This Day in Jewish History

1818: The Ultimate Hostess of Enlightened Vienna Dies

Fanny von Arnstein brought together European greats, from Mozart to the Duke of Wellington — and she never converted.

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On June 8, 1818, Fanny von Arnstein, the great hostess of Enlightenment-era Vienna, died, at age 59. Born into wealth and married into yet more wealth, and endowed with equally substantial erudition and personal charm, von Arnstein was able to take full advantage of the changes taking place in Europe at the time, where restrictions on Jews were being relaxed, if not eliminated. She created in her home a safe space where — especially during the Congress of Vienna, when the power brokers of Europe convened on the city to rethink the political organization of the continent — politicians, noblemen, intellectuals and artists could mix, exchange ideas and make deals.

Franziska “Fanny” Voegelchen Itzig was born on September 29, 1758, in Berlin. Her father was the financier Daniel Itzig, “master of the mint” to King Frederick II of Prussia and the first Jew to receive full Prussian citizenship. Her mother was the former Mariane Wulff, descendant of a family of both financial and rabbinic distinction.

After receiving an Enlightenment-era education, Fanny married Nathan Adam von Arnstein in 1776 and moved to Vienna.

Nathan (1748-1838) was a banker too, a partner in the firm of Arnstein and Eskeles. (Fanny’s sister Caecilie later married Bernhard von Eskeles, whose family constituted the other half of that partnership.)

Palatial conditions, albeit rented

Nathan and Fanny had good timing, as the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, who was strongly prejudiced against Jews, died in 1780 (on the same day the von Arnsteins’ only child, Henriette, was born). Her son and successor, Joseph, was far more well-disposed to them, and in 1782 Emperor Joseph II enacted the Edict of Tolerance. It eliminated many of the restrictions on Jews, although not the prohibition on their owning real estate in the capital. For that reason, Nathan von Arnstein (who in 1795 became the first Jew in Austria who did not convert to Christianity to be ennobled) had to rent, rather than own, the Palais Arnstein.

Because Fanny did not leave behind a diary, nor even much correspondence, most of what is known about her comes from the descriptions of others. The consensus was well-summarized by Karl August Varnhagen von Ense — his wife, the former Rahel Levin, famously held salons in Vienna and Berlin and converted to Christianity before her marriage. Varnhagen described Fanny as being “radiant with beauty and grace, of distinguished manner and behavior, spirited and fiery expression, combining acute intelligence and wit ... a most striking and notable phenomenon in Vienna” (in Hilde Spiel’s biography, “Fanny von Arnstein: Daughter of the Enlightenment,” English translation New Vessel Press, 2013).

Friends with Mozart

Among the musicians hosted by the von Arnsteins was Mozart, who lived in Vienna for eight months in 1781, when he wrote the opera “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (“The Abduction from the Seraglio”). Palais Arnstein was often a venue for charity concerts, and in 1812 Fanny co-founded Vienna’s Society of the Friends of Music, which has been important in supporting original music.

Her charitable works included helping to organize the quaintly named Society of Noble Women for the Promotion of the Good and Useful.

It was during the Congress of Vienna, 1814-15, when the great men of Europe met to reorganize the continent following the fall of Napoleon, that the palace really proved itself. Each evening, during grand receptions and in more intimate gatherings, leaders such as the Duke of Wellington, Charles Talleyrand and Prussia’s Prince Karl August von Hardenberg, as well as a wide range of cultural figures, would meet and mix.

Fanny took the bold step of not covering her hair, and it was she who introduced the custom of the Christmas tree to Vienna, but unlike many of her Jewish peers she did not convert. When she died, apparently of tuberculosis, she left gifts of equal size to both a Jewish hospital and a home for retired priests. Fanny von Arnstein was buried at Vienna’s Jewish Wachring cemetery, and her husband contributed a parocheth, the curtain covering the Torah Ark, in her memory to the city’s Jewish center.