The grounds of Hof Palace extend over more than 50 hectares of land in eastern Lower Austria. The magnificent ensemble with its lordly palace, beautiful Terraced Garden and idyllic Manor Farm was laid out in the late 1720s as an impressive country home and hunting lodge for Prince Eugene of Savoy. The architect, Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt, was able to draw on practically unlimited resources. His employer, after all, was not only one of the most successful generals but also one of the wealthiest men of his time. Hundreds of labourers, craftsmen and gardeners spent years realising Hildebrandt’s plans. The work was for the most part completed by around 1730, resulting in one of the most impressive Gesamtkunstwerke of the Baroque period in Europe.
The unique beauty of Hof Palace was not lost on Empress Maria Theresa. In 1755 she acquired the complex from Prince Eugene’s heir and presented it as a gift to her husband, Emperor Francis Stephen. The new owner fully appreciated the value of his new possession, and until his death in 1765, the Emperor spent many weeks at Hof Palace every year between spring and late autumn. Here he went deer-stalking or spent time with his immediate family – his wife, Maria Theresa, and their numerous children – “to relieve his soul of the burden of ruling” as it says on an inscription on the Palace façade facing the garden. There were sometimes problems accommodating the entire court, because even during a completely private stay at the Palace, the strict rules of the Vienna court ceremonial prescribed the presence of almost 200 servants. In around 1770, (the meanwhile widowed) Maria Theresa decided to add an additional storey to the building in order to relieve the lack of space. In the course of this work, imperial court architect Franz Anton Hillebrandt decorated the façade and the interior in the rich Classicistic style in vogue at the time, thus giving Hof Palace the appearance it still has today.
Training ground for the Imperial and Royal Army
The generations of Habsburg emperors and archdukes that followed showed little interest in their Marchfeld summer residence and increasingly allowed nature to do its destructive work. In the late 19th century Emperor Francis Joseph turned the complex into a military training ground, and the already heavily damaged imperial splendour almost entirely disappeared. In addition to the wind, weather and weeds, imperial soldiers quartered here along with their horses did little to protect the Baroque Gesamtkunstwerk. But at least the Emperor had been prudent – or thrifty– enough to first remove the furniture. Some 200 wagon-loads of art objects and other furnishings rolled off to the imperial warehouses in Vienna, where for the following two decades the material would provide a rich source for decorating other imperial palaces.
Threatened by decay
Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Republic of Austria used some of these precious items for decorating government buildings and embassies. Political upheaval had little effect on Hof Palace itself, which remained under military administration. Only the uniforms of the soldiers changed: the Imperial and Royal Cavalry was followed by soldiers of the Austrian Federal Army, then the German Wehrmacht moved in, and in 1945 soldiers of the occupying Red Army took over the Palace for ten years. The open wounds caused by disinterest, inappropriate use and, not least, two world wars were closed only inadequately after 1955. While there was no lack of either good ideas or good will for a complete renovation, financing remained elusive. The three components were finally available in 2002 when a society founded expressly for that purpose undertook restoration of this precious monument of Austrian cultural heritage.
In May 2005 restoration work was far enough along that the ensemble could be opened to visitors. Austria’s largest rural palace complex had finally been restored to its former splendour, original dignity and intended purpose as a venue for magnificent celebrations. Hof Palace is again open to would-be time-travellers seeking to explore the world of Prince Eugene and Empress Maria Theresa in a place where they once lived and breathed and to become acquainted with the Baroque lifestyle in a manner that is fascinating, exciting, and far more real than any museum experience.
For a virtual journey through time and the history of Hof Palace please click here.