Vienna, 14 November 2020
As befits a mountainous country with a coolish climate, Austria has acres of forests covering its many hills and mountains. As a consequence, it once had a vibrant tradition of building in wood. Nowadays, of course, wood as a building material has been almost completely superseded by stone, brick and concrete. The only places you still see wooden buildings are in the small villages which dot the countryside, wooden barns being still quite common there. My wife and I come across them quite often on our hikes, as these photos taken on a couple of recent hikes attest.
I love these old barns. My French grandmother had one just like them attached to the side of her house. We went in there often because that was where the bicycles and the ping-pong table were kept. It was – to the small me – a vast, cavernous place. All sorts of weather-beaten garden tools and other odds-and-ends lurked in the shadows. There was a pile of hay – quite why I don’t know; my grandmother had no animals. But it made the barn smell of hay, into which was mixed the smell of beaten earth rising from the floor. Then one summer I arrived for the summer holidays, only to find the barn gone. My grandmother told me that it had been sagging sideways and threatening to pull the rest of the house down with it. But this perfectly rational explanation didn’t take away the desolation I felt at the disappearance of this wonderful building.
As I say, there was a time when many more buildings in this country were made of wood, especially in the mountain regions. A number of Austrian artists have captured them on their canvases. Oskar Mulley was especially assiduous in his painting of mountain huts and barns, partly or wholly made of wood.
Alfons Walde also often included these buildings in his paintings, although snow was more his thing.
Alas, as we all know only too well, wood burns very well. The older and drier it is, the better it burns, as we all learnt watching the roof of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris go up in flames.
The previously common use of wood in construction in Austria and its tendency to burn well must explain why every municipality in this country, down to the smallest village it would seem, has a fire station. As an extreme example, a couple of days ago my wife and I passed through a small village on one of our hikes, which had not one
but three fire stations!
And each one is bigger than the last. Are fires getting bigger in this village, I wonder, or is it that fire engines are getting bigger and need a more spacious building to house them, or (a somewhat uncharitable thought) have municipal budgets been growing?
Of course, as befits a traditionally Catholic country, Austrians have a saint whom they can invoke to protect them from fire: St. Florian. Austrians should be particularly proud of this saint since he is a native son. The annals tell us that he was born in the latter part of the 3rd Century C.E. in Lorch, near Linz, on what was then the edges of the Roman Empire – the Danube River, which flows just north of Lorch, was the frontier of that Empire. Since so many Roman army units were garrisoned along the frontier his father could have been an army officer. Florian was active, possibly also as an army officer, in St. Pölten (or Aelium Cetium, as it was then called) when one of the periodic rounds of persecution against Christians broke out. This one occurred in 303–304 C.E., under the Emperor Diocletian (the same round of persecution that put paid to St. Pancras, about whom I wrote an earlier post). Without going into the details, which are anyway of dubious validity, it is recorded that Florian was arrested as a Christian. After a trial and various tortures, he was drowned in the Danube by being thrown off a a bridge with a stone tied around his neck. Thus did he become a martyr and a saint.
Sensibly enough, Florian was initially invoked to protect people from the dangers of water. At some point, though, he was pivoted (to use that most modern of terms) and used instead to protect people from fire. My theory – for which I have absolutely no evidence – is that another saint, John of Nepomuk, about whom I’ve written in an earlier post and who died in almost exactly the same way as Florian – thrown from a bridge and drowned – won the competition for protecting people from the dangers of water, leaving Florian without a role. Well of course, one critical use of water was to put out fires, so hey presto! he became the protector from the dangers of fire.
The Austrians have not only used wood to build, they have used it to carve, and their churches (and museums) are full of wonderfully carved statues and bas-reliefs. I throw in here a couple of bas-reliefs (from southern Germany in this case) which were recently auctioned at Vienna’s Dorotheum auction house.
Naturally enough, the saints who got a place in churches tended to be people’s favourites, ones whom they prayed to regularly. Given the ever-present danger of fire, one of these is St. Florian. My wife and I came across this lovely example of a St. Florian statue during one of our hikes this Autumn, down by Neusidler See (the same hike where we picked up bagfuls of walnuts).
We see here all the typical attributes of such a statue. Florian is dressed as a Roman soldier and gripping a banner, he is holding a bucket of water, and he is thoughtfully pouring that water over a little burning house situated at his feet. Delightful! My wife and I have come across scores of such statues during our wanderings over Austria’s hills and dales. In fact, we came across a fresco of him on the wall of a house just this afternoon.
One statue of St. Florian which we haven’t seen, though, and which I have put on my bucket list stands in the town of Bad Tölz in Upper Bavaria. The statue was set up in a square, in front of the town’s tax office. Since the statue gave its back to the tax office the sculptor thought it fitting to have the saint flash his bum to the tax men, to show them what he – and the rest of the town – thought of them.
I think we can all sympathize with the citizens of Bad Tölz, especially since St. Florian’s feast day is 4th May, a few days after 30th April, which for many in the world is the deadline for turning in their income tax returns.
By extension of his duties as heavenly fireman, St. Florian is the patron saint of many trades where fire was once used: bakers, brewers, coopers (the staves which coopers used to make barrels were steamed to make them pliable), potters, forges, soap boilers (who knew that was once a profession?). He is also, naturally enough, the patron saint of chimney sweeps, which, dear readers, contrary to coopers, soap boilers, and the rest is not a profession that has disappeared – not in Austria, at least. They are alive and well and thriving here.
When my wife and I first came to Austria, we were struck by these young blokes we would see (there have also been some young ladies in recent years) walking the streets and wearing this strange outfit: black overalls with a white head covering.
Upon enquiry, we were told that they were chimney sweeps. Chimney sweeps?! Well, both my wife and I have been around the block a couple of times (I won’t admit to how many) and neither of us have any memory of our parents calling in chimney sweeps. I don’t know about my readers, but to me the term “chimney sweeps” conjures up a Dickensian vision of little boys being forced to climb down narrow chimneys by a nasty master and getting stuck and dying.
At a minimum, chimney sweeps should be dirty-looking, like coal miners.
In fact, they should have died out along with the coal industry. But no, these Austrian fellows are around in large numbers and are lick-spittle clean; they don’t give the impression of ever getting within a mile of an actual chimney. What is going on here?
I don’t want to be uncharitable, but I rather get the impression that we have here a great example of a union using its political muscle to avoid extinction. The way I see it, when chimney sweeps saw that their days were numbered, they got the governments – municipal, for the most part – to pass laws requiring homeowners to have their chimneys – used for gas water heaters for the most part these days – as well as the water heaters themselves checked at least once a year by a “chimney sweep”. As a homeowner in Vienna, I have had the doubtful pleasure of having Viennese “chimney sweeps” come over, solemnly open a little trap door in the wall, perfunctorily have a look in, declare all to be well, and require to paid handsomely for this service. And on top of it all they expect a tip at Christmas! This year, I found this “service” particularly grating because just a few days before the “chimney sweep” had come around we’d had the water heater maintained by a man who spent a good deal more time on the job and got paid proportionately a good deal less. But we can’t get out of it, because if we were to have a fire – Oh St. Florian, spare us this disaster! – and if it turned out to have been due to something the chimney sweep would have checked if we had called him, then the insurance wouldn’t pay – they have you over a barrel (made by one of those coopers who have since disappeared).
Not wishing to end on this sour note, writing about chimney sweeps reminds me that in the old days, when they really did sweep chimneys out, they would have cleaned chimneys connected to those wonderful tiled stoves which they used to have here in Austria. Some places actually still have them. We came across one this summer while staying in a hotel on a hike near Innsbruck; the stove is at the back of the room in the picture.
As readers can see, they have a bench around the bottom where one can sit with one’s back against the stove wall keeping nice and warm. I understand people would even sleep on these benches. But what is really lovely about these stoves is their decoration. I throw in a few pictures of such stoves.
Once, when we were looking for an apartment in Vienna to rent, my wife and I were shown one with such a stove. For one mad moment, we thought of taking the apartment just for the stove. But good sense prevailed; it would have been too small, the children wouldn’t have had their own rooms. Sometimes, though, my wife and I reminisce about that stove we never had. Another thing on our bucket list.