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Franziskanerplatz, the hidden beauty in the first district

A fountain at Franziskanerplatz | Photo: Duncan Smith

What first led me first to Franziskanerplatz was the Kleines Café, unofficially Vienna’s smallest coffee house. I met some friends there on a rainy night in 1997 and somehow, probably out of necessity to stay dry, we all fit inside the very cozy art deco, retro interior, known to many for a ‘starring’ role in the Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy 1995 movie Before Sunrise.  Designed by architect Hermann Czech in the mid-1970’s, the Kleines Café is owned by Austrian actor Hanno Poeschl and is known as a hang-out for artists and writers.

Of all Vienna’s many pleasing squares, Franziskanerplatz is surely one of the most pleasing.  Here, from the first glance, suddenly appearing along Weihburggasse, almost hidden within the dense maze of streets in the 1st District, the timeless charm and serenity of Vienna is at its best.

Insulated from the rush of the rest of the town, Franziskanerplatz is happily off the beaten tourist path, with no ‘must see’ points of interest nearby – except perhaps for Anna Netrebko’s apartment at No. 1, now barricaded behind construction scaffolding suddenly thrown up to repair a dangerous shift in the foundation.

And so it was that on a mild day in early summer, a friend and I headed down the Weihburggasse in search of a quiet corner to talk over his work in social services for the city of Lucerne.

“When I think of Lucerne, I think of a picturesque town that functions so well, nobody has a care, and everything is provided for,” I began.

“Not the cases we get,” my friend rebutted. “Most of these are pretty dramatic – separations, evictions, drug dependencies, people who fall below the ability to put a roof over their heads…” I looked around; it seemed a strange subject for so beautiful a setting. But of course; this spot had long been a meeting place for people in need.

The history, character and original reason for being for the Franziskanerplatz is bound up in the church and cloister, standing along the eastern side of the square. Beginning with the square itself, carved out of the narrow old city streets by medieval aristocrats worshipping at the Franziskanerkirche, whose carriages did not have enough room to turn around near the church. In 1624, the buildings on the corner of Franziskanergasse and Weihburggasse were taken down to create the space we see today.

The façade of the church dominates the peaceful Franziskanerplatz and is the best documented and oldest edifice on the square. It was erected on a former convent site established by the Poor Clares (die arme Klarissen) in the 14th century. The Poor Clares are the second order of the Franciscan’s, established by Saint Clare of Assisi in 1212. A house on the site, it is said, was sponsored by wealthy Viennese to rehabilitate prostitutes.

The church, finished in 1611, is the only church with a Renaissance façade in Vienna. At a time when all funds were being channeled into the city fortifications against the surging Turks, little was left for facades. The entry portal topped with Saint Hieronymus is actually in Baroque style, creating some architectural “dissonance,” according to purists, with the rest of the Renaissance façade. Inside, a notable Baroque High Altar by Andrea Pozzo (1707) lights up the interior.

But the Franziskanerkirche’s defining history is of caring for the city’s sick, poor and disenfranchised, at a time when there was no government to intervene. In 1450, 750 Franciscan monks arrived in Vienna who, 50 years later, were caring for the city’s 20,000 poor. By the 17th century according some estimates, up to 80% of Vienna’s residents were living in poverty. Today, just inside the church remains an “Armenausspeisung” for collections for the poor.

That need is still with us today in 2010, in one of the world’s richest countries, where between 300,000 to 1,000,000 people, or 12% of the Austrian population, lives at, or within one misfortune, of the poverty level, according to Eurostat – households earning €950 or less per month. Nearly 300,000 Austrian households live with less than €600 per month. Lingering strains of the financial crisis…  In the United States, 1 in 7 – 14.3% or 43.6 million people – suffer from poverty, the highest level since 1994. It’s more fallout from the economic crisis, even in the world’s largest economy.

By early afternoon, the café tables were spreading out over the square, where patrons had shifted them to catch the sun as it traveled over the rooftops. Eying our chances, we jumped tables to lengthen our time in the sun, eventually settling in at one in the middle, near the Moses fountain, to ponder the happy events the square has also witnessed, besides poverty and morbid misadventures.

“What would a medieval square be without a real fountain,” my friend asked?

“And one worth looking at!” I agreed.

Which this one certainly was. Designed by the Neo-Classicist Austrian architect Johann Martin, the fountain is a lead sculpture on a stone base that depicts Moses striking water from a rock. At the base of the statue are lions’ heads with open jaws through which the water flows. A fixture in the center of this lovely square. Although actually, it used to be in a courtyard nearby at Franziskanerplatz No. 6, a hostelry known as “Zum Gruenen Loewen,” and wasn’t moved to the center until 1798.  A drawing from 1724 shows no fountain in the middle.

Today, hospitality is the main occupation of Franziskanerplatz. The Immervoll, located on Weihburggasse, also spreads its outdoor terrace onto the square in the summer. Combined with the Kleines Café terrace and the newly opened Schanigarten from Artner, and the smart Van Veinsten Espresso Bar around the corner (some say the best tramezzini in town), the small Franziskanerplatz never lacks a seat for those seeking the perfect social meeting point, solitude or reflection in the middle of the big city.

It’s fun to watch passersby pause to look at those welcoming tables outside the Kleines Café and almost invariably – and impulsively – stopping to ponder their chances of snagging a seat on this most appealing of squares.”

Sometimes you can plan your day, but other times your day plans you, like when you see a free table,” I postulated, with a silent affirmation from my friend.  We relished our seats now, just as the sun – high up in the afternoon – started to set over the steeply pitched roofs of the west-facing apartment buildings, with so many tall and narrow windows standing over Weihburggasse, looking out over the square.

“Not a bad day,” my friend surmised. “We got a lot done here,” I replied, “for not having moved, except one table.”  As for us, time had stood still at this place, as have some of society’s largest problems, despite the arrival of modernity.

It’s peaceful here on Franziskanerplatz – and it makes one think…

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