Natural History Museum of Vienna, the building (text after SCHOLLER, 1958)

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Built according to plans by Karl von Hasenauer. Start of construction: 1871, officially opened on 10 August 1889 by Emperor Franz Joseph I.

The monumental edifice constructed in the Renaissance style is some 169 metres long and 70 metres wide at the largest middle section. The building surrounds two rectangular courtyards approximately 50 metres long and 25 metres wide. The total area occupied by the building is approximately 8 720 m2. Since the area of Maria Theresien-Platz between the Ring and Messeplatz is on an incline, the height of the building on the side of the Ring (approx. 27 m) is some 2 m higher than at the other end. It is divided into 4 stories: ground floor and mezzanine as well as a first and second storey. The projecture of the middle section of the building extends through an attica to a height of almost 32 m, forming a rectangular plateau. At this juncture there arises an enormous 8-sided cupola of approximately 33 m in height, bringing the total height of the middle section of the building to more than 64 m. The lantern of the cupola bears a 5 m high bronze statue of the sun God Helios as a symbol of the life-giving element (Johan Benk). Four tabernacles, which connect the 8-sided base of the cupola with the corners of the rectangular attica, contain seated statues of Hephaistos, Gaa, Poseidon and Urania (Johan Silbernagel), symbolising the four elements of antiquity. The spandrels above the large cupola windows are decorated by victory statues ("victoriae") by H. Haerdtl; others by K. Kundmann flank the fašade of the attica on the Maria Theresien-Platz side which bears the motto: "To the kingdom of Nature and its exploration - Kaiser Franz Joseph I. MDCCCLXXXI".

The entrance to the building consists of three high portals in the central projecture. Limestone from Zogelsdorf was primarily used to plaster the building up to the level of the first floor although several other similar materials from various quarries in Lower Austria were also utilised. The columns flanking both sides of the great first-floor windows are made from white limestone from the area around Trieste; those in the projectures are made of red limestone from the same area. The elaborate fašade decoration is the work of Gottfried Semper who wanted to depict the historical development of the perception of nature through the sculptures on the walls and balustrades. Inspired by similar suggestions made by Professor Haehnel from Dresden, Semper picked up on the statement by Alexander von Humboldt claiming that the only way to treat the history of physical philosophy would be to portray it as such. This led to the gradual development of the concept of the uniformity of phenomena. It was then Semper’s idea to present this portrayal on three levels: The sculptures in the mezzanine were to symbolise the history of inventions which had led to the sharpening and refining of people’s senses; those of the upper stories were to represent the incidents which had occurred leading to broadened horizons of world perception and finally, the statues of the great men of learning and research placed on the balustrades were to capture the personal element during the course of progress. This graphic depiction of the history of the sciences was to begin at the corner of the museum at the Ring/Bellaria and run along the front parallel to the Bellaria continuing along the side facing Messeplatz, across the main front of the museum facing Maria Theresien Platz, and ending at the side facing Burgring. A detailed description is provided below. Four large groups of figures at the main corners of the central projectures symbolise the continents of the earth through the depiction of the various types of people: Europe and America with Australia situated to the left of the main entrance (both by K. Kundmann), and to the right towards the Bellaria, Asia and Africa (both by P. Wagner).

 

The interior decoration

The magnificent design of the interior of the museum beyond the three great portals reflects Hasenauer’s predilection for opulence. The vestibule is covered by a cupola which is pierced in the middle and which is on the same axis as the main cupola of the building. Its eight sections are decorated with portrait medallions by Josef Lax depicting the directors of the old Viennese Natural Specimens Collections "Naturalienkabinett"): Johann von Baillou, Andreas Xaverius StŘtz, Carl von Schreibers, Paul Partsch, Vincenz Kollar, Eduard Fenzl, Ferdinand von Hochstetter (in his capacity as commissariat Director of the Mineral Collection after the departure of Gustav Tschermak), and the famous explorer of Brazil Johann Natterer. From the vestibule on the right-hand side there is a shallow stairway leading to the exhibition halls of the mezzanine. In the centre is the main staircase to the first floor; its stairs are made of 6 m long monoliths from the marble quarries at Ratschinges in South Tyrol. Located in the place of honour on the central wall of the staircase is a large oil painting donated by Maria Theresia in 1773 which depicts her husband Emperor Franz I, Stephan von Lothringen, who was also the founder of the Natural History Collection, surrounded by the directors of his collections. The picture was painted by the best portraitist of the time, Franz Messmer, in collaboration with Jakob Kohl (after the death of Franz I). Above the staircase and opposite the painting is an insignificant red marble votive tablet which commemorates the official opening ceremony of the museum conducted by Emperor Franz Joseph I on 10 August 1889. At the level of the first floor, the walls of the staircase give over to arches supported by pillars which bear white marble portrait statues of prominent scientists on pedestals and in front of flat niches. To the left of the entrance, Aristotle and Johannes Kepler can be found (both by K. Kundmann); opposite the entrance, Isaac Newton and Karl von LinnÚ (both unsigned); to the right of the entrance, Abraham Gottlob Werner (K. Zumbusch) and Georg Cuvier (K. Kundmann); beside the entrance itself are the statues of Jakob Berzelius and Alexander von Humboldt (both by R. Weyr). The colossal ceiling painting by Hans Canon constitutes the crowning feature of the opulent staircase. It is entitled "The cycle of Life" and depicts the vision of a contemplative philosopher. The hourglass in his hand already indicates the transient nature of all worldly things symbolised by the globe behind the supine form of the old man. The final solution to the mystery of life appears to be enigmatic, as does the sphinx in the background. This calm centre is surrounded by the wild cycle of life, portrayed by figures straining upwards in their quest for life, wealth, fame and power, only to ultimately fail and fall into the depths of despair as a consequence of the forces of destiny. The animal kingdom is also incorporated into this apotheosis of the struggle to survive - a struggle which dominated the prevailing biological thinking of the time. If man attempts to dominate the animal kingdom by capturing the speared catfish, then he in turn will be dominated when, in the depths of despair, he is awaited by the vulture standing on the bones. The 12 lunettes situated around the great ceiling painting halfway down the cupola are by Hans Canon. They symbolise the following: To the left of the entrance - induction and philosophy, astronomy and industry; opposite the entrance - zoology, magnetism of the earth and volcanism as well as botany; to the right of the entrance - mineralogy, geology, comparative anatomy; towards the entrance - chemistry, physics and mathematics, animal and plant geography. The staircase culminates in the cupola hall on the first floor from which the various exhibition rooms can be accessed. The hall is covered by a cupola situated along the same axis as the cupola of the building. Its eight timpani each depict two figures as symbols of zoology, botany, mineralogy, geology, palaeontology, primeval history, ethnography and anthropology (V. Tilgner). The frieze within the framework of the cupola contains animal figures (Johann Benk) as do the spandrels of the great arched windows, together with small genies (R. Weyr).

 

The figures decorating the exterior of the museum

It was Gottfried Semper’s plan to portray the historical development of physical philosophy through the particular sculptural ornaments running along the faces of the museum. This was to be portrayed at three levels: The sculptures of the mezzanine were to symbolise the history of inventions. Those of the upper stories were to represent the incidents which had occurred leading to a broadening of man’s perception. The statues on the balustrades were to signify the personal aspect and merit of the progress made in acquiring knowledge as were the portrait heads above the second-floor windows, the names of which appear below the windows. Thus, the historical sequence of events is depicted at all levels running entirely around the museum.