11 November 2019

A tuneful way to
count out the hours
in the centre of Vienna

The Ankeruhr is an ornate clock on a covered bridge in the centre of the old town in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Hoher Markt Square, half-way between the Peterskirche and the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, is one of the oldest squares in Vienna, dating back to a time when Vienna was part of the Roman army camp Vindobona – one of the streets beside the square is named after the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died near Vienna.

Today, the square is often seen as an ugly car park in the heart of Vienna. But it has its attractions, including the Vermählungsbrunnen (‘Marriage Fountain’), erected to celebrate the marriage of Empress Maria Theresia and Franz Stephan of Lorraine but depicting the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph at their wedding.

However, you have to look up to see the most attractive feature in this square. n Even more exciting is Ankeruhr or Anker Clock, commissioned by the Anker insurance company to bridge two office buildings owned by the company, now known as Helvetia. The covered bridge is known as the Uhrbrücke or ‘Clock Bridge.’

The Anker Clock was designed in the Jugendstil style, a style similar to Art Nouveau, by the Austrian painter and sculptor Franz von Matsch (1861-1942), who worked closely with Gustav Klimt.

Matsch made the clock in 1911-1917, at a creative but turbulent time in Austrian history, when modernism, imperial tradition, and the chaos of war clashed. The Anker Insurance Company was expanding its headquarters in Vienna and saw the clock as an artistic contribution to the city’s culture and a subliminal reminder of the importance of life insurance, with figures representing life and death flanking the sun motif above the centre.

The clock is 10 metres wide, 7.5 metres high, and has a diameter of 4 metres. The design includes 12 historic figures from Vienna’s past, each made of copper. On the hour, every hour, one figure or couple is visible and on the hour a tune is played matching this figure.

At noon, all the figures and their matching tunes can be seen and heard to the gasps and cheers of tourists on the street below. It is a spectacle that can be compared to the hourly sight at the Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall in Prague.

The last figure is Joseph Haydn, who composed the Imperial Anthem, which also became the German national anthem.

A plaque next to the clock reveals the identities of these rotating figures, who represent a journey through Austrian history. The figures or couples and the hours to see them are:

1-2: The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who is said to have died in Vienna, then the city of Vindobona, in the year 180 AD

2-3: Charlemagne, who first incorporated Austria into the Holy Roman Empire ca 800

3-4: Leopold VI, Duke of Austria, who granted Vienna its city charter in 1221, and his wife Theodora Leopold VI

4-5: Walther von der Vogelweide, a mediaeval minstrel singer during Leopold’s reign

5-6: King Rudolf, the first Habsburg ruler of Austria, and his wife Anna von Hohenberg

6-7: Hans Puchsbaum, a 15th-century architect and master builder closely associated with the Stephansdom (Saint Stephen’s Cathedral)

7-8: Emperor Maximilian I, a major figure in the expansion of the Habsburg empire in the 16th century and a patron of the arts

8-9: Johann Andreas von Liebenberg, mayor of Vienna during the second Turkish siege in 1683

9-10: Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, who led the defence of the city in 1683

10-11: Prince Eugene of Savoy, who built the Belvedere and Hofburg Palace and the commander of the Imperial forces during the War of the Spanish Succession

11-12: Empress Maria Theresa, the 18th-century Habsburg monarch, and her husband Prince Franz Stephan of Lorraine

12-1: Joseph Haydn, the composer: when he appears, the clock plays his oratorio, The Creation

The tunes include works by Haydn, Mozart and Wagner, and they were originally played by a mechanical organ with 800 tubes. However, the organ was so damaged during World War II that it was beyond repair, and it was replaced by recorded music.

The Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall in Prague was installed in 1410 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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