The beginnings of the park at Schönbrunn
The history of Schönbrunn and the buildings that preceded it on this site goes back to the Middle Ages. The whole estate had borne the name of ‘Katterburg’ from the beginning of the fourteenth century and belonged to the manor of the monastery at Klosterneuburg. It had a corn-mill together with an arable farm and vineyards, and over the following centuries numerous tenants of this flourishing estate are documented.
In 1569 it passed into imperial possession through Emperor Maximilian II. The Roman-German emperor was mainly interested in laying out pleasure gardens and a game preserve in order to indulge his twin passions for collecting and hunting, the latter a passion which was shared by many other members of the Habsburg dynasty. The gardens created by Maximilian were thus not only intended for the keeping of native game and fowl but also provided space for exotic birds such as peacocks and turkeys, a standard feature in princely gardens of the time.
After the enclosed gardens of the Katterburg were destroyed by Hungarian forces in 1605, the damage was provisionally repaired and the estate was subsequently only used by Emperor Matthias for hunting. According to a legend, it was on one of these hunting excursions in 1612 that Matthias discovered the ‘fair spring’ (schöner Brunnen) that was later to give the estate the name by which it would be known. Matthias’s successor, Ferdinand II and his wife Eleonora of Gonzaga, both passionately
fond of hunting, also used the park for their hunting parties. Following Ferdinand’s death in 1637 it became the empress’s dower residence and a splendid château de plaisance was built, known from then on as Schönbrunn, a name first documented in 1642.
Eleonora of Gonzaga, who had a rare understanding of art, had magnificent formal gardens laid out around the palace which became the setting for frequent court celebrations and festivities. Her niece and successor, another Eleonora of Gonzaga, widow of Emperor Ferdinand III and like her aunt a keen patron of the arts, continued to extend the gardens. In the mid-seventeenth century numerous open-air performances took place in the ‘famose parco di Scheenbrunn’, occasions on which Emperor Leopold I displayed his artistic talents as composer and actor. This glittering lifestyle came to an abrupt end when Vienna was besieged by Ottoman forces in 1683, and the palace and park at Schönbrunn were devastated.
Schönbrunn having come into his possession in 1686, Leopold I decided to give the estate to his son and successor, Joseph, and commissioned a magnificent new palace for the future emperor. Through the mediation of certain members of the nobility, the architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, who had received his training in Rome, was invited to submit designs to the imperial court. Having at first produced a set of somewhat utopian designs, von Erlach eventually came up with a practicable design for a large hunting lodge, work on which began in 1696. Four years later it was ready for occupation. However, the lodge was not finally completed before Joseph’s death in 1711 owing to financial difficulties resulting from the War of the Spanish Succession.
Plans for the gardens by Jean Trehet, a pupil of the French garden designer André Le
Nôtre, date from as early as 1695. Along the main axis of the building Trehet laid out the central parterre, accentuated by a pool at the intersections of the paths and flanked by lateral boskets (formal plantings of trees and shrubs). Wide avenues articulated the early Baroque gardens, which probably also contained a maze – an almost obligatory feature for gardens of this type and age – as well as a circular orangery garden.
Following Joseph’s death in 1711, the unfinished hunting lodge became the dower residence of Empress Wilhelmine Amalie. In 1728 Emperor Charles VI took over the unfinished lodge but visited it only to shoot pheasant. He is said to have gifted it to his daughter Maria Theresa, who had allegedly always cherished an affection for the palace and its gardens.
The gardens during the reign of Maria Theresa
While Maria Theresa was responsible for the rebuilding and appointment of the palace, her consort, Emperor Franz I Stephan of Lorraine, together with the circle of Lotharingian artists he had gathered around him, applied himself to the designing of the gardens
The park was extended and articulated by a new, stelliform system of avenues with intersecting walks and vistas, as well as two main diagonal avenues which meet at the dominant central axis of the palace. Schönbrunn’s Baroque gardens were intended to be an impressive symbol of imperial power, and were seen as an external continuation of the magnificent interiors of the palace.
The largest area in front of the south-facing façade of the palace, documented in the painting by Bernardo Bellotto executed around 1760, was occupied by the Great Parterre with its strictly symmetrical beds. These were constructed of boxwood hedges on coloured gravel arranged in intricate patterns taken mainly from embroidery motifs, a style known as parterre de broderie. Flanking each side of the parterre were ornamental boskets, consisting of formal clipped walls of trees and topiarized hedges interspersed with small enclosures.
In 1753 Emperor Franz Stephan, who had a deep interest in natural history, had the Dutch Botanical Garden laid out in the western part of the park, towards the village of Hietzing. One year previously he had established the Schönbrunn Menagerie.
While the palace and gardens were virtually completed by 1760, Schönbrunn Hill, the slope rising behind the Great Parterre, was still merely an unadorned aisle cutting through the surrounding woods. Elaborate plans for this area were drawn up by the court architect Johann Ferdinand Hetzendorf von Hohenberg, but Maria Theresa, who had been widowed in 1765, regretfully decided in favour of a simplified solution, with the Neptune Fountain at the foot of the slope and the Gloriette crowning the top of the hill. The hill itself was to be accessed by simple paths zig-zagging up the slope, instead of the elaborate terracing foreseen in the original plan.
At the same time the Great Parterre was also redesigned, with statues of mythological figures executed in 1777 by Johann Wilhelm Beyer and his workshop being set up along the tall flanking hedges. It was also during this phase that numerous architectural features were erected, such as the Roman Ruin, the Obelisk Fountain, the Fair Spring and the Small Gloriette, projects that were completed in 1780, the last year of Maria Theresa’s life. One year previously the park – with the exception of the Privy Gardens – had been opened to the public.
The gardens and park at Schönbrunn during the 19th century
In the nineteenth century the gardens on the western side were landscaped in the English style in keeping with the current fashions in horticultural design.
In order to accommodate the imperial family’s extensive botanical collections, the Dutch Botanical Garden with its hothouses established by Franz Stephan in 1753 was expanded with a further hothouse sited near the present-day Botanic Garden. Franz Stephan’s Dutch Botanical Garden was later cleared when the monumental glass construction of the Great Palm House was erected from 1880 to 1882. The gardens surrounding it were also landscaped at the same time. Not far away, erected in 1904 as the last building to be commissioned by the imperial family, is the Sundial House, which was originally intended to house the so-called New Holland Collection and which today – renamed as the Desert House – contains various examples from the valuable collection of succulents.en.