School for hidden Masters CULTURE VULTURES : TRAVEL

Central Vienna conceals a little-known gallery. Frank Whitford shows the way
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The Independent Culture
FIRST stop on every art-lover's visit to Vienna is usually the Kunsthistoriches Museum with, among its countless other attractions, a matchless room of Bruegels. But how many visitors bother to look heavenwards at the ceiling above the main staircase on their way in and out? There, among the decorative paintings, are some early works by the young Gustav Klimt who, incidentally, was also responsible for some similarly unnoticed pictures on the ceiling of the famous Burgtheater.

More familiar paintings by Klimt (including The Kiss) can be found in all their fin-de-siecle glory in the Osterreichishe Galerie at the Upper Belvedere Palace. This is commonly the art-lover's second stop. The third tends to be the unparalleled collection of prints and drawings in the Albertina, including Durer's Praying Hands and Hare as well as Raphaels, Rembrandts and other masterpieces.

How many visitors realise, though, that what they are seeing in these splendid collections are nothing more than facsimiles? Even scholars must bow, beg and scrape to gain access to the light-sensitive originals kept well out of the public gaze. Visit these celebrated and overcrowded places if you must, but before saying "Goodnight Vienna" you should on no account miss a small but extraordinary collection which even the Viennese know little or nothing about.

Within a stone's throw of the Ringstrasse, the horseshoe-shaped boulevard encircling the ancient city centre, this gem of a picture gallery is one of the city's least-known attractions. Those who are aware of it prefer to keep it that way, because they know they can expect solitude whenever they go there. "Don't tell anyone about it," a Viennese painter friend urged me. "Otherwise it will become as famous and crowded as all the other museums here."

This half-hidden collection belongs to the art academy, the Akademie der bildenden Kunste, where it is housed in a late 19th-century neo-Renaissance building by Theophil Hansen. There, in well-lit rooms on the second floor, are Old Master paintings which would not look out of place in the Louvre or the Prado.

The collection traces the development of European art from the 14th to the 18th century and is especially strong in Flemish and Dutch painting. The greatest single work is a characteristically dramatic and phantasmagoric triptych by Bosch showing the Last Judgement, but there is also a masterly painting of the Trinity by Dirk Bouts, an early portrait by Rembrandt, a group of oil sketches by Rubens, and an assured self-portrait by Van Dyck when he was 15.

But the masterpieces here are by no means only Flemish or Dutch. There is a very late, dark and glowing Titian - The Rape of Lucretia - some of Guardi's best views of Venice (painted over religious compositions which he found more difficult to sell), and a charming small Claude Lorraine, unique in its mixture of the ideal and the realistic.

Founded in 1705, the Kunstakademie was once one of the most celebrated art schools in Europe. Its collection, intended to be used as an aid to the teaching of art history, consists almost entirely of gifts and legacies. Egon Schiele was one of the school's most famous graduates, Adolf Hitler its most notorious reject. Had his application been accepted in 1907 (the examiners judged his "test drawing unsatisfactory"), the future Fuhrer would have ended up, likely as not, as a fourth-division painter of Christmas cards.

The gallery is open to the public. Do not be put off by the exclusive impression made by the school's main door and entrance hall, complete with porter in a glass booth. Follow the signs marked Gemaldegalerie upstairs, enjoying the whiff of linseed oil and turpentine and taking in the ceiling painting by Anselm Feuerbach on the way. Chances are you will then find yourself alone with some of the greatest paintings not merely in Vienna, but in the whole of Europe.

GETTING TO VIENNA: BA (0181-897 4000) flies to Vienna for £219 return plus £15 airport tax. Travelscene (0181-427 4445) offers return flight from Gatwick, plus four nights for the price of three in a three-star hotel, for £259. Flights also available from Heathrow and Manchester, though prices vary. Crystal Holidays (0181-390 9900) offers three nights in a three-star hotel for £285, from Gatwick.

ART TOURS: Martin Randall Travel (0181-742 3355) offers art history tours with lecturers in June and October - including Vienna, Salzburg and Prague - starting at £1,090. Inscape Fine Art Tours (0993 891726) provides an eight-day tour to Vienna in November for £898 per person, visiting palaces and museums with a lecturer.

GETTING TO THE KUNSTAKADEMIE: The Gemaldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Kunste is at 3 Schillerplatz, Vienna. The best way to get there by public transport is on one of the circular tram routes around the Ringstrasse (No 1 or the one marked Ring-Kai-Ring). Get off at the Opernring and walk south through a small, formal park. The Kunstakademie is at the end of it. Opening times: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 10am-2pm; Wednesdays, 10am-lpm and 3pm-6pm; Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, 9am-lpm. Closed Mondays. Admission free. !