Castle of the Week 82 – Schönbrunn

From its modest beginnings as a mill on a monastic estate, to being sacked twice by the Turks, and years spent as a hunting lodge, Schönbrunn became a palace to rival Versailles. Located on the west side of Vienna, Schönbrunn’s story is one of destruction and rebirth, neglect and devotion.

The “Versailles of Vienna” dates back to the early part of the 14th century, when the earliest mention is of Kattermühle, or Katter-mill, at an estate named the Katterburg which was itself part of the monastery at Klosterneuburg. The Kattermühle was destroyed by the Turks in the Siege of Vienna in 1529. The property then passed through several hands, including the mayor of Vienna who, in 1548, extended the existing rebuilt buildings into a manorial estate or,a two-story hunting lodge with a garden and ponds.

In 1569 Maximilian II of the Habsburg dynasty purchased the Katterburg for the use of its hunting grounds. At the time it encompassed 1250 acres and included a house, watermill, stabling, garden and orchard. The Katterburg was rarely used by Maximilian II or his successors, Rudolf II and Matthias II. Matthias II, however, is credited with finding a spring fountain on a hunting expedition in 1612 and naming it “Schöner Brunnen” or, Beautiful Fount, which years later became the name for the entire estate.

Matthias II’s successor Ferdinand II died in 1637, leaving Katterburg to his widow, Eleonora von Gonzaga. In 1642 she built a three storied “Lusthaus” or Pleasure House attached to the existing mansion, and officially renamed the estate Schönbrunn.

When the Turks besieged Vienna a second time in 1683, the mansion was again destroyed. In 1686 the property came into the possession of Emperor Leopold I, who wanted to turn it into a grand hunting lodge. In 1692 he commissioned Fischer von Erlach to build a summer palace worthy of his son Joseph. The first plans submitted by von Erlach (which would have put the palace on the hill where the Gloriette currently stands)
were rejected as being too grand and expensive, even though the intention was to rival Versailles. The second plan, which set the new palace on the foundations of the demolished older lodge, was accepted. Construction began in 1696. Jean Trehet was commissioned with turning the hunting grounds into a planned garden estate that would rival the best in France. Among the plants imported during this stage were 20,000 beech trees.

The central section of the palace was complete by 1700, but the wings were delayed by the War of the Spanish Succession which lasted from 1701 to 1714. Emperor Joseph I enjoyed spending time at Schönbrunn, but his successor, Charles VI, neglected it (using it only as a place to shoot pheasants) and it remained unfinished.

Picture courtesy of Knave of Spades

It wasn’t until 1740, when Charles VI’s daughter Maria Theresa came to power, that Schönbrunn came to the forefront of court and political life. She embarked on a large-scale reconstruction from 1744-1749, employing Nikolaus Pacassi. Maria Theresa devoted her attentions to the inside of the palace, while her husband Franz Stephan, who had a personal interest in horticulture, concentrated on the grounds. More land was acquired for the gardens and a menagerie. The Chamber Gardens were redesigned, and star-shaped avenues were added. At one time there were 2000 people working on it, including servants, gardeners, craftsmen, and advisors, converting the unfinished grand hunting lodge into a palatial estate.

The Gloriette, the Neptune Fountain, the Obelisk, and the Roman Ruins were added from 1772 to 1780 by Ferdinand von Hohenberg. In 1779 the Schönbrunn Palace Park was opened to the public, one year before Maria Theresa’s death. The palace and gardens were complete. Following her death Schönbrunn went back to being used as a summer residence, except for twice when it was occupied by Napoleon, in 1805 and 1809.

During the next century expeditions around the world brought back foreign plants and animals, and the collections at Schönbrunn grew. The grounds kept pace, with the addition of the Palm House and the Sundial House. Some of the gardens were altered to reflect changes in popular style, such as the Dutch and Botanical Gardens, which were changed from geometrically structured gardens to English landscape gardens. On April 3rd, 1919 as Austria became a republic, the ownership of Schönbrunn was transferred to the state, finally leaving the possession of the Habsburgs. During World War II the palace sustained some damage, but the interior remained intact.

Today Schönbrunn Palace and Park covers 185 hectares. It’s one of the finest examples of the baroque French garden style, and in 1996 was added to UNESCO’s “Cultural World Heritage” list. It’s a popular destination of the Viennese as well as foreign visitors, and is visited annually by 7 million people.

Write-up & pictures provided by Kester except where stated.