The Austrian National Library linked two anniversaries when it recently reopened the restored State Hall. Construction began three hundred years ago, and three hundred years ago the architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach died, who planned this still overwhelming temple of erudition and Baroque splendour for Emperor Charles VI. Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach, the son of the architect, took his place after his father's death and accompanied the construction until its opening around 1735; the façade bears his signature.
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Emperor Charles VI (1685 to 1740) bought many valuable books for the court library with early Enlightenment intentions. The State Hall was intended to create an architectural gesture of power. We succeeded. The hall is pure overwhelming, its dimensions speak a clear language. Almost 79 meters long, fourteen meters wide and almost twenty meters high. There is a war wing in which the disciplines of surveying, geography, geometry, shipbuilding, siege art and military music are honored; the Peace Wing adjacent to the Hofburg does this with numismatics, astrology, astronomy, divination, heraldry, medicine, mechanics and mineralogy. And above all is the allegorical ceiling fresco by the court painter Daniel Gran, which shows the apotheosis of Charles VI in the vault of the dome. Steadfastness and strength are portrayed as outstanding virtues of the emperor.
Hercules and Apollo are seen with a portrait medallion of the ruler, holding a hellhound at bay, referring to the War of the Spanish Succession and the Turkish War. Above it, with an obelisk in his arms and a laurel wreath in his left, floats the figure of everlasting glory. The house goddesses of the Habsburgs, the wise government and the experienced art of war, are depicted surrounded by books. Other goddesses and muses populate the picture, Germania sits next to Vienna, who wears a green dress with the city's coat of arms. The golden heart refers to the love of splendour and the generous disposition of the emperor. In a blue robe with a golden sash, Gran has put himself in the picture at the bottom of the picture.
Only lazy people and gossipers should stay away
Today, 200,000 books from the years 1501 to 1850 are housed in the State Hall. Employees who want to reach the top shelf have to climb eighteen steep steps of a platform ladder. Magnificent globes by Vincenzo Coronelli decorate the hall, a statue celebrates Charles as "Hercules Musarum", as a patron of the arts and sciences. Since the middle of the sixteenth century, the search for a suitable location for the court library had been difficult: from the Minorite monastery, the library moved to the Hofburg, then to a building on Josefsplatz near the bastions, which was severely damaged during the Turkish siege in 1683. From 1714 on, new construction plans were worked on, construction continued until the mid-thirties. Fischer von Erlach, who designed, among other things, the church on Vienna's Karlsplatz, the Salzburg Kollegienkirche and the Kleßheim Palace there, had laid down his view of an architecture trained in antiquity in the work "Design of a Historical Architecture". Even the ascent to the State Hall via the vestibule, which formerly housed a collection of antiquities, and the staircase, the staircase decorated with antique grave slabs, leaves no doubt as to where one is – in the spiritual center of Vienna as the new Rome.
Just thirty years after its inauguration, the first structural damage became apparent and static improvements had to be made. Construction also suffered in later centuries. In the revolutionary year of 1848, a fire raged, the equestrian statue of Emperor Joseph II was only saved from the flames by an enclosure. The damage of the Second World War was repaired in 1955. Then followed in the night of 27 January 1992 the fire of the neighboring Hofburg, with a human chain 10,000 books from the National Library were brought to safety. In 2020, the pandemic was used to renew the lighting, and last year the first thorough cleaning since 1955 was undertaken. 128 bookcases, seventeen statues, twelve busts of marble and stucco marble, twenty pilasters shine in new splendor; all books were cleaned.
Charles VI had allowed the library to be used free of charge, but with careful handling of the books, it was open to all educated people – only lazy people and gossipers were to stay away. The fact that the library hall is still "one of the most beautiful in the world", as the ÖNB claims, is certainly not an exaggeration. A house that has to maintain a collection of twelve million objects always needs money. That's why a video at the entrance to the State Hall appeals to visitors as a kind of donation box to get involved as book patrons – just as Anne-Sophie Mutter, John Paul II, George W. Bush, Jonas Kaufmann, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Donna Leon, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Howard Carpendale have done.