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Belvedere Palace Review

One of the most splendid pieces of baroque architecture anywhere, the Belvedere Palace—actually two imposing palaces separated by a 17th-century French-style garden parterre—is one of the masterpieces of architect Lucas von Hildebrandt. Built outside the city fortifications between 1714 and 1722, the complex originally served as the summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy; much later it became the home of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 precipitated World War I. Though the lower palace is impressive in its own right, it is the much larger upper palace, used for state receptions, banquets, and balls, that is acknowledged as Hildebrandt's masterpiece. The upper palace displays a wealth of architectural invention in its facade, avoiding the main design problems common to palaces: monotony on the one hand and pomposity on the other.

Hildebrandt's decorative manner here approaches the rococo, that final style of the baroque era when traditional classical motifs all but disappeared in a whirlwind of seductive asymmetric fancy. The main interiors of the palace go even further: columns are transformed into muscle-bound giants, pilasters grow torsos, capitals sprout great piles of symbolic imperial paraphernalia, and the ceilings are aswirl with ornately molded stucco. The result is the finest rococo interior in the city. On the garden level you are greeted by the Sala Terrena, whose massive Atlas figures shoulder the marble vaults of the ceiling and, it seems, the entire palace above. The next floor is centered around a gigantic Marble Hall covered with trompe l'oeil frescoes. In the Lower Belvedere (entrance is at Rennway 6), there are more 17th-century salons, including the Grotesque Room painted by Jonas Drentwett and another Marble Hall (which really lives up to its name).

Both the upper and lower palaces of the Belvedere are museums devoted to Austrian painting. The Belvedere's main attraction is the collection of 19th- and 20th-century Austrian paintings, centering on the work of Vienna's three preeminent early-20th-century artists: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka. Klimt was the oldest, and by the time he helped found the Secession movement he had forged an idiosyncratic painting style that combined realistic and decorative elements in a way that was revolutionary. The Kiss—his greatest painting—is here on display. Schiele and Kokoschka went even further, rejecting the decorative appeal of Klimt's glittering abstract designs and producing works that ignored conventional ideas of beauty.

Updated: 06-14-2012

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