At the end of my research trip in Sicily, I tacked on a week to check out some things in Vienna. Originally, my goal had been to get in contact with someone behind the scenes at either the Imperial Treasury or the Kunsthistorisches Museum, but that didn’t really pan out. These things happen. Luckily, my other material history finds in southern Italy were enough that I didn’t need to add anything else, so no harm done. My trip ended up being useful for research, but also an interesting look at a new place.
I had visited Vienna once before, for about 2 days. When I was in high school, I was part of a chorus that toured internationally every couple of years, and we did a trip to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest when I was 17. I remember almost nothing about that part of the trip – we spent by far the least amount of time in Vienna, probably because it was the most expensive part of the trip. I think our performance was also not very good, because we were in the upper gallery of a massive church so we couldn’t hear ourselves as we were singing, and instead only heard a delayed echo a second later. Apart from that, I just remember everything in Vienna looking very big and very grand.
That last part is certainly accurate, but this time around I got to see that there’s much more to this city. For me, the draw of Vienna is the art. I am a huge fan of Art Nouveau and the Bohemian movement of the turn of the 20th century – I love the combination of aesthetic and fable and new ways of playing with design and views of the body. You’ve probably seen the work of Alfons Mucha, who is literally the poster child of this movement and made a big splash in Paris at the time (although he was actually Czech). And you’ve probably also seen one or two paintings by Gustav Klimt, who I think of as the leader of the pack. But for me, the standouts are Egon Schiele and Koloman Moser. I’ve written about Schiele before – his work is best described as a combination of erotic and grotesque, but I think it’s also very intimate, human, and focused on aesthetic. Moser, on the other hand, usually flies under the radar – he designed a lot of block print posters that have a similar shape to the work Mucha did, but often paired down and more stark.
Klimt, Schiele, and Moser were all based in Vienna and really represented a changing ideology of the Central/Eastern European art scene at the turn of the century. If you are in New York, I highly recommend checking out the Neue Galerie, which is probably the best collection of their work anywhere, plus it has both an amazing bookstore and pitch-perfect Viennese café. The first stop I made in Vienna was totally unintentional – I saw an Art Nouveau building and just walked toward it. It turned out to be the Secession museum, a permanent gallery for modern art in the vein of the Secession movement that was founded by the Art Nouveau artists of Vienna. Around that same neighborhood there’s also a ton of other art galleries, as well as the major museums, so you can really soak up Viennese art history if you’re so inclined. I have mixed feelings about modern art, especially the kind that’s supposed to “challenge the viewer”, but I think the Secession museum is worth visiting for its permanent exhibit alone. The permanent display is a holdover from the original Secession exhibition mounted at the turn of the century – a huge painted frieze by Klimt that presents different visions of humanity. I can’t say I agree with the interpretation written in the museum’s pamphlet (although maybe those are Klimt’s own descriptions?), but I think there are some really interesting perspectives on the female body. There is one figure that I am pretty sure is a pregnant woman, but the curators are convinced is a representation of gluttony – who’s to say? (I am – I’m right)
I also used my time in Vienna to stop by the Jewish Museum, which is actually two museums about a 10 minute walk apart. For Ashkenazi Jews, Vienna is a historical pilgrimage, the capital of that region in its heyday. Like other excellent Jewish museums (like the one in New York), it displays a mix of oral histories of the Jewish experience in the 20th century and features on Jewish artists. There are two aspects of Vienna’s museum that I think are special and particularly noteworthy: 1) the museum doesn’t try to tell the story of the Holocaust – it tells the rest of Jewish history, assuming that you already know about the Holocaust; and 2) it focuses its story on Vienna itself, both in the distant past and recent years. It engages with the role Vienna played in persecution, including being a distribution point for European Jews being cartedoff to concentration camps, as well as the reality that Vienna was home to many thousands of Jews both before and after the war. It displays this ambivalence on the wall.
As for the distant past, the museum offers something I’ve never seen – medieval Jewish archaeology. In a way, I found this more personally impactful than the post-war exhibit, because as a medieval historian who engages with archaeology, I have always felt my Jewish identity was pretty separate from my work. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve done any work on medieval Jewish culture, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that there just isn’t much available material on Jews in medieval Europe. The museum doesn’t have a lot in comparison to most archaeological museums in Europe. But it does have the entire foundation of the medieval synagogue, which felt pretty incredible to stand in. Depressing – it’s presented like a tomb – but incredible. There are also some small objects that were pulled out of the backfill at the excavation site, so they have no reliable date. And then, surprise of all surprises, out of the eight surviving documents from the medieval Jewish community in Vienna, one is a treatise on urinalysis. It just reinforced for me how much I need to be paying attention to the story beyond the monastic sphere.
As for what I was actually in Vienna to see: I took a trip to the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Imperial Treasury to see some objects from Norman Sicily. How did they end up in Vienna? That’s European history for you! One of the Norman princesses married the Holy Roman Emperor, making her son, Frederick II, king of both HRE and Sicily. Frederick took some of the fancier royal Sicilian effects and brought them back to Vienna, including some cut rock crystal, some ivory boxes, and a whole bunch of silks. The biggest thing I was there to see was the mantle made for Roger II, a huge silk cloak embroidered in gold and set with pearls and enamels that the emperors used for coronations for a few generations. It was really incredible to see it up close – there’s amazing detail to the weave itself that I’d never been able to see before. As my project has developed, I’ve come back around to this object, which I researched extensively for years. It’s not getting its own chapter (even though it has many articles and books by famous scholars already), but I am writing more about the silk industry in Sicily, and this is an important part of that story.
Also, true to form, I came away from this trip with a spice souvenir, although not a medieval one. I got some whole paprika flakes at an open-air market. Paprika is my favorite spice and I think it belongs in just about every savory dish – this is what happens when you are extremely Ashkenazi. Even though it is a huge part of Eastern European cooking, it has only been available in Europe since the 16th century and was not popular in Eastern Europe until the 19th century. That’s because it’s a dried preparation of peppers, which are an American crop. And I’ll say this as often as I can – prior to the 16th century, the following goods did not exist anywhere outside of North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean: peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chocolate, and tobacco. They were brought to Europe as part of the Columbian exchange (which I kind of have a feeling is going to be renamed one of these days), which similarly introduced a number of things to the Americas, most notably apples, horses, and diseases such as smallpox (and arguably syphilis, although there’s a lot of debate about which way that one went).
Now to write!