Tuesday, 22 September 2009
What to see: Palais Caprara-Geymüller, Vienna
Palais Caprara-Geymüller is a Baroque mansion located at 8 Wallnerstrasse, in an area of Vienna which is close to the Hofburg and filled with noble and princely mansions. This house was built by an unknown Italian architect in 1698 and at one stage it belonged to the princely family of Liechtenstein.
It came to play a dramatic part in the history of the Bernadotte dynasty when the army contractor Wimmer in 1798 rented it out, for an astronomic amount of money, to the French state to serve as its embassy after diplomatic relations between France and Austria had been restored by the peace of Campo Formio. General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was appointed French Ambassador in Vienna, although the Austrians would have preferred a more low-key representation, meaning a diplomat with a lower rank than that of Ambassador.
Bernadotte’s diplomatic career in Vienna was a short one – a mere 66 days. The representatives of revolutionary France had difficulties being accepted by the Viennese and it all culminated when the Ambassador ordered a sign to be put up outside the gate stating that this was the French Embassy. While waiting for the sign to arrive he on 13 April put up a French flag with the text “The French Republic’s Embassy in Vienna”. Back then it was not common for embassies to display their flags and the sight of a Tricolour in Marie-Antoinette’s hometown was a red rag to the Viennese.
Serious riots followed, with a mob attacking the Embassy, Bernadotte haranguing the crowds on the street and the mob eventually forcing their way into the Embassy and smashing everything they could get their hands on. Despite repeated pleas from the Ambassador it was five hours before the Austrian authorities intervened and dispersed the mob.
Bernadotte considered the riots the result of a conspiracy against France by the Austrian Foreign Minister Franz von Thugut and the ambassadors of Britain and Russia, but there is no evidence to support such a claim. The Austrians on their part thought France had deliberately provoked the riots to use them as an excuse for declaring war on Austria. The result was that Ambassador Bernadotte left Vienna in a fury, but after a period of tension war between the two countries were averted.
Although this was the end of Bernadotte’s short diplomatic career it meant that he now appeared on the stage of great politics. And it was also the first time he came into close contact with a Swede, namely that distant kingdom’s chargé d’affaires, Fredrik Samuel Silfverstolpe. Bernadotte was to return to Vienna only once, as a Marshal of the French Empire following the Battle of Wagram in 1809. The following year he was elected Crown Prince of Sweden and soon he would join forces with, among others, Austria to defeat France. He did not attend the Congress of Vienna in person, rather sending the diplomat Carl Löwenhielm.
Today the former French Embassy apparently serves as an office building.