VIENNA — This city's imperial treasure chambers ranks as one of the greatest smorgasbords of jewelry and gems the world has ever seen.
They used to say that in this capital of emperors and empresses the only way one could see the fabulous royal jewels of His Majesty or Her Highness all at once was to be born a prince or a princess . . . or to steal them!
But things have changed. The imperial treasure is open to the public six days a week (closed Tuesdays) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. No matter what time or day you go, there is always a line of people waiting to get in.
"What is intriguing about the treasure chambers," said a spokeswoman for the Museum of Fine Arts, "is that it documents the core of Western civilization and its empires, not through pictures or paintings but through the symbolic objects themselves, such as the crowns placed on royal heads in the course of solemn ceremonies and the robes worn by the rulers during public occasions.
"Every phase of the history and development of Europe's imperial concept is visibly reflected in these objects."
In the Swiss courtyard of Hofburg Palace, the refurbished imperial hoard (known as the Schazkammer here) is really two treasures, one ecclesiastical and one secular, and in one form or another has been housed in Vienna since the first part of the 14th Century.
A new entrance has been fashioned under the steps leading to the Hofburg Chapel. The reception hall was once the emperor's kitchen.
With treasures that can be traced to the Middle Ages, the more than 430 exhibits are kept in shock-proof, dust-proof and burglar-proof glass showcases, with lighting that has been designed so that the fabric of the precious robes cannot be damaged by daylight.
(The premises have been arranged for the ease of disabled persons, so that every room is accessible to wheelchair visitors.)
Consisting of gold and silver, precious stones, sumptuous robes and rich embroidery, the exhibits are objects of priceless and artistic value that over the centuries have taken on greater historical significance.
The exhibits are spread out in 16 display rooms. These include two Hapsburg heirlooms from the estate of Emperor Ferdinand I (1556-1564): an agate bowl made in Constantinople in the 4th Century, and the unicorn--an 8-foot-long narwhal tusk from the first half of the 16th Century.
Then there are the imperial crown, made for the coronation of Otto I in the year 962; the imperial cross, about 1024-25; the 8th-Century Holy Lance; the coronation gospel book going back to the end of the 8th Century; the Purse of St. Stephen from the 9th Century, and the treasure of the Order of the Golden Fleece founded by Duke Philippe the Good of Burgundy.
The centerpiece of the collection is the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, from 962. An anachronistic portrait of Charlemagne, said to have been painted by Albrecht Durer, shows that the crown might have been in use even earlier.
Another item that captivates many visitors is a pouch studded with precious stones--a pouch believed to have held earth saturated with the blood of St. Stephen, after whom the city's cathedral is named.
On show for the first time is the world's largest cut emerald, a massive 2,680-carat block. There are also a gold-set 492-carat aquamarine of impeccable purity and a fiery orange-red jacinth.
Included in the exhibits are souvenirs associated with the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian (at one time emperor of Mexico), as well as another curiosity: a cabinet fitted with tiny drawers containing keys to the tombs of Hapsburg monarchs who rest in the nearby Capucine Vault.
A popular exhibit is a pair of large earrings owned by Empress Maria, who died in 1646, that has 434 rubies and 70 diamonds.
The exhibit that draws the most uninterrupted stream of visitors is the ornate throne-cradle made for Napoleon's son by his second wife, Marie Louise. No fewer than 616 pounds of silver went into this 1811 curio that also consists of mother-of-pearl velvet and silk with gold embroidery.
Visitors are strongly advised to buy a pocket guide (available in English) at the souvenir stand. Headsets are also for rent, but the cumbersome and awkward use of English on the tapes sometimes leaves you uncertain as to what exactly is being said.
For more information on travel to Austria, contact the Austrian National Tourist Office, 11601 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 2480, Los Angeles 90025, (213) 477-3332.