Vienna in the Eighteenth Century through the Eyes of a Traveling Woman ‘Literary Axis’

One of the finest accounts of early eighteenth century Vienna is by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), the wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople, Edward Wortley Montagu. Her writings are best known for her novels when they arrived in Turkey: “The 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 layover in Vienna from September to November 1716 and her experiences in the city, community, court, and diplomatic life. In a letter to her friend Countess Marr, she wrote of her arrival and first impressions of Vienna:

We traveled by water from Ratisburn [Regensburg], quite a pleasant journey, down the Danube, in one of those little ships, which they correctly call wooden houses, having almost all the amenities of a palace, stoves in the rooms, kitchens, etc. every man, and moves at an incredible speed, so that on the same day you enjoy a great variety of possibilities; And in a few hours of time, one can turn to a different destination to see a densely populated city adorned with splendid palaces, and the most romantic solitude, which seems far from human trade, where the banks of the Danube are enchantingly varied with timbers, rocks, mountains covered with vineyards, cornfields and towns Large and ruins of ancient castles. I saw the great cities of Passau and Linz [sic]famous for the decline of the imperial court when Vienna was besieged.

This city, which I had the honor of being the emperor’s residence, did not answer at all to my thoughts of it, being much less than I had expected to find; The streets are so close, so narrow, and one cannot notice the beautiful fronts of the palaces, though many are well worth seeing, they are really splendid, all built of fine white stone, so high, and the city so much. Little for the number of people who would like to live in it, the builders seem to have expected to fix this ordeal, by clapping two on top of the other, most houses of five, and some of six. You might easily imagine, that the streets are very narrow, and the lofts very dark; And what is more inconvenience and improbable, in my opinion, there is no house with as few as five or six families.

Ms. Montagu also describes the living conditions inside the homes:

The apartments of great ladies, and even of ministers of state, are divided but by separation from those of the tailor or shoemaker: and I know no one who has two floors upon two floors in any house, one for his own use, and one higher for their slaves. Those who have houses of their own, let them give out the rest to whomever will take them; So big stairs (all stone) are as common and dirty as the street. That’s right, when you travel through it once, nothing could be more amazing than apartments. They are usually a group of eight or ten large rooms, all inlaid, the doors and windows richly carved and gilded, the furniture such as seldom seen in the palaces of sovereign princes in other countries – hanging the finest rugs from Brussels, great-looking large glasses with silver frames, Japanese tables Exquisite, beds, chairs, canopies, window curtains of the richest Genoa damask or velvet almost covered with gold lace or embroidery. Everyone is goofy with pictures, huge jars from Japan and China, and in almost every room a great luster of rock crystal

…I have never seen a place so cheerful as Fauxbourgs [suburbs] Vienna. It is very large and consists almost entirely of delicious kosour. And if the emperor finds it expedient to allow the gates of the city to be opened, then Foxburg may be annexed to it, he will have one of the largest and best built cities of Europe.

It did not take long for Mrs. Montagu to be invited into the finest homes, including the homes of Johann Adam Prince of Liechtenstein, Count Schönbrunn, the “favourite of the Emperor” Gundaker Ludwig Count of Altan and the salon of Mrs. Dorothea Elizabeth Rabotin: the honor of being invited to dinner by many of the early quality persons; And I must do them justice to say, the good taste and the splendor of their tables… I have more than once enjoyed fifty dishes of meat, all presented in silver and well prepared; Proportional candy, served in the finest china. But the diversity and richness of their wines is the most surprising. A continuous method is to put a list of their names on the guests’ plates with napkins; And I’ve been back several times to eighteen different species, and they’re all pretty cool in genres.”
Vivid descriptions of Lady Montagu of her time in Vienna and Constantinople are credited as an inspiration for later travel writers, especially female writers.

Mrs. Montagu visited both opera and theater, including a lavish open-air opera show for Charm From alkene (“Angelica Vincitrice di Alcina”) by Johann Joseph Fux, the most important Austrian Baroque composer of the era. The show was held in the grounds of the imperial summer residence at the time, the Palazzo Favorita, and according to Mrs. Montagu cost the Emperor €18 million in today’s money, but “nothing of this kind was ever more splendid”. The huge stage was built over a pond, so the performance could include a sea battle of the ‘Guild [sic] bowls.” The event was clearly the setting for high society and was also attended by the papal nuncio, Mgr. Spinola, the French ambassador, Comte de Luca, and the Venetian ambassador, Cavalier Grimani.

“If their operas were so delightful, their comedies would be highly absurd. They only have one theater, where I was curious to go to a German comedy,” says Lady Montagu, having paid a gold duchy for a chest at the Kärntnertortheatre: I’ve never laughed much in my life.” The theatre, which was located next to the city wall and the Carinthian Gate (Kärtnertor), was demolished in 1873 along with several other sites adjacent to the ancient walls. It stood where today you find the world-famous Hotel Sacher at the back of the Opera House.

One of the most interesting messages of Mrs. Montagu Lone and the details of her accounts. This is particularly the case when she writes about her first visit to the court:

For this party, I put on a dress, and she adorned me with his other piece of clothing and paraphernalia: a dress that was very uncomfortable, but certainly showed off the neck and figure greatly. Here I cannot fail to give you some description of the costumes here, which are more brutal and against all logic and reason, than you can imagine.

They build certain muslin cloths on their heads a yard high, three or four stories high, fortified with infinite yards of heavy tape… It surely requires a lot of art and experience to carry the load upright, like a dance on May Day. with the ring. Their whalebone petticoats span our perimeter by several yards, and cover a few acres of ground.

Lady Montagu’s visit to the court was for a meeting with Empress Elizabeth Christine, wife of Emperor Charles VI. She was famous for her delicate beauty and as the mother of the future Empress Maria Theresa. A success in music, politeness, modesty, and diligence, she was well regarded for her acting role as Empress, both within the protocols of the Spanish court for hunting, balls, and amateur theater, as well as celebrating the days of religious devotion in the Austrian piety (Austrian piety). It was an excellent shot, as she attended shooting matches and took part in the hunt, she and her ladies waiting in amazon outfits and playing pool too.
Lady Montagu recounts how “the passions of the bell are run in this country” when the young Count suggests that she engage in “a little affair of the heart”.
Mrs. Montagu was “quite fascinated by the Empress: I cannot tell you her features are ordinary; her eyes are not that large, but lively, full of sweetness; her skin is the most beautiful I have ever seen.” The Empress, “It had the goodness of speaking to me so often, by this very natural grace of hers… His Imperial Majesty has honored me by speaking to me in a very obliging manner; but he never spoke to any of the other ladies; “.

Some time was spent playing cards (Quinze) and shooting at the target: “The Empress herself was seated on a small throne at the end of a beautiful alley in the garden, and on each side of her there were two ceremonies of my honorable ladies with other distinguished young ladies, at their head the Archduchess, All wore their hair full of jewels, and in their hands fine light rifles; and at suitable distances three ovals were placed, which were the signs to be taken… All the distinguished men of Vienna were onlookers; but only the ladies were given permission to photograph.” Given that the contestants laughed at Mrs. Montagu because she was afraid to handle a pistol, it seems unlikely that she won the valuable first prize for a beautiful diamond-encrusted ruby ​​ring in a gold box.

Lady Montagu did not shy away from her most remarkable experiences in high society: “…to have a lover so far from loss, that is to gain a reputation properly; that ladies have much more respect in the rank of their lovers than in their husbands… this is the well-established custom of all A lady to have two spouses, one with name and one with duties.And these associations are well known, and it would be an outright insult, and publicly pleasant, if you invite a woman of quality to dinner, without at the same time inviting her two companions of lover and husband, between whom she sits in the state. With great attraction. Mrs. Montagu recounts how “the passions of the bell are being managed in this country” when a young Comte suggested that she engage in a “little affair of the heart”: “May I have the honor of telling you whom you love most among us, and I will take part in managing the case entirely to your satisfaction.”

Lady Montagu’s vivid descriptions of her time in Vienna and Constantinople are credited as an inspiration for later travel writers, especially female writers, after her assertion that women travelers could gain an intimate view of foreign life unavailable to their male counterparts. She also returned at the end of the diplomatic post with an understanding of the Ottoman medical practice of smallpox inoculation, which she introduced to Western medicine.


Adapted from The Crossroads of Civilization: A History of Vienna by Angus Robertson. Copyright © 2022. Available from Pegasus Books.

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