandeur of its art collection and imperial sponsor. The internal structure consisting of the Entrance Hall, the grand staircase and the Cupola Hall created a dramatic unit that celebrates the Imperial patron and his predecessors. Apart from that, an additional and perhaps the most elegant feature of the interior is the circular opening in the ceiling of the entrance hall that offers visitors their first glimpse of the cupola hall. The famous sculpture, titled Theseus Slaying the Centaur, created by Antonio Canova, placed at the centre of the recess of the staircase, created one of the most dignified and sumptuous interiors of late-nineteenth-century Vienna, which is possibly unparalleled in any other famous European museum. Gustav Klimt, a reputed Austrian symbolist painter, his younger brother Ernst Klimt, Franz Matsch, Hans Makart and Mihály Munkácsy created forty paintings to decorate the spaces between the columns and above the arcades along the walls of the main staircase.
Apart from the Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities, the ground floor and the mezzanine are entirely devoted to the Egyptian and Near Eastern collections, which are among the world’s most important collections of Egyptian antiquities. The entire collection, structured in four large areas, namely funerary cult, cultural history, sculpture and relief and the development of writing, includes more than 17 000 objects, covering almost four thousand years, from the Egyptian Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods of 3500 BC to the early Christian era and belonging to Egypt, Nubia, the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia to the Arabian Peninsula. Other than numerous sarcophagi and coffins, animal mummies, the huge collection includes several items of daily life, such as clothing and cosmetic articles, examples of the Book of the Dead, which is an ancient Egyptian funerary text, divine figures, masterpieces of sculpture, such as the Reserve Head from Giza, facial stelae from southern Arabia as well as a depiction of a lion from the Ishtar Gate in Babylon.
The collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities, covering a period of more than three millennia, ranges from Bronze Age ceramics of Cyprus dating from the 3rd millennium BC to early medieval finds. The invaluable collection includes the famous Gemma Augustea, an ancient Roman low-relief cameo engraved gem cut from a double-layered. Arabian onyx stone. In addition, it also includes the treasure troves dating from the period of the great migrations and the early Middle Ages, such as the golden treasure of Nagyszentmiklós, an important hoard of 23 early medieval gold vessels and the collection of vases with such masterpieces as the Brygos Cup. The other interesting items that attract the attention of the visitors include the larger-than-life Votive Statue of a Man from Cyprus, the Youth from the Magdalensberg, an ancient Roman bronze statue dating to the first century BC and the Amazonian Sarcophagus.
The entire first floor of the Kunsthistorisches Museum is devoted to painting. While the left wing is reserved for the Flemish, Dutch and German schools, the right wing belonged to the Italian, Spanish and French schools. It houses many impressive works of the iconic master painters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, as well as the works of Italian, Spanish, Flemish and Dutch, and German masters. It has seventeen works by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which include the famous paintings La Tour de Babel (1563) and Chasseurs dans la neige (1565).
The Kunsthistorisches Museum also has an enviable collection of coins with 600,000 items, which is one of the five largest and most important coin collections in the world. Apart from the coins, it also includes paper money, medallions, orders and other items. However, only 2,000 items are displayed in the three halls, which represents only a small portion of the holdings. While the first hall is devoted to the history and development of the medal from its origins in Italy around 1400 up to the 20th century, the second hall focuses on the history of coin and paper money, from pre-monetary forms of payment to the invention of the coin in the 7th century BC, in the region of the Lydia, an ancient land of western Anatolia, up to the 20th century. However, the third hall is only used for special exhibitions.
Furthermore, the museum has the best-documented collection of court arms and armour in the western world, a collection of historic musical instruments and a reference library, which contains around 256.000 volumes.
Café Restaurant in the Museum
A few nights in each year, the Kunsthistorisches Museum arranges a special event called Kunstschatzi, which notoriously attracts Vienna’s young and young-at-heart to the museum. On those special evenings, dinner is served with the lights turned dim and the atmosphere filled with soft music.