Located in Hietzing, just outside the centre of Vienna, in Austria, Schönbrunn Palace, one of the most famous and impressive buildings of the city, was once the main summer residence of the Habsburg rulers. While the meaning of the name of the palace stands for beautiful spring, it has its roots in an artesian well that supplied water to the court. However, equipped with 1441 rooms and adorned with vast gardens, it is considered to be one of the most impressive Baroque place complexes in Europe and is sometimes referred to as the Austrian Palace of Versailles for its aesthetic beauty.
Schönbrunn is set on an area of land which had been owned by the Habsburg family since 1569, through the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II, where a former owner had erected a mansion called Katterburg in 1548. During the next century, the area was used as a hunting and recreation ground, and from 1638 to 1643, Eleonora Gonzaga, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, added a palace to the Katterburg mansion as her residence.
However, the creation of Schönbrunn Palace actually began in 1693 when Emperor Leopold I commissioned Baroque architect Johann Bernhard Fischer Erlach to build a hunting palace for his son, and heir to the throne, Joseph I. Unfortunately, Joseph died suddenly in 1711, before the completion of the palace, resulting in the suspension of work which continued for many years. The incomplete palace remained as the widower residence of Joseph’s widow Wilhelmine Amalie until 1728 when it was acquired by Emperor Charles VI. Eventually, Charles presented the palace to his daughter Maria Theresa as a wedding gift. Maria Theresa had a keen fondness for the palace and its gardens. In 1743, she commissioned Nikolaus Pacassi, an Italian-Austrian architect, and redesigned the building into a grand palace. During the process of remodeling, a Theatre Building was also built at her instance, which was used not for regular performances but on state and family occasions. Nevertheless, access to the performances was strictly regulated, and courtiers who had not yet seen members of the imperial family performing were barred from entering. Since then, Schönbrunn Palace became the focus of the Royal Court and political life.
Following the downfall of the Habsburg monarchy in November 1918, ownership of the palace was transferred to the newly founded Republic of Austria, and it was converted into a museum. Although during the Allied Occupation of Austria between 1945 and 1955, Schönbrunn Palace was requisitioned for the British Delegation to the Allied Commission for Austria as well as for the headquarters of British Military Garrison in Austria, after the reestablishment of the Austrian Republic in 1955, it again became a museum
Although the main part of the 575 feet (175 m) wide Schönbrunn Palace contains 1441 rooms, only a small portion of it is open to the public, which is enough to give an overall impression of its grand interior, enriched with Rococo style of art and decoration which combines asymmetry, scrolling curves, sculptured molding, and trompe-l'œil frescoes to create optical illusion of three dimensions. Apart from that, the interior is adorned with decorative gold leaves that sparkle in the gleaming light from the huge chandeliers.
The guided tour of the palace complex includes the rooms used by Franz Joseph, the longest-reigning emperor of Austria, who was born in the palace, spent a great deal of his life there, and died in the palace on 21 November 1916, at the age of 86.
His wife, Empress Elisabeth, better known as Sisi, a beautiful and glamorous woman, who went beyond the social protocols surrounding them to get close to people from all walks of life, and was dedicated to social causes, was hugely loved by the Austrian people. She died tragically at a young age in 1898 when she was mysteriously stabbed and died in Geneva. However, their rooms were more modest and simple than the incredibly ornate staterooms, which were the site of several important moments in the history of Austria.
The Blue Chinese Salon in the palace is richly decorated with blue and white porcelain vases, where Emperor Charles I abdicated in 1918, to mark the end of 640 years of Habsburg rule in Austria. The fascinating Million Room with its white and gold ornamentation, crystal mirrors, and wall panelling made from an exotic type of tropical rosewood, was originally known as the Feketin Room and served as the private reception room of Maria Theresa. The room was decorated with 60 Rococo cartouches containing beautiful Indo-Persian miniatures depicting scenes from the life of Mongol rulers in India. This was the room where a six-year-old Mozart gave his first concert in the Mirror Room before Maria Theresa in 1772. While the Napoleon room was used by Napoleon as his bedroom when he occupied Vienna in 1800, the Great Gallery of Schönbrunn Palace, a 131 feet (40 m) long Rococo hall, was used for banquets, balls, and royal receptions. It was decorated with crystal mirrors, ceiling frescoes, and golden chandeliers. The tall windows lining the hall gave it an extra sparkle.
In front of the south-facing side of the palace, the Parterre occupied the largest open space in the gardens, which ends with the Neptune Fountain, depicting Neptune standing atop the grotto at the centre of the figure group in a shell-shaped chariot holding a trident, while a nymph is seated to his left, and the sea-goddess Thetis kneels to his right. Overlooking the gardens and palace is the Gloriette, a small building erected on an elevated site as a war memorial and now used as a café. Apart from that the palace complex also includes an Orangery, Botanic Gardens, and a Palm House, as well as a18th century fake Roman ruins.
As an outstanding Baroque ensemble, along with a remarkable example of the synthesis of the arts, Schönbrunn Palace with its gardens is enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.