Documents of Empire

Back From Brussels, a Portrait on Paper and Parchment of Austria’s Distinguished Past

It’s a thrill, one must admit, to be able to walk through the huge doors of the Bundeskanzleramt, be greeted with a friendly smile by the guard and be waved through, head held high, without so much as the flash of an identity card.

The signatures and seals on the final resolutions of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 | Photo: Ingrid Sontacchi, BKA

That alone would have justified a visit to the exhibit “Austria in Europe,” that was now back from Brussels and open for three weeks ending with the Austrian National Day on October 26.

Down the entryway, through the glass doors and up the wide staircase, the Chancellors Offices are imposing enough, though somehow not as vast as one might expect. Unlike the baronial scale of the Hofburg or the Belvedere, these rooms seemed manageable, almost intimate.

The exhibition, too, was personal, displayed in a series of tinted plexi-glass triangles in three rooms under low level, protective lighting, the pieces seemed private somehow, and astonishingly close at hand. Originally assembled as a portrait of Austria in honor of the EU Presidency just ended in July, it was a prime selection of the seminal works of Austria’s cultural, political and technological history.

There was a page of pen and ink scratchings of the Blue Danube Waltz of Johann Strauss, and Gustav Mahler’s jottings for his fifth Symphony, so tiny as to be nearly illegible. In another case, was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s own annotated typescript of his seminal work the Tractatus Logico–Philosophicus,  and Bertha von Suttner’s 1904 edition of Die Waffen nieder (Lay Down Your Arms), the novel that had stirred a vast public and helped earn her a Nobel Peace Prize a year later in 1905.

But best of all, was a large book of yellowing parchment and looping calligraphy, covered with columns of fat red seals looped together with fine silk braid. These were the final resolutions of the great Congress of Vienna in 1815, convened to realign Europe following the defeat of Napoleon, signed by the monarchs and ministers of the Great Powers who had met in those very rooms.

The document was written in French, in an elegant slowing hand, Article 121:

“The preceding treaty will be ratified and the agreements exchanged in the space of six months, by the Court of Portugal in a year or as they are able. It is to be filed in Vienna…”

Then followed a full page of signatures and seals: Prinz Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, Prussian Prince Karl August von Hardenberg and Enlightenment scholar Wilhelm von Humbolt; Earl of Clarty represented Great Britain following the Duke of Wellington’s departure for Waterloo, and Russia’s Tsar Alexander I was there acting on his own behalf.

For French foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, it was a coup that he was there at all, having skillfully resisted all attempts to exclude him from the innermost circle of negotiations. Talleyrand had protested the closed-door negotiations, and according to reports, “soundly berated” the insiders for over two hours, until they capitulated in exhaustion.

On the final Resolutions, which had ushered in a century of peace on the European continent, Talleyrand’s name appears third from the top, just after the Austrians.

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