Written by Nicholas Suarez
When it comes to discussing massive buildings, castles almost feel like cheating. Every country has a castle; even America has a castle, underneath the Statue of Liberty. Okay, fair enough, it’s a fort, not a castle, but still, what’s so special about castles? They’re made of stone, and they have soldiers standing on top of them telling you to go away or they shall taunt you a second time. (Are you sick of this intro yet?)
Let’s get to business. What’s so special about a castle? Well, how about a castle that was the seat of power for one of the most prolific families in European history, and which was continuously expanded over the course of centuries until it was one of the largest royal residences on the continent? Sound special enough? The von Habsburgs would’ve hoped so. Let’s talk about the Hofburg Palace, the royal residence of the Archdukes of Austria, and today the residence of the Austrian government.
From Counts to Archdukes
Before we begin, we need to give a disclaimer. The Hofburg Palace is an enormous complex, stretching across more than 240,000 square meters of space, with 18 separate wings, 19 separate courtyards, and 2600 rooms. It’s also an old complex, with the original buildings dating back as far as the mid-13th century. We obviously can’t cover everything, but we’ll give you an overview of the most interesting information, like most of the different wings and what important functions were held within the buildings.
With that note about the palace out of the way, here’s some history. The von Habsburgs, the later rulers of Austria, originally came from a small county in Switzerland, specifically from a fort named Habsburg Castle by the man who owned it. It’s a quaint little structure, at least compared to what would come later, but we all have to start somewhere.
Fast forward a few hundred years, when in 1273, a man named Rudolph I von Habsburg is elected Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He used his powers as Emperor to “liberate” a bunch of lands in the east from the King of Bohemia, Ottokar II. One of those lands was the Duchy of Austria, including the city of Vienna, and Rudolph proceeded to take it for himself, moseying right on in and making the Hofburg Castle his new home. It was, at this point, just a castle, with four sides and four towers on the corners like one would expect. This original building was called the Alteburg, or “Old Fort”, but since the 18th century it has been referred to as the Schweizertrakt, or “Swiss Wing”, supposedly after the Swiss Guards who served as the watch.
This original castle was probably built, at least partially, by that Bohemian king, Ottokar II, who wasn’t happy about Rudolph moving into his castle. Perhaps justifiably so; if someone ruined your kingdom that you spent your entire life conquering and then stole your house for good measure, you’d be understandably annoyed. It would explain why Ottokar invaded Austria a few years later, resulting in his death in battle. From this point on, Austria would be firmly under the control of the von Habsburg family, ruling from this castle – Hofburg, or “Castle of the Court.” Mostly. They actually had a second, summer residence in Vienna, but that’s not what this video is about.
Interestingly, the castle itself would remain largely unchanged for the next few hundred years. This is the rather intriguing history of the Hofburg – it’s something of a window into the rise of Austria and the von Habsburg family. As the latter two grew more powerful, the royal residence itself grew larger and more opulent.
For now, though, it remains a castle. Various buildings would go up around it, including the Augustinian Church in 1327, and the Stallburg, built over seven years in 1558 as a residence for Emperor Maximilian II. This residence would later host a massive art gallery of more than 1400 paintings, which would later be transferred to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Try saying that right the first time.
Other early additions to the castle grounds included the Amalienburg, constructed in the late 16th century and named after a woman called Amalie, as well as the Leopoldine Wing, which connected the Amalienburg to the main castle and was named after a man called Leopold. Go figure. Of note in the Leopoldine Wing is the Privy Council Room, where boring government stuff would happen, as well as the “enormous wine cellar” in the basement, supplying the entire grounds with all the vintage they could drink. Unfortunately, it isn’t there anymore; it was auctioned off after World War I. If you were hoping to take a tipsy tour, sorry to disappoint you.
The Leopoldine Wing was built in the 1660s, but then had to be rebuilt after the Siege of Vienna in 1683, when the Ottoman Empire attempted to capture the city and levelled parts of it. After this, however, Austria would steadily rise into being a significant European power, with the von Habsburgs at the head. The Hofburg would mirror this ascendancy, turning from royal castle into royal palace.
From Archduchy to Empire
The next timeline we’ll establish is the years between the Siege of Vienna, in 1683, and the Congress of Vienna, in 1815. This is the period where Austria started to come into its own as a proper empire, rather than a loosely-connected selection of royal titles under one ruler. It makes sense, then, that this is when the Hofburg also begins to take shape as a unified residence, rather than a selection of buildings on the same grounds.
To start with, there are three important architects that make their mark on the Hofburg during this period. The first, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, designed both the court stables and the court library, which is today the Austrian National Library, and which looks more like a giant painting than it does a library.[NS1] The second architect was Johann’s son, Joseph Emanuel, who proceeded to dedicate his life to finishing most of his father’s in-progress works. The third architect, Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, proceeded to design the Imperial Chancellery building, another government-focused wing, before he was sidelined due to court politics and his design was given to Joseph Emanuel to finish instead. Even in architecture, Austrian politics were ruthless.
With that said, let’s take a detour. Because the Hofburg was continuously expanded upon over the course of centuries, it’s rather unique in having several different styles of architecture on display for its various wings. The earliest constructions were built in the Renaissance style, which involved Greco-Roman inspired arches, domes, and pillars. The old chapel of the Swiss Wing was built in a Gothic style, which was prevalent in the Middle Ages and is visible in a lot of old church buildings. By the way, if you don’t know the differences between these styles, don’t worry, it’s not that complicated. We just want to sound smart.
But when the Hofburg started undergoing a construction boom – relatively speaking, at least, it still took a couple hundred years – many of the new additions went up in the hottest new architectural style, Baroque, which is what the three aforementioned architects designed their new projects around. If you had to summarize baroque architecture in one word, the best word to use would be “ostentatious”. It means “show-off”, before you go and Google it.
Baroque architecture is a highly decorative and detailed style, which was, and this is true, originally thought up by the Catholic Church to try and counter the popularity of the Protestant Reformation. An interesting strategy, to be sure.
“Your Holiness, we’re losing converts to the Protestants.”
“I know just what to do! Make the churches look nicer!”
Surprisingly, that didn’t work, but it did manage to look very nice, indeed. The aforementioned Imperial Chancellery Wing went up, as well as the old Augustinian church, which was fully rebuilt in baroque style. But perhaps the best display of the new architecture was the Winter Riding School, an interior horse-riding grounds constructed between 1729 and 1735 where displays of horsemanship would be held from the Spanish Riding School. It actually still serves its original purpose, holding regular performances by the riders.
In contrast, one wing that doesn’t still serve its original purpose is one commissioned by the Empress Maria Theresa, one of the most famous rulers of Austria. She took power in 1740, and ruled the Austrian lands for an entire forty years, reforming huge sections of the government in the process. Not content with leaving her mark on just the empire, she had an old opera house next to the Hofburg converted into a dance hall, and then expanded upon to form a new wing, the Redoute Wing, also known as the most stereotypically Austrian wing of the entire residence.
The term “redoute” is a French word, referring to an elegant masked ball. The Redoute Wing, obviously, had plenty of masked balls, but also everything from banquets to concerts and more, entertaining both the national and international nobility in parties that were the envy of the European continent. And with Austrian ladies and opulent parties by out of touch aristocrats, I can’t think of a better transition to talk about the French Revolution.
France, at the turn of the 19th century, beat the Austrians in wars no less than four times, which was something of a humiliation. As the author Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, “The Austrian army was created to give Napoleon victories; any Napoleon.” Ouch. During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon Bonaparte dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, one of the primary titles held by the von Habsburgs. This resulted in some imperial functions being moved around the Hofburg, with new apartments for the Emperor in the Imperial Chancellery, along with, interestingly enough, Napoleon’s son, who spent the rest of his life in Vienna after his father’s defeat on the battlefield.
Following Napoleon’s defeat, the various European empires came together at the Congress of Vienna, drawing out the European borders and spheres of influence to try and prevent another catastrophic conflict on the scale of the Napoleonic Wars from taking place. Unfortunately for Europe, it didn’t last, and unfortunately for Austria, it’s all downhill from here.
From Empire to Dissolution
The 19th century was a turbulent time for Austria. As said before, Napoleon had dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, largely controlled by Austria. This caused problems of a legalistic sort, but there would soon be problems of an existential sort, as well. Those problems were Liberalism and Nationalism. Austria was a monarchy, which liberals didn’t like, and Austria’s territories had a bunch of ethnic minorities, which didn’t like Austria. This coalesced in the Revolutions of 1848, when a wave of liberal and national agitation swept the European continent, including Austria.
The monarchy, under the conservative Franz Joseph I, was forced to accept some new reforms. First was the advent of a new Austrian national parliament, which was seated in the Stallburg section of the palace. Second, in 1867, the empire undertook the Austro-Hungarian Compromise, formally establishing the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This created a number of new constitutional changes, such as an Austro-Hungarian Delegation to the Hofburg, which Franz Joseph received in the Leopoldine Wing.
But the Hofburg had one more set of construction to go. In the 1860s, the old city walls of Vienna were demolished to allow the city to expand more easily, and coinciding with this demolition were plans to expand the palace further. This resulted in perhaps the most recognizable part of the entire structure, the Neue Burg, or “New Castle”. Facing the Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square, the curved building was constructed between 1881 and 1913, and was originally intended to serve as… a building. Yes, there wasn’t actually much of a plan for the Neue Burg, other than to serve as an expansion of the Hofburg Palace.
The lack of a clear direction, along with budgetary problems, would probably explain why the originally extensive construction plans were scaled back to just the arched building. In terms of a prestige statement, the Neue Burg unfortunately wasn’t fooling anyone, since Austria had been on the decline for decades, and would finally have its death knell in World War I.
Following the end of the war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire broke up into several smaller states, including Austria. A republic was declared, and the monarchy was abolished, ending hundreds of years of von Habsburg rule in favor of a new democratic government. Following this, the Hofburg Palace fell into a period of relative disuse, as the democrats in government tried to keep their distance from the old monarchical structures.
But Austria in the interwar period was still a tumultuous place, especially with the rise of a new force in neighboring Germany – the Nazi party. Austria was not insulated from the far-right shift in German politics, and a sizeable number of Austrians bought into the worldview espoused by Hitler and his close associates. Austrian Nazis proceeded to undermine the democratic government, even going so far as to assassinate the Austrian Chancellor in 1934. The period culminated with the annexation of Austria into Germany in 1938, with Hitler announcing the annexation from the balcony of the Neue Burg building to a massive crowd in the Heldenplatz.
Austria would then suffer bombardment during World War II, leaving the city of Vienna devastated. The country was set up to be neutral ground between East and West, and democracy was restored. With the old Republic chancellery building damaged from the war, the new government needed new buildings from which to govern. One building, it turned out, was largely untouched; the old Hofburg Palace. The building was made the primary residence of the Austrian president in 1946, and in 2017, the Austrian parliament moved in, as well.
And that, today, is the function of the Hofburg – from the seat of government for the monarchy, to the seat of government for the republic. In that sense, the old palace again mirrors its country; no longer Habsburg, but Austrian.
Vienna Waits for You
This was by no means an exhaustive list of the Hofburg Palace. There are some parts that we didn’t even mention, including museums such as the Albertina and the Ephesos, as well as other wings like the Montoyer Wing, known as the “Hall of Ceremonies”, or St. Michael’s Wing, which was yet another church tacked on to the complex. The palace has a convention center for hosting events or meetings, and even still hosts the occasional ball, in a nod to its old aristocratic history. Also in a nod to its aristocratic history, you have to pay 15 euros to get into the main building. Typical.