In Vienna as well as in the rest of Europe, the revolutionary year of 1848 brought radical changes in the structure of society. The bourgeoisie broke through the old feudal system and shattered the power of the aristocracy. The social and political convulsions that ensued, from the sudden climax of trends long underway, had a stunning effect upon the Viennese townscape, ultimately transforming it more profoundly than at any time since the baroque period. In a handwritten note to the Minister of the Interior, published verbatim on the front page of the Wiener Zeitung on Christmas Eve 1857, the young Emperor Franz Joseph decreed the razing of the capital's "circumvallations and fortifications", for the sake of linking the inner city with the outer districts already incorporated administratively since 1850. The circle of defenses had long served their purpose and the space they occupied in an overcrowded city was desperately needed. The Emperor's note marked the start of a new era, for it triggered contemporary Europe's greatest urban boom and made Vienna once again a world-class city.
Everything augured well for the development of the Ring, the broad belt of cleared land made available for building by the demolition of the circle of defensive ramparts. The monarchy saw the reconstruction of the capital as a splendid opportunity to draw attention from the recent political chaos and to demonstrate its own reserves of strength. For the bourgeoisie too, the great urban project represented a golden opportunity, allowing them to display their newly acquired rank. And the revolutionaries as well perceived advantages, a chance to convert hard-won rights into structures serving the educational, cultural and social needs of a budding democracy.
The old nobility withdrew more and more into their town palais and country seats, conscious of their social position and their role as exemplars, but also aware of their declining political influence. With few exceptions, the aristocracy stood aloof and barricaded against the rising tide of social change. Meanwhile, the high bourgeoisie exerted every effort to break down the barriers between themselves and the nobility. The most effective device appeared to be ennoblement, a goal that Franz Joseph frequently satisfied, for the good reason, among others, that ennoblement taxes generated considerable revenue for the crown. However the social access promised by titles proved elusive, a predicament expressed in the saying: "I beg your pardon, I am not from the Freyung!" (Ich bitt'um Verzeihung, ich bin nicht von der Freyung!) The phrase, which refers to a small square in the "noble quarter" near the Hofburg, caricatured the situation of the new aristocracy, which vainly strove to be assimilated into the old. The servile excess with which the "Ring Barons" imitated their chosen models and their conspicuous flaunting of new wealth did little but provoke dismissal as "shop-window displays". Such vulgar compensation for an inferiority complex proved hopeless as a method for bridging the social gap.
With the development of the fashionable Ring, Vienna experienced a boom in Palais architecture second only to that of the baroque age. The Ring, conceived from the start as the via triumphalis of the Habsburg dynasty, gained all-important social cachet from the presence there of many mansions built by the Archdukes Wilhelm and Ludwig Viktor, as well as by such old aristocratic families as the Württembergs, Hoyos, and Kinskys. The distinguished Aristocrats' Casino also took a position on the Ringstrasse.
Aesthetically, the Ring gave rise to a distinctive style and achieved it at the highest possible level of quality. The results, though admired by contemporaries, have enjoyed little recognition in subsequent times. It took a long while for eclectic historicism to be accepted as a legitimate style and acknowledged for its significance and beauty. Twentieth-century modernists have loathed it to the point of damnation, just as the Baroque had been a hundred years before.
The hostile judgment derived from the completely different, aggressively antihistorical taste of the new century, with its egalitarian values and "form follows function" and "less is more" aesthetics. The view of historicism as the "styleless style" (stated by Egon Friedell in his Contemporary History of Art) naturally exacted its toll. The Ring palais also suffered from the new, nonresidential uses to which they were put, with the consequence that the interiors of Ring mansions, once monuments to a specific way of life, have survived so little as to become a great rarity.
The keynote of the Ring style is an architectural vocabulary drawn from all historical periods combined with the exploitation of modern materials and technology. The style was meant to satisfy contemporary needs and demands while preserving the symbolic value of older forms. Gothic proved irresistible for major religious and municipal structures, while the Renaissance and Roman Baroque found favor in private palais. During the half-century of the Ring period, the outward appearance of the palais built along the great circular boulevard changed considerably. In historicism's early romantic phase, smooth serene façades with small-scale, delicately wrought embellishments dominated. In its Classical phase, historicism produced more dramatically articulated façades more varied, dynamic, and three-dimensional. Finally, the style culminated in a bewildering profusion, where even Secessionist (modernist or Art Nouveau) elements began to appear.
The Baroque palais, in its more ostentatious aspects, yielded the principal model for the Ring palais, the splendor of whose portal, vestibule, and staircase competed with the 17th-18th century prototype. But the centerpiece of the Ring palais was the salon, its social significance clearly evident in the importance accorded the piano nobile the main upstairs floor in the composition of the façade. Indeed, the salon became the focus of the search for the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art in which all the arts played roles of equal importance. Coffered ceilings with inset paintings, huge chandeliers and candelabras, carved paneling, sumptuous curtains and valences counted as heavily in the overall lavish effect as the arrangement of the seating furniture. Completing the ensemble were the palms and massive bouquets popularized by the painter Hans Makart, richly colored and patterned carpets, and whole congeries of treasures assembled from every conceivable age and culture.
The leading historicist architects included Gottfried Semper, Karl von Hasenauer, August Sicard von Sicardsburg, Eduard van der Nüll, Theophil von Hansen, and Heinrich von Ferstel, all of them occupied primarily with the design of the monumental public buildings that rose along the Ring. Only Hansen and Ferstel executed commissions for major private palais. Among the busiest designers of the Ring mansions figures August Schwendenwein Ritter von Lanauberg and Johann Romano Ritter vom Ringe, the particle in the latter's name referring to his work on the Ring. However, the galvanizing personality of the period was the painter Hans Makart, the "divine magician" who set the tone for the Ring society in both his lifestyle and in his paintings.
from: Palaces of Vienna, by Wolfgang Kraus and Peter Müller, Tauris Parke Books, London, 1993 (ISBN 1-85043-656-8)