The Imperial Park

The Imperial Park was created during the 1850s for Emperor Franz Joseph on the rising ground between the River Ischl and the steep wooded higher slopes of the Jainzen hill.  It is a magnificent landscape park that draws the eye beyond its boundaries to where it seems to merge with the mountains round about.  The park is still in the possession of the Emperor’s Habsburg descendants.

beetThe Emperor’s mother, Archduchess Sophie, purchased the original Biedermeier house with its immediate grounds from Dr. Eduard Mastalier in September 1853 as a wedding present for her son and his young bride, Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria.  Substantial additions were made to the estate from 1854 onwards, parallel to the extension and redesign of the house, to include most of the landscape that can be seen from its windows. The commission to design and lay out the ground as a landscape park was given to Franz Rauch, head of the imperial gardens, who was based at Laxenburg Palace, to the south of Vienna.

The characteristic elements of the park he created from 1855 to 1858 are two large and three smaller meadow areas that are enlivened by undergrowth-free tree groups as well as individual trees, the whole being set against a variegated woodland background.  From 1855 to 1860 the ancillary estate buildings, Empress Elisabeth’s Cottage, the Mirror Pavilion and the Gloriette (pavilion) were constructed at prominent locations within the park.  The ornate fountain in white marble by the Viennese professor Victor Tilgner was added in 1884 within an existing flowerbed in front of the Villa.  To the west of the Villa was the so-called Pleasure Ground, designed around a large classical vase that is still in place.  It was a richly-stocked formal flower garden, laid out in the form of the double eagle of the Habsburg arms, that could be viewed from the windows of the Emperor’s rooms.

lauscherThe Imperial Park was opened to the public after the First World War, and nowadays attracts visitors from all over the world.  It is entered from the town over the beautiful Kaiserbrücke, a steel arch bridge spanning the River Ischl that is work of art in its own right.  The broad driveway emerges onto the plaza with the fountain in front of the house.  Although the landscape character of the surroundings is dominant, the symmetrical arrangement of the  features and ornaments harmonises closely with the architecture of the house, the sculptural aspects of which are reflected in the triple group of figures comprising the fountain.  The vertical water jet, and the huntsman statue entitled “The Listener” in the lawn opposite, emphasise the central axis of the Villa.

Laurel bushes in tubs, and globe-shaped dwarf cypresses, underline the symmetry.  The pillars of the three main balconies are covered in climbing pipe vines (aristolochia macrophylla).  On the west side of the plaza is the site of the former Pleasure Ground, and the large meadow forms the north side.  The latter is enlivened by three groups of trees.  At the foot of the hill is a stand of spruces, which although decimated by natural die-off are still a majestic sight.  The group of black poplars on the slope behind is an important factor in the overall perspective.  The top group, of ash and maple, marks the axial connection between the Villa and the Mirror Pavilion.  The woodland surrounding the meadow is very varied, consisting as it does of majestic examples of red beech, lime, chestnut, copper beech, walnut, hornbeam and spruce.  Further northwards, the park merges naturally into the wooded heights of the Jainzen.

eisenpavillionHalf-way up the serpentine path leading from the east end of the Villa, almost concealed at the edge of the dense fringe woodland, is the Gloriette pavilion.  The delicate octagonal cast-iron construction was originally also known as the Turkish Garden Pavilion.  It has its place in family history as the place where Archduchess Marie Valerie, youngest daughter of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth, became engaged to her Habsburg cousin Franz Salvator, of the Tuscany branch of the family.  Their descendants are still in residence in the Villa.  At its highest point, along the top edge of the meadow in the shadow of majestic red beeches, the path leads past the Mirror Pavilion, a light eight-sided wooden construction that originally had mirrors between its four rear pillars to reflect the view of the mountain landscape extending to the Dachstein range south of Ischl.  The pavilion itself, standing out from its dark background, is a prominent feature of the scene as viewed from the Villa down below.

An easy descent through an avenue of oaks brings one to Empress Elisabeth’s Cottage, on the site of the former Schmalnau farmhouse, which was purchased by Franz Joseph in 1854 in order to extend the park.  The rose-grey marble Cottage, Franz Joseph’s wedding present to his 16-year-old bride, is built in her honour in English 16th-century Elizabethan (Tudor) style.  Largely surrounded by trees, it has views down to the Villa and to the western mountain ranges.  The delicate ironwork of the veranda that almost surrounds it is covered in the creepers of wild vine and pipe vine.  The double concealment of the Cottage’s marble walls by the surrounding woodland and the creepers gives it a unique romantic character that was certainly appreciated by Elisabeth, who used it almost every summer of her married life.

From the Cottage, in its mantle of evergreens – fir, spruce, pine, yew and juniper - one can continue with the longer tour around the periphery of the large western meadow.  Or one can take one of the winding footpaths that descend directly down to the west end of the Villa through stands of copper beech, lime, domestic and oriental spruce, Japanese cypress, weeping beech, ash, tulip tree, Caucasian walnut, and other exotics.  The woodland groves and avenues are very varied, although they comprise mainly local species, with the foreign varieties found mainly below in the southern region of the park.

ahorn-fichteOverall, the succession of large and small meadows provides a diversified landscape experience.  The wide variety of blossom, and the play of light and shade provided by the surrounding woodland and the groups of trees, brings light and colour into the park.  The gently undulating path network leads through the protection of the avenues of trees along the borders of the meadows, on the principle of “see but not be seen”, giving the impression of a landscape empty of human figures.  New vistas open up constantly, to garden scenes, the Villa, the Cottage, the pavilions, and to the mountains of the Eastern Alps – the Dachstein, Predigtstuhl, Jainzen, Katrin, and nearer hand the Kalvarienberg.  The serpentine paths remain the “silent guides” through the landscape garden, and shortcuts detract from the experience.

Thanks to continuous expert care and maintenance, the Kaiserpark has not altered in any essential respect since it was laid out for the Emperor in 1855-58.  The woodland is in good condition, although after a century and a half the physiological limits of some species have become obvious, and of course storm damage has also taken its toll over the years.  Ongoing maintenance entails the sensitive replacement of moribund trees with younger specimens, in order to conserve the overall character.  

In the Imperial Park the raw mountain world of its surroundings flows unobtrusively into a mild and varied landscape garden endowed with light and colour, where the forest approaches the eye in the form of individual specimens or small groups of mature trees, majestic and differentiated in their varied species.  The whole is a synthesis of nature and culture that in the course of time has lost nothing of its attraction as an aesthetic experience.