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Vienna Museum of Fine Arts (Kunsthistorisches Museum)

Vienna Museum of Fine Arts (Kunsthistorisches Museum) (34)

Lovers of art history cannot possibly visit Vienna without seeing this museum, which is housed in one of the monumental buildings that, in the late 19th century, transformed the Ringstrasse into a magnificent architectural showcase reminiscent of past glories.  

The Kunsthistorisches Museum was one of the first fine and decorative arts museums in the world. It was inaugurated in 1891 at the same time as the Naturhistorisches Museum, by Emperor Franz Joseph I. Curiously enough the two museums have identical façades and face each other. Both buildings were erected between 1872 and 1891 according to plans drawn up by Gottfried Semper and Karl Freiherr von Hasenauer.

Both museums were commissioned by the emperor both as a means of offering a suitable home for the formidable art collection of the Habsburgs and to make the collection available to the public. In addition, the building itself stands as a tribute to the Habsburg dynasty, whose members were distinguished over the centuries for their role as collectors and patrons of the arts. 

The façade was built from sandstone. The museum has a rectangular base and is topped by a 60-metre-high dome. The dome is crowned by a colossal statue of Pallas Athena. The fabulous interior is lavishly decorated with marble, stucco ornamentation, gold leaf, coffered ceilings, paintings and sculptures... making it a work of art in itself.

Visitors will observe, for example, the fabulous trompe l'oeil over the main staircase, which was entrusted to the Hungarian painter Munkácsy. This 1890 piece is known as The Apotheosis of the Renaissance and features artists the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo and Titian... Who are depicted accompanied by their models.

The museum, which regularly offers exhibitions, divides its collection into eight distinct sub-collections.

The phenomenal Kunsthistorisches Museum complex also includes an interesting collection of antiquities from other civilizations. Greek culture is represented by, among other items, bronze articles and an extensive collection of jewellery, while examples of Roman culture include a representation of a Roman imperial villa, a beautiful mosaic of Theseus and the Minotaur and a marble sculpture of Isis. The always intriguing Egyptian culture is represented in a series of splendidly decorated rooms by magnificent columns from Aswan, sarcophagi, mummies, papyri and a bust of Pharaoh Thutmose III. 

Visitors like coins will find a true treasure chest here, as the museum houses a huge collection of 700,000 items ranging from Greek coins from the 6th century BC to banknotes from the First Austrian Republic.

Without a doubt, visitors will also appreciate the museum's painting gallery, which is located on the first floor and focusses on the period between the 15th and 17th centuries. The gallery is organised by styles and schools and highlights include the abundant works by painters of the Venetian and Flemish schools.

The importance of this institution will be underlined as you discover some of the great masterpieces housed here, such as Hunters in the Snow or and The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, or The Art of Painting by Vermeer, one of the jewels of the museum. This famous work by the Dutch painter was painted around 1665. It is painted in oil on canvas and measures 120 centimetres high and 100 centimetres wide, making it both the artist's largest work and one of his most beloved, as the painter would not part with it or sell it even when he had debts. 

The museum also houses remarkable paintings by Velázquez, Titian, Rubens, Bellini, Rembrandt and Tintoretto, whose Susanna and the Elders forms part of the collection.

As both a curiosity and a stroke of fortune, visitors can also contemplate one of the museum's most important sculptures, the Salt Cellar, by Cellini, a sumptuous work in gold and ivory showing the union of heaven and earth represented by Ceres, the goddess of earth, and Neptune, god of the sea. We mention "curiosity" and "fortune" because, on the 11th of May, 2003, the sculpture was stolen, but was recovered on the 21st of January, 2006, in a box buried in a forest near the town of Zwettl, in Austria. So far the most important art theft in the history of the country. 

If at the end of the tour your legs can endure it, you should certainly pay a visit to the museum's twin, the Naturhistorisches Museum, which features primitive art, precious stones and even dinosaurs.

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