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Schönbrunn Fassade 19. Jahrhundert (c) SKB

From the hunting lodge into a summer residence

An overview of the fascinating architectural history of Schönbrunn Palace, the beginnings of which go back to the Middle Ages.
You can also find out about the origins of the famous ‘Schönbrunn Yellow‘ paint!

The early history of Schönbrunn

The history of Schönbrunn and the buildings that previously stood on this site dates back to the fourteenth century. In 1569 the Katterburg estate came into Habsburg possession through Maximilian II. According to legend, Emperor Matthias discovered a spring that gave the estate the name it still bears today.

The early history of Schönbrunn

The history of Schönbrunn and the buildings that previously stood on this site dates back to the Middle Ages. From the beginning of the fourteenth century, the estate as a whole bore the name of Katterburg and belonged to the manor of the abbey at Klosterneuburg. The estate boasted a corn-mill together with an arable farm and vineyards. Over the following centuries numerous lessees are documented, including a reference in 1548 to one Hermann Bayer, mayor of Vienna, who extended the property, transforming it into a substantial country estate.

In 1569 the estate came into Habsburg possession through Maximilian II, and according to the title deeds included a house, a watermill and stabling as well as a pleasure garden and an orchard. Maximilian was primarily interested in extending the game park, which was principally intended for the breeding of native game and fowl. However, the pheasantry also contained exotic fowl such as peacocks and turkeys.

Following the sudden death of Maximilian II in 1576 the Katterburg passed to Rudolph II, who did little except sanction the necessary funds for its upkeep. Emperor Matthias used the estate for hunting, and according to a legend is supposed to have come across the Schöner Brunnen (meaning ‘fair spring’), which eventually gave the estate its name, while out hunting in 1612.

His successor, Emperor Ferdinand II, and his wife, Eleonora von Gonzaga, both passionately keen on hunting, chose Schönbrunn as the venue for their hunting parties. After Ferdinand’s death in 1637 the estate became the dower residence of his art-loving widow, who needed the appropriate architectural setting for her busy social life. She therefore had a château de plaisance built around 1642, which was accompanied by the renaming of the Katterburg as Schönbrunn, a change of name first documented in the same year.

In 1683 the château de plaisance and its deer park fell victim to the depredations of Turkish troops during the siege of Vienna. From 1686 the estate was in the possession of Emperor Leopold I, who decided that he would make the estate over to his son and heir, Joseph, and have a splendid new residence built for him. Soon afterwards the Rome-trained architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach arrived at court on the recommendation of aristocratic patrons. In 1688 he presented the emperor with a preliminary set of designs for a new palace, the so-called Schönbrunn I Project, with which he sought to display his architectural abilities and gain the emperor’s interest. Fischer was promptly engaged as tutor for architecture to the heir to the throne in 1689 and subsequently enjoyed a brilliantly successful career as architect to the court and nobility.

Architectural history: 17th & early 18th century

Schönbrunn was not spared the depredations of Turkish forces during the siege of Vienna in 1683. Subsequently a hunting lodge designed by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach was built on the site of the manor house but was uncompleted when Joseph I died suddenly in 1711. It was then used by the emperor’s wife, Wilhelmine Amalia, as her dower residence.

Architectural history: 17th & early 18th century

In 1693 Leopold I commissioned concrete plans from Fischer for the construction of a grand hunting lodge, on which work started in 1696. The new edifice was partly built on the existing foundations of the château de plaisance occupied by the dowager empress that had been destroyed by the Turks. By the spring of 1700 the central section had been completed and was ready to be occupied. The construction of the lateral wings was delayed from 1701 as a consequence of the War of the Spanish Succession and the attendant financial constraints, coming to a complete halt after Joseph’s sudden death. Fischer von Erlach was responsible not only for designing the palace but also supervised the construction work. It was probably in connection with this huge and prestigious project that he was invested with the mark of nobility by Emperor Leopold, subsequently styling himself Fischer von Erlach.

Unlike Fischer’s first, more or less Utopian design which comprised extensive inclined approaches, colonnades and elaborate waterworks covering the entire area from the banks of the River Wien right up to the palace on the crest of Schönbrunn Hill, this palatial hunting lodge was sited at the foot of the hill. In keeping with Baroque architectural principles, the whole complex is arranged around a central axis.

The compact structure of the palace with a monumental

external stairway in front of the central projection was flanked by lateral wings accommodating the stabling. These buildings enclosed a cour d’honneur or parade court which terminated on the north side in an obelisk gate surmounted by an eagle with groups of statuary representing the Labours of Hercules.

The state rooms of this palatial hunting lodge lay on the side of the parade court, with Joseph I’s private suite lying on the side facing the garden in the west wing of the palace, while the east wing was used to accommodate guests. An Empress Stairway in the west wing, probably planned at a later stage, was intended to provide access to the empress’s apartments.

The unfinished palace then became the dower residence of Wilhelmine Amalie. In 1728 Emperor Charles VI acquired Schönbrunn, but used the estate only for shooting pheasants. Eventually he made a gift of it to his daughter, Maria Theresa, who is documented as having always had an especial fondness for the palace and its gardens. Maria Theresa’s reign marked the opening of a brilliant epoch in Schönbrunn’s history, with the palace becoming the centre of court and political life. Under her personal influence and the supervision of the architect Nikolaus Pacassi, Joseph I’s grand hunting lodge was rebuilt and extended into a palatial summer residence.

Architectural history: 18th century

The first phase of work on the former hunting lodge began in the winter of 1742/43 and eventually culminated in a huge rebuilding project that turned it into a stately residence which from 1745 was occupied every summer by the imperial family. Changing circumstances and constant interventions by Maria Theresa meant that the work continued into the 1760s. The final project commissioned by the empress was the redesigning of the gardens in the 1770s.

Architectural history: 18th century

The first construction phase from 1743 to 1749 was carried out in close collaboration with Nikolaus Pacassi, whose practical skills led to him taking a leading role in the project, and eventually to his appointment as court architect in 1749.

Work commenced on the imperial apartments in the East Wing with audience rooms and residential suites for Maria Theresa and Franz Stephan, which were ready for occupation by 1746. The coronation of Franz Stephan of Lorraine as Roman-German Emperor in Frankfurt in October 1745 probably provided additional impetus to appoint what had become the imperial summer residence with particular magnificence.

One year previously, in 1745, the newly-refurbished court chapel had been consecrated. In terms of its spatial structure and proportions it remained largely unaltered from Fischer von Erlach’s design. The rebuilding of the east wing included the laying out of the two inner quadrangles and the construction of the so-called Chapel Staircase which afforded access to the piano nobile and the imperial apartments in this wing. 

The following phase in 1746 included the removal of the central exterior flight of stairs that Fischer had built on the Parade Court front in order to create a spacious carriageway out of the ground floor of the central projection together with the Great and Small Galleries above it on the piano nobile.

During the same phase the Blue Staircase was constructed in the west wing out of the former dining room designed by Fischer von Erlach in order to provide a suitably imposing entrance to the piano nobile. The original ceiling frescoes by Sebastiano Ricci from 1702/03 were, however, retained.

The steady growth of the imperial family made new alterations in the east wing necessary by 1747, a new mezzanine floor being inserted between the piano nobile and the upper storey to serve as the apartments for the imperial children and their retinues.

The two galleries at the centre of the palace provided space for large-scale festivities, with the Small Gallery being used for lesser family celebrations. At this stage the two rooms were as yet unadorned with the rich stucco decoration and the ceiling frescoes that were later to grace them. On private occasions, the Great Gallery could also be accessed directly via the sweeping flights of the newly-constructed Parade Court Stairway. On official occasions visitors had to take the long way round from the Blue Staircase to the audience chambers of the emperor and empress in the east wing, in order to comply with court ceremonial.

Other alterations at this time included the arcades connecting the side wings – known as the ‘Cavalier Wings’ – along the Parade Court which housed the higher-ranking court servants. Adjacent to these and extending both eastwards (including the Orangery) and westwards a complex of working quarters was constructed. These were urgently needed, as Schönbrunn had now become an imperial residence, and including the imperial family and the court, more than 1,000 people had to be provided for and accommodated. At Maria Theresa’s express wish a theatre was also built in the north Parade Court wing and ceremonially opened in 1747. Among the singers and actors who trod its boards were the numerous children of the empress. She also distinguished herself here as a talented singer in her youth.

Soon after 1750 Maria Theresa again felt compelled to embark on a new phase of rebuilding, the planning and execution of which from 1753 to 1763 lay entirely in the hands of Pacassi. The imperial family was steadily growing, and the corresponding need for more room led to the insertion of a mezzanine floor in the west wing. This meant that the external symmetry of the building had been restored and that the completion of the façade could now be taken in hand. The paintings of Schönbrunn palace by Bernardo Bellotto dating from 1759/60 show the Parade Court and garden façades with their detailed articulation and rich ornamentation, marking the former exterior of the palace as an important example of the Rococo style.

The building work of this second phase from 1753 to the mid-1760s was not limited to creating more room in the upper storeys and the outbuildings of the palace but also included the decoration of the ceremonial and state rooms. The Great Gallery was given a vaulted ceiling to harmonize with the Small Gallery which had been vaulted and given a stucco marble finish in the first phase of building. The original glazed doors between the two spaces were removed to create a unified space with frescoed ceilings and magnificent stucco-work decoration, resulting in one of the most important Rococo interiors ever created. The frescoes were executed by Gregorio Guglielmi between 1755 and 1761, while the stucco decoration was created by Albert Bolla in 1761/62. Most of the rooms on the garden side of the palace were also given typical Rococo decoration displaying exuberant, playful forms known as rocaille, with mirrors and paintings set into the walls.
Especially notable are the largely private rooms on the piano nobile, which in addition to their luxurious appointment also attest to Maria Theresa’s love of East Asian art – porcelain, lacquer and silks – and for chinoiserie or European imitations of these artefacts.
Thus during the course of the refurbishing of the Great and Small Galleries the two adjoining Chinese Cabinets (1754–1759) were created, as were the Porcelain Room and the so-called Millions Room (1763–1765).

Following the sudden death of Emperor Franz Stephan in 1765, which was a devastating blow to Maria Theresa, a new phase of refurbishment and alterations ensued.

The widowed empress had her husband’s study in the East Wing of the palace appointed as a memorial room and spared no expense in fitting it out with precious Chinese lacquer panels, costly wooden panelling into which paintings by renowned artists were set, and magnificent furniture, creating a remarkable ensemble that has been preserved to this day.

Between 1769 and 1777, Maria Theresa had three suites of several rooms each on the ground floor painted with landscape murals by the Bohemian artist Johann Wenzel Bergl. She reserved for her own use a private set of rooms facing the gardens, as she found it too hot on the piano nobile during the height of summer, and because she no longer wanted to use the bedroom she had shared with her late husband. The other two apartments decorated with Bergl’s murals were assigned to two of her children – Maria Elisabeth and Maximilian Franz – who at that time were unmarried and thus still resided at court. Known as the Bergl Rooms, these apartments are notable for their largely exotic landscape murals that cover the walls and vaulted ceilings and represent unique examples of illusionistic painting.

The last project initiated by the empress during the 1770s was the designing and laying out of the gardens under the supervision of court architect Johann Ferdinand Hetzendorf von Hohenberg, who constructed architectural features in the park such as the Gloriette, the Neptune Fountain, the Roman Ruin and the Obelisk Fountain. In addition the avenues, fountains and open spaces were enhanced with statues and sculptures in the antique style executed by Wilhelm Beyer and his studio. The remodelling of the palace and gardens was not finally completed until just before Maria Theresa’s death in 1780.

As Maria Theresa had already feared in a letter to her daughter Marie Antoinette, her son, Emperor Joseph II, showed little interest in the summer palace at Schönbrunn, merely giving instructions that ‘everything in Schönbrunn should be left in its present state.’ He commissioned the necessary maintenance work, including replacing the flat roofs of  the Cavalier Wings on either side of the Parade Court with hipped roofs in order to prevent damage from the elements.

Architectural history: 19th century

Following the death of Maria Theresa in 1780 the palace at Schönbrunn was not used again until the reign of Emperor Franz II (I) in the early nineteenth century. When preparations for the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15 were being made it became clear that Schönbrunn urgently needed renovating and refurbishing to bring it up to date. The renovation of the façade concluded the work and under the supervision of court architect Johann Aman the palace was given the characteristic appearance it still retains today.

Architectural history: 19th century

Following Maria Theresa’s death in 1780, Schönbrunn Palace remained unoccupied and its use as a summer residence was only resumed during the reign of Emperor Franz II (I). In the intervening period Schönbrunn was occupied twice, in 1805 and 1809, by Napoleon, during which the French emperor used the memorial rooms to Franz Stephan in the East Wing as his quarters. In the run-up to the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15 it had become clear that the palace at Schönbrunn urgently needed restoring and that the apartments of the imperial family would have to be refurbished in order to bring them into line with current fashions. During the course of these improvements Emperor Franz had the façade altered between 1817 and 1819 to designs by the court architect Johann Aman which considerably changed its appearance. Aman removed Pacassi’s elaborate Rococo decoration from the façade, reducing it to much plainer forms with only a small number of decorative elements, giving the palace the appearance it retains to this day.

According to recent research, the painting of the whole palatial complex in the ‘Schönbrunn Yellow’ that characterizes the palace today does not date to the period of refurbishment in the early nineteenth century as had hitherto been assumed but became the established colour scheme from the middle of the century, using two different shades of yellow and yellowish-ochre for the flat surfaces and the architectural elements respectively.

Schönbrunn Yellow
The history of ‘Schönbrunn Yellow’ is a topic of great interest both to visitors

to the palace and to architectural scholars. The results of the most recent samples taken from the rendering of the façade reveal that the former hunting lodge designed by the Baroque architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach was painted in light shades of orange and brick-red for the blank surfaces with the architectural articulation picked out in white.

During the reign of Maria Theresa the palace was initially painted in a golden ochre colour and then in the 1770s in a light ochre with the articulation picked out in white and light beige. Johann Aman, the court architect during the first half of the nineteenth century, used a monochrome grey colour in imitation of stone for the façade he had altered to conform to the Neoclassical canon.

From the middle of the nineteenth century the shade known as Schönbrunn Yellow began to prevail, possibly as a deliberate reference to the era of Maria Theresa.

In 1830 Franz Joseph was born in the east wing of the palace, in the apartments occupied by his parents, Franz Karl and Sophie. Schooled by his mother from infancy for his future role as emperor, Franz Joseph spent the summers of his childhood and youth at Schönbrunn. When he succeeded to the throne in 1848 the palace was once again to experience a brilliant epoch as he chose Schönbrunn as his favourite residence and was to spend the major part of his life there. At the beginning of his reign Franz Joseph moved into apartments in the west wing facing the Parade Court which he was to continue to occupy until his death on 21st November 1916.

His apartments were a suite of communicating rooms comprising an audience chamber, a study and a bedroom. In the audience chamber the precious walnut panelling dating from Maria Theresa’s reign was retained and Franz Joseph continued to use the furniture made for his predecessor and uncle, Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria. The emperor’s private rooms were redecorated and refurnished during the 1860s.

In preparation for his impending marriage to Elisabeth, Duchess in Bavaria, in 1854, work began on adapting apartments for the future empress in the West Wing facing the Hietzing privy garden. Elisabeth’s apartments also consisted of several rooms centred on the empress’s salon in which she received her personal visitors. The adjacent rooms to the north such as the marital bedroom, the dressing room and the Staircase Cabinet served Elisabeth as private rooms and were furnished with heavy rosewood furniture. The so-called Staircase Cabinet was her study. In 1863 a spiral staircase was built into this room giving direct access to the rooms below on the ground floor. It was removed after the fall of the monarchy.

The rooms lying below her apartments were refurbished as her private rooms, becoming a ‘garden apartment’ to which she could retreat, rather like the apartments she later had at Gödöllő. These rooms consisted of a large salon and most probably the obligatory exercise room. The walls were hung with silk and the furniture upholstered in her favourite shade of lilac. The apartments of the children of

Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were also on the ground floor.

Adjoining the empress’s apartments were the rooms of her eldest daughter Gisela, located at the western end of the south side of the palace, while in 1867 Crown Prince Rudolf was given his own suite of rooms known as the Crown Prince Apartments, which were located beside the Privy Garden on the Meidling side of the palace. This suite included the White-and-Gold Rooms on the south side of the palace which are today used as function rooms. In all these apartments on the ground floor the ceiling stucco decoration from the time of Maria Theresa together with the white and gold-painted wooden panelling and the landscape paintings executed on canvas were largely preserved.

From 1869 to 1880, following the deaths of Franz Joseph’s parents, Archduke Franz Karl and Archduchess Sophie, and in preparation for the impending World’s Fair to be held in Vienna in 1873, work was undertaken on the eighteenth-century Rococo interiors, which were either restored or complemented with Rococo Revival features as an expression of Austrian imperial style. This restoration work affected the two galleries and the rooms in the East Wing, which were to be used for official state functions during the congress and as suites for high-ranking visitors respectively. The walls of these guest rooms were hung either with tapestries from the imperial collection or refurbished with new red silk ‘pineapple damask’ wall-hangings.

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