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European Diary : Austria

December 23, 2010

Out of Vienna and down the Danube into the Wachau and the wine town of Durnstein, commemorated in Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a battle scene in the 1805 war with Napoleon, the outcome reported by Prince Andrey to the Emperor. A ruined castle above us and the family schloss which replaced it in the town, terraced vineyards on the slopes. Then to Krems on the confluence of the Krems and Danube, an extensive town with so much intact of its churches and streetscapes it gives an intoxicating illusion of time travel. Face the Steiner Tor, the medieval gate, from the outside and instead of entering the shopping district turn and go in the opposite direction to residential streets straight from the baroque with some Renaissance facades thrown in, a petite rival to Prague in its perfection. It has, it seemed to us, countless churches, one converted to be a stark war memorial to the dead of both world wars and to the victims of Stalingrad from lower Austria. To the victims of Stalingrad on the invader’s side.

I could have lingered in the little squares looking at the facades, strolling the medieval street pattern. This is a discovery. Mark it well.

A domineering four squared Benedictine abbey, Stift Gottweig, looks down from the heights and even with the dark and the cold closing in we drive up. Appropriated by the Nazis and used as a barracks by the Russians, it is open to the public in the spirit of one of St Benedict’s rules: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ for He is going to say, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’ ”

In terms of architecture and design it is less overwhelming than nearby Melk with it’s spectacular library, banquet hall and chapel. Melk would be the superior experience.

Austria’s Catholic landscape, I reflect, with its great wealthy baroque monasteries lavishly decorated, all within a day’s journey of each other…it confirms the reality of Holy Roman Empire which is what the Habsburgs called themselves until 1806.

Vienna offers an exhibition at the Albertina of Michaelangelo’s drawings, made for his big commissions… from the competition with Leonardo for portrayal of the Battle of Cascina in the Palazzo Vecchio made in the 1490s ( the decoration has vanished and we are left with these drawings ) to the grandiose tomb planned for Pope Julius ( completed on a modest scale ) and the Last Judgement and the earlier Sistine Chapel ceiling. One’s surprised so many of these – executed with ink and red and black chalk – could possibly have survived . As for the Sistine, I’m intrigued by the artist’s absolute insistence on only Old Testament figures for the ceiling, a celebration of Jewish history and mythology with Greek sibyls thrown in, not a solitary Christian figure on view. Never thought of this ? Check it for yourself. And this in the heart of the Vatican. Michaelangelo was one of the great pro-Semites of history, full of a love of the Jewish prophets and their stories, and something in the neo-Platonism of his Florence – the philosophy circulating around the Medici court – has to explain it.

To the opera and the happy news : the Vienna Staatsoper offers English subtitles on the back of every seat . More to follow…

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