One of the finest accounts of early 18th century Vienna is that of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), the wife of the British Ambassador to Constantinople, Edward Wortley Montagu. Her writings are best known for her accounts of their arrival in Turkey: “The very first example of a secular work by a woman from the Muslim East”. However, Lady Montagu’s letters also include detailed accounts of her three-month stay in Vienna from September to November 1716 and her experience of the city, society, her court and diplomatic life. In a letter to her friend the Countess of Mar, she recounts her arrival and her first impressions of Vienna:
We traveled by water from Ratisborn [Regensburg], a perfectly agreeable journey, down the Danube, in one of those little vessels, which are very properly called wooden houses, having in them almost all the conveniences of a palace, stoves in the rooms, kitchens, &c. They are rowed by twelve men each, and move with such incredible rapidity, that in the same day you have the pleasure of a great variety of perspectives; and in the space of a few hours one has the other diversion of seeing a populous city adorned with magnificent palaces, and the most romantic solitudes, which seem remote from the commerce of men, the banks of the Danube being deliciously diversified with woods, rocks , mountains covered with vines, fields of corn, large cities and ruins of ancient castles. I saw the big cities of Passau and Lintz [sic]famous for the retreat of the imperial court during the siege of Vienna.
This city, which has the honor of being the Emperor’s residence, did not correspond at all to my ideas, being much less than I had expected to find it; the streets are very close, and so narrow, that one cannot observe the beautiful facades of the palaces, although many of them are very well worth observing, being truly magnificent, all built in beautiful white stone, and excessively high, the town being so few for the number of people who wish to inhabit it, the builders seem to have planned to repair this misfortune, by slamming one on top of the other, most of the houses being of five, and some of six floors. You can easily imagine that the streets being so narrow, the upper chambers are extremely dark; and what is much more inconveniently intolerable, in my opinion, there is no house which numbers so few as five or six families.
Lady Montagu also describes the living conditions inside the houses:
The apartments of the greatest ladies, and even of ministers of state, are only separated by a partition from that of a tailor or a shoemaker: and I know no one who has more than two stories in a house, a for his own use, and one more for their servants. Those who have houses of their own, let others to whoever wants to take them; thus the grand staircases (which are all stone) are as common and as dirty as the street. It’s true, when you’ve walked through them once, nothing is more amazingly beautiful than the apartments. These are usually a suite of eight or ten large rooms, all inlaid, the doors and windows richly carved and gilded, and the furnishings such as are rarely seen in the palaces of sovereign princes of other countries – the most beautiful Brussels tapestry, large prodigious mirrors in silver mounts, beautiful Japanese tables, beds, chairs, canopies and window curtains of the richest Genoese damask or velvet almost covered with lace or gold embroidery. The whole made cheerful by images, and vast porcelain pots from Japan, and in almost every room large rock-crystal chandeliers.
…I have never seen a place so perfectly delightful as the Faubourgs [suburbs] from Vienna. It is very vast and almost entirely composed of delicious palates; and if the Emperor saw fit to allow the gates of the city to be opened to join the suburbs, he would have one of the largest and best built cities in Europe.
It didn’t take long for Lady Montagu to be invited to the finest homes, including those of Johann Adam Prince Liechtenstein, Count Schönbrunn, “the Emperor’s favourite” Gundacker Ludwig Count Althann and the salon of Madame Dorothea Elisabeth Rabutin “I have already had the honor of being invited to dinner by several of the first people of quality; and I must do them justice to say, the good taste and the magnificence of their tables… I have been amused more than once with fifty dishes of meat, all served in silver, and well garnished; the proportioned dessert, served in the finest porcelain. But the variety and richness of their wines is what seems most surprising. The consistent way is to put a list of their names on the guests’ plates, along with the napkins; and I have counted several times to the number of eighteen different sorts, all exquisite in genre.
Lady Montagu’s lively descriptions of her time in Vienna and Constantinople are considered inspirational for later travel writers, especially women writers.
Lady Montagu toured the opera and theatre, including a lavish open-air opera performance of Enchantments of Alcine (“Angelica Vincitrice di Alcina”) by Johann Joseph Fux, the most important Austrian Baroque composer of the time. The performance took place in the grounds of the then imperial summer residence, the Favorita Palace, and according to Lady Montagu cost the Emperor 18 million in today’s money, but “nothing of this kind has never been more magnificent”. The huge stage set was built over a pond, so the performance could include a naval combat of “guilded [sic] ships.” The event was clearly the place for high society and was also attended by papal nuncio Monsignor Spinola, French ambassador Comte de Luca and Venetian ambassador Cavaliere Grimani.
“If their operas are so delicious, their comedies are in the highest degree ridiculous. They only have a theater, where I had the curiosity to go and see a German comedy,” reports Lady Montagu, after having paid a gold ducat for a box at the Kärntnertortheater: “I never so laughed at my life. The theatre, which stood right next to the city walls and its Carinthian Gate (Kärtnertor), was demolished in 1873 along with many other sites next to the old walls. It stood where the famous Hotel Sacher stands today at the back of the State Opera.
One of the joys of Lady Montagu’s letters is the color and detail of her narratives. This is particularly the case when she writes of her first visit to court:
For this ceremony I was fastened in a robe, and adorned with a gorget and the other accessories which belonged to her: a very inconvenient robe, but which certainly shows the neck and form with great advantage. I cannot abstain here from giving you a description of the fashions here, which are more monstrous and contrary to all common sense and to all reason, than it is possible for you to imagine.
They build on their heads certain gauze fabrics about a meter high, consisting of three or four floors, fortified with countless meters of thick ribbons… it certainly takes as much art and experience to carry the load standing as to dance on May 1st. with the garland. Their whalebone petticoats exceed ours by several meters in circumference and cover a few acres of ground.
Lady Montagu’s court visit was for an audience with Empress Elisabeth Christine, the wife of Emperor Charles VI. She was renowned for her delicate beauty and as the mother of the future Empress Maria Theresa. Accomplished in music, discretion, modesty and diligence, she was well regarded to fulfill her representational role as Empress, both in the protocols of the Spanish court of hunt and ball and amateur theatre, as well as to observe the days of religious devotion of Pietas Austriaca (Austrian Piety). She was an excellent marksman, attending shooting matches and participating in the hunt, and she and her ladies-in-waiting dressed in riding-saddle attire and also played billiards.
Lady Montagu recounts how “fine passions are managed in this country” when a young earl offers her to engage in “a little affair of the heart”.
Lady Montagu was “perfectly charmed by the Empress: I cannot, however, tell you that her features are regular; his eyes are not very big, but have a lively look, full of sweetness; her most beautiful complexion I have ever seen. The Empress “had the kindness to talk to me a great deal, with that grace which is so natural to her… Her Imperial Majesty has done me the honor of speaking to me in a very obliging manner; but he never speaks to any of the other ladies; and everything happens with a seriousness and an air of ceremony which has something very formal about it.
The time was passed playing cards (Quinze) and target shooting: “The Empress herself was seated on a small throne at the end of a beautiful path in the garden, and on either side of her were ranged two groups of her ladies-in-waiting with others of the damsels of quality, led by the two archduchesses, all wearing their jeweled hair, beautiful light guns in their hands; and at suitable distances were placed three oval pictures, which were the targets to be fired at…all the men of quality in Vienna were spectators; but only ladies were allowed to shoot. Given that contestants mocked Lady Montagu for being afraid to handle a gun, it seems unlikely that she won the precious first prize of a fine ruby ring set with diamonds in a snuff box. gold.
Lady Montagu did not shy away from having her most salacious experiences in high society: “…having a lover is so far from a loss as it is a good reputation; ladies being much more respected as regards the rank of their lovers, than that of their husbands… It is the established custom for every lady to have two husbands, one who bears the name, and the other who carry the homework. And these engagements are so well known that it would be a real affront, and publicly felt, if you invited a woman of quality to dinner, without inviting at the same time her two servants of lover and husband, between whom she sits in large pump. with great gravity. Lady Montagu recounts how “beautiful passions are managed in this country” when a young earl proposes to her to engage in “a little affair of the heart”: “Do me the honor of letting me know who you prefer among us , and I undertake to handle the matter entirely to your satisfaction.
Lady Montagu’s lively descriptions of her time in Vienna and Constantinople are considered inspirational to later travel writers, especially female writers, following her assertion that female travelers could gain an intimate insight into foreign life not available to their male counterparts. She also returned at the end of the diplomatic posting with an understanding of the Ottoman medical practice of smallpox inoculation, which she introduced into Western medicine.
Extract of Crossroads of Civilizations: A History of Vienna by Angus Robertson. Copyright © 2022. Available from Pegasus Books.