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Kunsthistorisches Museum

The Viennese Museum of Fine Arts

In 1857 the construction of the Ringstraße, the monumental 5⅓-km-long boulevard around the Vienna city centre was ordered by Emperor Franz Joseph I, and one of the most prestigious edifices erected was the palatial Kunsthistorisches Museum, designed by architects Karl von Hasenauer & Gottfried Semper to house the imperial art collection of the Habsburgs. The museum opened in 1891 and features Egyptian & Near Eastern and Greek & Roman antiquities, a gallery of 16th- & 17th-century paintings, a collection of various art objects dating from the late Middle Ages to the 18th century, and a bunch of coins. The KHM is the largest art museum in Austria: we needed half a day to see just the picture gallery.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel (1563)

Among the many highlights of the picture gallery are Albrecht Dürer’s Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman, Raphael’s Madonna in the Meadow, Jane Seymour, Queen of England by Hans Holbein the Younger, Summer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Tower of Babel and Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and ten more of his paintings (out of a total of about forty worldwide), The Death of Cleopatra, by the man we all call Guido Cagnacci, because that is his name, and a Vermeer: The Art of Painting. As an admirer of the work of Canaletto & his nephew Bernardo Bellotto, I was pleased to find the latter’s View of Vienna from the Belvedere on display. My wife liked the museum’s impressive main staircase for its lovely (but hard to see) 19th-century lunette paintings by Hans Makart, Ernst & Gustav Klimt and Franz Matsch.

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Our youngest son

My favourite object at the KHM from the Near East is a brick relief of a striding lion, from the time of my grandfather (c. 575 BC). It is part of the Babylonian Processional Way‎, which was excavated in the early 20th century in tens of thousands of fragments and put together in the late 1920s for the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Some of its fantastic beasts, such as this one, made it to other museums. (As for the collection of Greek & Roman antiquities, I like the Gemma Augustea best.)


A later version of Bruegel’s Tower of Babel (c. 1568) is at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. The panel at the KHM is almost four times larger than the one at Boijmans, but the tower depicted in the smaller painting is in fact 250% larger in size. The tower in Vienna is built around a large rock, whereas the one in Rotterdam is freestanding. Built of bricks, the latter exudes strong, dark hues and appears much more threatening. The group of figures in the foreground on the left in Vienna, possibly King Nimrod & his retinue, is absent in Rotterdam.


The KHM owns one work by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675): The Art of Painting (c. 1667). In the background is a map of Germania Inferior (the Netherlands) by Nicolaus Piscator, i.e. Claes Jansz. Visscher (1587–1652). This map also appears in other 17th-century Dutch paintings, such as The Listening Housewife (1655) by Nicolaes Maes (1634–1693), and Buying Grapes (1669) and The Music Lesson (1671) by Jacob Lucasz. Ochtervelt (1634–1682).


Jan Vermeers Malkunst gehört zu den berühmtesten Bildern der ganzen Kunstgeschichte. Die Deutungen, wer die dargestellten Personen sind und was das Bild genau aussagen will, haben Generationen von Kunsthistorikern auf Trab gehalten. Die Fernsehserie 100 Meisterwerke geht dem Faszinosum dieses niederländischen Meisterwerks auf den Grund.


The absolute highlight of the Kunstkammer is Benvenuto Cellini’s Saliera, a gold-plated salt cellar dominated by images of Ceres & Neptune, which was stolen from the museum in 2013. In his NYT article For Stolen Saltcellar, a Cellphone is Golden, Richard Bernstein tells how the thief was apprehended three years later and the € 50-mln cruet returned to the KHM with just a few scratches.

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