They began building the stunning Prunksaal (State Hall) of the National Library exactly 300 years ago. Which seems as good a reason as any to explore the history of that construction and the role of its chief architect, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach.
- Small exhibition focuses on the initial construction
- …but includes later history too
- Full of rare documents, books, sketches and more
- Runs Jan 12 – Mar 5, 2023
- See also:
(Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656–1723), oil on canvas, undated; press photo © Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. Even his wig required its own building permit)
One of the more remarkable buildings in Vienna is the National Library’s Prunksaal or State Hall, built to plans by one Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (a man no doubt in need of very wide business cards).
Sadly for Fischer von Erlach, he passed away in the year (1723) that his designs began turning into reality. Three hundred years later and the National Library commemorates the building and its creator with a small exhibition in the State Hall itself.
The focus of Fischer von Erlach and the Emperor’s State Hall lies on the history around the Prunksaal’s construction.
Original documents, plans, and drawings allow us to envisage the consequences of Emperor Charles VI’s decision to commission an appropriate home for the court library.
Responsibility for the building’s design fell to Fischer von Erlach, using the site of the rather inadequate predecessor put up by Emperor Leopold I on Josefsplatz square.
This talented architect left his fingerprints on several glorious sites that feature on today’s tours of Vienna, including the Karlskirche church, the Spanish Riding School, and Schönbrunn Palace. The task for completing the library after his death fell to his own son: Joseph Emanuel Johann Fischer von Erlach.
(View of the court library on plans by Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach, pen and ink drawing from 1733; press photo © Österreichische Nationalbibliothek)
Within the exhibition, we see, for example, copperplate engravings from some of Fischer von Erlach’s own published works, such as a 1721 book on historical architecture.
The displays also showcase the efforts of Salomon Kleiner (1700-1761) and Jeremias Jacob Sedelmayr (1704-1761), who created a huge monograph full of copperplate prints of the original Prunksaal.
We can view, for example, Kleiner’s rendition of the library in giant longitudinal section and his coloured pen & ink drawings of the room’s statues.
(Kleiner was a true blessing for today’s historians; you can see his drawings of Belvedere, too, when you visit that palace complex.)
We learn of those elements of interior decoration that turn the Prunksaal from an austere book repository into a blaze of Baroque finery: the frescoes and aforementioned statues. And we discover how a collection of Roman antiquities found a temporary home in the library’s embrace.
Be sure to compare old engravings and etchings of the library and other buildings with what we have today. For example, a 1780 view of Josefsplatz by Carl Schütz that’s missing the equestrian statue of Josef II.
(Baroque staircase and entry to the state hall of the National Library, Vienna, 2016; press photo © Österreichische Nationalbibliothek/Johannes Hloch)
We also follow the later history of the building. From early emergency structural engineering modifications by Nikolaus Pacassi (who also largely completed Schönbrunn), through extensions and neighbourhood fires to WWII air raids.
Each event mentioned comes with illustrations or (for the modern one) photos. From coloured lithographs of the 1848 fire to a photo of a human chain of policemen evacuating the books as the nearby Redoutensäle burn in 1992.
The Prunksaal survived all these challenges more or less intact, though no building can ever truly defeat the one implacable enemy of stone, marble, wood and paint: time.
Fortunately for us, thorough conservation and restoration work in 2022 allow us to enjoy the State Hall frescoes and other décor in their full glory.
Dates, tickets & tips
Travel through the history of the Prunksaal from January 12th to March 5th, 2023. An entrance ticket to the State Hall (or a Vienna Pass) includes access to the exhibition within.
If in need of more Baroque opulence after your visit, you can find a few promising locations here.
How to get to the state hall
Address: Josefsplatz 1, 1010 Vienna