As you walk around Vienna, you may notice a disproportionately large number of buildings painted in a yellowish hue. Colors have long been used as a means to symbolization and to communicate status – particularly in pre-modern times when few people could read and write, colors were a popular means of communicating basic information. And so it is also with Schönbrunner Gelb (Schönbrunn yellow), as the ubiquitous color is commonly known. Today we often see yellow as a positive color that denotes light and life, recalling the sun and flowers in springtime. However, the color yellow had a very different meaning in the Middle Ages, when it was commonly associated with poison, greed, jealousy, and deceit. At the same time, it was often used to resemble and symbolize gold – which might imply a kind of deceit, but over time the color yellow also came to be closely associated with gold, and became increasingly desirable.
More than most other European imperial houses, the Habsburgs fully embraced this yellow color, to the point that it has become closely associated with them. It is the traditional color of Viennese baroque architecture of the 19th century, with Schloss Schönbrunn being the most significant building to be painted in this color – thus the name Schönbrunner Gelb. Because of its use by the Habsburgs, this color came to be a symbol of the elite, and suddenly villas, stately residences, and churches began using Schönbrunner Gelb to convey their status to the general public. Over time, the color began to be used even by commoners and farmers in an attempt to hitch themselves to the upper tiers of society. Nevertheless, even today, Schönbrunner Gelb conveys a certain baroque elegance and continues to be a associated with Habsburg architecture of the 19th century. Interestingly, Schönbrunn itself has not always been this color – it originally had a grayish-green color before being painted terracotta pink under Maria Theresia, perhaps as an attempt to imitate Italian marble. The color we are all so familiar with today, and which has come to be known as Schönbrunner Gelb, did not appear on the palace until around 1830! (C.G.)