Close to the centre of Vienna, beneath the bland seventeenth-century Kapuzinerkirche, are coiled the cool interconnecting chambers of the imperial burial vault. Here for hundreds of years the bodies of the Habsburg royal family have been entombed. They are almost all here, the obscure archdukes of the seventeenth century, Maria Theresa in a sarcophagus large enough to accommodate her sixteen children too, the abstemious Joseph II in his suitably plain box, Franz Josef flanked by his assassinated wife Elisabeth and his son Rudolf, Maximilian of Mexico, and even a handful of archdukes and archduchesses who breathed their last in recent decades have been tucked away in the niches.
The bodies, however, are incomplete. To find the hearts of the Habsburgs you must walk a hundred yards to the Augustiner-kirche, which adjoins the imperial palace. Here, in a small room off the Loretto Chapel, shelves carry the urns that contain the hearts of fifty-four Habsburgs. And in the catacombs of Vienna's cathedral, the Stephansdom, you will find the imperial entrails, which have been tucked into urns that resemble hat boxes.
These bizarre burial practices are supposedly derived from the Spanish court ritual to which all the Habsburgs were addicted, even long after this royal house had ceased to exercise direct control over the affairs of Spain. The custom may be bizarre, but it is also fitting. For the bodies of the Habsburgs were in death dispersed as arbitrarily as their domains. The Habsburg Empire was never, at the apogee of its control and power, more than a collection of estates, assembled almost at random, occasionally by conquest, more often by marriage, and handed down from ruler to ruler almost as though it were a personal inheritance, an heirloom, less a coherent national unit than an embodiment of personal dynamic power. The Habsburg Empire was never conceived in nationalist terms, and its sole raison d'etre was the